After many lean years and tight travel budgets, in 2019 I bummed a favor from my friend Yousef and got the “friends and family” price on an Air Emirates ticket to South Korea. (He doesn’t work at Air Emirates anymore so that flight was a one-off memorable experience in itself.) My itinerary was a few days in Uijeongbu, a few days in Seoul, a few days in Daegu, Chuseok in Seoul, and the last few days in Uijeongbu. I centered my visit around Uijeongbu because I had lived there for two years, so I knew people there and was eager to take in the nostalgic sites (which ended up being more “seeing how things had changed”) in addition to new and exciting cities and experiences.
The short version of fun things I did, which I might or might not expand into later entries as the mood to reminisce strikes me:
- Hiked (“hiked”) a bit in Bukhansan park, along parts of the trails accessible in Uijeongbu/Hoeryong/Mangwolsa.
- Visited a couple temples along said trails.
- Finally, FINALLY attended a Royal Asiatic Society lecture about Chollipo Arboretum.
- Finally, FINALLY attended a comfort women protest.
- Finally, FINALLY visited Daegu and hung out with one of my favorite NEST-in-Korea bloggers, no longer a NEST or in Korea but still blogging
- Finally, FINALLY read Foucault’s Pendulum.
- Creeped on the bakery run by another one of my favorite (former) NEST-in-Korea bloggers.
- Ate everything.
- Drank a lot.
- Stayed in a hanok.
- Saw friends and former coworkers for the first time in a million years.
- Met the next generation of teachers at my very first hagwon. They had already renewed their contract for a second year at this point in Q3 2019; I wonder how the plague year of 2020 treated them.
- Deliberately avoided visiting my second hagwon and all of its bougie environs.
- Mourned the apparent end of my third and best hagwon, its space now a kiddie play park above the gamjatang restaurant on the first floor (which is somehow still the same gamjatang restaurant, down to the signage—cold comfort, that)
- Took in the late-night teenage buskers in downtown Uijeongbu.
- Got scrubbed.
- Actually, spent a lot of time in jjimjilbangs, up to and including the date of my departure, when I:
- Dropped myself into a jjimjilbang locker room conversation between other foreign women and encouraged them to embrace the nudity of the sauna because it was extremely fucking worth it.
The weather was gorgeous. Typhoon Lingling hit on my last day in Daegu, prompting me to bump my departure up (too soggy to go out and do anything in the morning, which had been my original plan), and for a few days after there were intermittent showers heavy enough to warrant umbrellas, but then sometime around Chuseok it broke and it was beautiful weather the rest of the time—and I came back to a cold and gray Stockholm, awesome.
Things I loved in Korea that are no longer there:
- Tom Bar in Uijeongbu
- the Uzbek restaurant Jong-min and I always went to in Anam
- My third hagwon (see above)
- The officetel my third hagwon rented for me: the building is still standing but dark, quiet, a mere ghost; no doubt slated for demolition or at least renovation (Uijeongbu really växer så det knakar these days)
- the Thai restaurant Yousef and I would frequent after binge shopping at What The Book?
Things I loved that were still there:
- What the Book? (in a new, smaller location, sadly)*
- My first officetel building, once a modern piece of shiny new domination on that brief stretch of road, now dingy and old and dwarfed by taller buildings on either side
- Cheonjiyeon jjimjilbang in Millak dong
- The mosaic along the bike path next to the stream
The one activity I’ll detail is this:
During my last days in Uijeongbu, I bought a couple cheap-o bottles of makgeolli and a box of Korean Digestive biscuit knock-offs (my favorite snack). Then I made small little pilgrimages and offerings to places that were important to me. At each location I emptied out a measure of makgeolli or left a few cookies and sat and talked to the place, out loud like a crazy person. I have a thing about being able to say goodbye to people and to places, to have as much closure as possible. What terrifies me about having so many friends spread across the globe is the knowledge that each time I see them may very well be the last (true for literally every person you see, sure, but it feels more urgent when you only see someone every few years) and that I’ll never, ever be able to give them the farewell I’d want to give. But here was an opportunity to do exactly that, and I did.
I thanked the officetel for a good year, for sheltering me and protecting me and being a cozy little room I could call home. I also told it that I hoped whatever was going to be built in its place was nice and charming and worthy of being built there. The other sites, being more a general sense of place that’s hard to really destroy, were less emotional since they’re literally impossible to disappear the way a specific building is. But they still brought up memories of friends and a life I no longer have, and my heart ached a bit.
It turned out to be a well-timed trip on my end. The last chance to visit people in Korea before they left, the last chance to visit What The Book?, the last chance to see a familiar place before the coronavirus appeared on the world stage and (irrevocably?) changed so many things. I have such stupendously good luck so often, it astounds me.
*As of the date on this backdated entry, What The Book? still existed, but a few months later it closed very abruptly and unceremoniously. The books I purchased there on this last trip will never leave my collection.