Thursday, June 26, 2014

Living Vicariously in Chŏnju

In my novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary, the main character meets another English teacher after his first week in the South-Korean city of Chŏnju, and they become fast friends.

That actually happened to me.

Roland Axam's friend is Brad McMillan, and my friend shares the same first name. The two of us met at an ex-pat bar, called SE (and pronounced "say"), and over much of 1997 we explored lots of the Korean countryside. Seventeen years later, we still keep in close contact and try to get together whenever we can, when we act as though time hasn't passed, and we can reminisce about our time in Chŏnju.

In the weeks leading up to my departure from Korea, I vowed that someday, I would return, but that it wouldn't happen for about 20 years. And while my wife and I seriously contemplate taking the kids for the 2018 Winter Olympics, my buddy Brad and his wife have returned this month.

Because Brad knows that I am curious to know what happened to Chŏnju over the years, I asked him to take lots of photos and share his views. With his permission, I am presenting his e-mail messages to me.

Think of it as a guest blog post...

We arrived on the express bus from Gyeongju to Chŏnju (sorry, but I don't like the new, "official" name* for the city!). Our hotel is a few miles from the train station, so after checking in we had lunch and then taxied over to the station. The outside looks the same but the interior is much more modern (and includes a Dunkin' Donuts).
We walked down the big boulevard that leads from the station to Chŏnbuk University, and I made the left onto the street that I was almost sure led to our old apartment. I was a bit uncertain until I spotted the phone booth we used to call family and friends a block away... then I saw the Buddha at the top of the hill, and I knew we were in the right place! The monastery is still there, as is our apartment building. I was actually shocked at how run-down the neighborhood had become: there was a lot of trash strewn around, and the stores had a low-rent aspect (indeed, the local yogwan is now a love motel!).

From there, we moved down the street to my old hakwon. Again, the neighborhood is not what it was, and none of the restaurants or stores I so often frequented are there anymore. As we approached the school, I had to rely entirely upon instinct to guide me: I couldn't draw a map, but as I spotted familiar corners and landmarks, I knew when to go left or right. I finally spotted the bank that had opened next to our school, and then the other older bank on the left of it where I used to get my machine coffee. And there, between them, was our building. The school, of course, is closed, replaced by a taekwondo academy; however, I wouldn't be surprised if our old bosses hadn't opened that after the English school went under! In fact, they used to live on the top floor, and I made sure to yell, "Yo, Jackie!" at the top of my lungs up the stairs (the echo was awesome!). Again, I was really shocked at how the neighborhood had deteriorated—in 1997, it was very well-to-do, and the parents of our students were rich lawyers, bankers and doctors. Now, I'm sure none of them would be caught dead in this 'hood (I assume they've actually moved out to better districts).

We're going to the university area tonight, and I'll see if SE Bar is still serving up debauchery to miserable foreign teachers (I'm sure Urban is long-gone, too). More photos to follow, and reports as well.


One of the things that is also making it difficult for me to recognize places is that the city is so much more "overgrown" than it was, mainly by multi-story apartment blocks like the ones they've always had in Seoul. These blot out the sky, and make everything rather claustrophobic, even outdoors. Oddly, Chŏnju has lost population in the last 10 years—they're now the 14th-largest city in Korea, whereas in the late 90s they were #7—so I don't know why they need all these new apartment buildings... .

On another note, regarding the country as a whole, the other amazing change we've noticed is that virtually nobody smokes anymore! There are almost no people smoking on the streets, and certainly none in the restaurants or clubs. In fact, at the highway rest stop this morning where we took our mid-trip break, there was an actual fenced coral for the smokers! Certainly not anything you'd have seen in our Korean day.


So  last night we went to Chŏnbuk University for dinner and to wander around. I surprised myself by remembering to tell the taxi driver, "Chŏnbuk-dae," and as soon as he pulled up to the old gate, I had him stop. We wandered down the street where SE Bar used to be (now a big coffee shop!) and—diagonal from it—where Sunny's Internet Cafe used to be. In fact, we had dinner at a fried-chicken place in that same building, and there's now a big PC bang where Sunny's was that's called Tony's PC Bang. So maybe Sunny became Tony? At least he's not trying to teach English anymore!

We strolled down the street towards where Urban used to be, and I explained to Randi and the girls how Mr. Shin would play Stan Getz bossa nova whenever I came in. Then, suddenly, I saw an eerie sign (see photo, below). Closed last night (Sunday), but maybe open tonight?

Again, my memory steered me the right way each time. It's such a bizarre feeling!

Today, Nambu Market, the Hanok Village, the Gaeksa area, then a nice bibimbap dinner.


So I went back to the bar with a sign that said Urban again, but it was closed. There was a coffee shop across the street, and I asked the young man who worked there if Urban was still in business. He said they had closed for good a couple of months ago. I asked him if the owner was still Mr. Shin, and he said he did not know; but he also said that the owner was a young man, so maybe he just bought the name?

Pity... .

* The spelling of Chŏnju was changed to Jeonju some time before the 2002 FIFA World Cup. When I lived in Korea, I only knew of one place that was spelling the city's name this way—Jeonju University.

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