Perhaps a strange first choice, but I love the Taehwagang, the river that meanders east down from the mountainous surroundings of the city and opens out into the East Sea. With it forming a direct route between my flat and Elizabeth’s (and coupled with her inability to do anything other than lie in bed after a day at work) I spend a lot of my time cycling up and down it, and so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to bask in lots of what it has to offer. The stretch I use most often is long and straight, and seen from above would resemble a set of coloured pencils: blue river; green walkway; red cycle path; brown grass and vegetation; and then grey road. My favourite thing about it is the people you see there.
In the mornings, between 6 and 8, against a beautiful backdrop of shimmering sunrise-lit water, it is not uncommon to see what looks likes huge white sheets billowing in the wind. As you approach, and you realise that what you’ve seen really are huge white sheets, being waved about in some mad, apparently random ritual by elderly Koreans, pacing up and down, you begin to hear a faint “wuhhhhhhhh” carried towards you by the wind (which only blows against you, whichever way you happen to be cycling). Fuller comprehension is only achieved when you’re close enough that the noise is a full-on, incessant “ARGHHHH” emanating from the sheet bearer, but you don’t stop to ask or even wonder what’s going on, you pedal furiously until they’ve safely overtaken – out of sight, out of mind. At this time the riverside is quiet and you’re unlikely to be able to judge anyone else’s reactions to these kinds of scene, because anyone you do see is an exercise freak dressed in matching trainers and tracksuit as well as skiing gloves, snood, face mask, metre-long visor and heavy duty rucksack and the only skin you can see is eyelid when they blink.
Another time you get the river almost to yourself is late at night, after 10 or 11ish. Then it’s a great time to see the lights of the buildings that flank the Taehwa on either side, and you’re far enough from downtown for a certain peace to descend. There are never many people there when it’s raining either, but you’ll always see someone trying to cycle whilst holding an umbrella, which I think results in them getting more wet than they would because they travel slower than I’d walk, and they have to keep stopping to turn their umbrellas the right way.
After school, between 5:30 and 7:30, it’s busier. You share the designated cycle path with puppies dyed pink, power-walking ajummas, parked bicycles, motorbikes, children swerving all over the place like their schooltime milk was laced with soju, and serious cyclists who zoom past you four or five at a time, iridescent bike lights and gaudy luminous jackets taunting you and K-pop blaring from something they’re wearing (which mixes in with the music playing from speakers stationed every 20 metres down the river. If you find K-pop annoying, try listening to two different songs at once). Despite all this – or perhaps because of it – I enjoy my cycling at this time, and if you’re feeling bad about yourself you can always find someone pedalling at a thousand rotations per second in first gear to laugh at while you overtake them.
It struck me, on my visit to Busan back in September over Chuseok, how many foreigners there were compared to here in Ulsan. I was used to receiving silent, clandestine, knowing nods in the streets from other white people, as if we were both in some kind of underground sect; whereas in Busan I was lucky to get a cursory glance – I just wasn’t a novelty. This in itself is not a reason why I like Ulsan, but over the subsequent months – through friends, or football, or Korean class, or a night out, or a chance meeting outside Lotte Hotel waiting for other Westerners – the nods no longer signified a “you’re white, me too” but became smiles, or waves, or even stops and conversations. It probably stems from a safety in numbers kind of attitude, but every white person in Ulsan, more or less, knows every other white person in Ulsan, or at least someone who knows them. Have you heard of the six degrees of separation? For native teachers in Ulsan, it’s two at most.
This is great. It means there are certain places, especially downtown, where you know you’ll see someone you’ve met before. It means that on big, pre-organised nights out there’s going to be dozens of your friends there, if only because they’ve not got many other options. For anyone who doesn’t receive enough attention at school, it means you just need to hop onto a bus or into a taxi and within minutes there’ll surely be someone you can wave at while waiting to traverse a 32-lane junction, and then have one of those re-introductory conversations. Hey, were you there on Saturday? Yeah, I thought I saw you. Joe, that’s right yeah, well remembered. Yeah I do know Paul yeah. About 7 months now. Yeah, it’s going alright. Alright, nice one, see ya mate.
In a way, this extends to relationships with Koreans, too – except you don’t know everyone, they just know you. You’ll see kids you don’t recognise hiding behind bowing parents at E-Mart. Anything remotely interesting about your weekend or private life told to a co-teacher in a morning will become school-wide gossip by lunchtime, when a teacher you’ve not met before will try and talk to you about it. This is definitely reinforced by me being the only native teacher at school. I’m sometimes glad I’m not a scandalous person because I’d know everyone would talking about me, but when the worst of it is students discussing how good or bad I am at football, celebrity is definitely an enjoyable thing.
It’s not Seoul
Of course the above wouldn’t apply in a city the size of Seoul, but there are other reasons I’m glad to be where I am too. As much as I’ve enjoyed Seoul every time I’ve been there, it’s not really the sort of place I’d like to go for a really different living experience to those I’ve had back home. A night out there would feel not to dissimilar to a night out at University – lots of young people from all over the world trying to order drinks and chat each other up in English, which is great, but why fly 6,000 miles across the world to do it? In Ulsan there are opportunities too, when you need them, to splash out on overpriced steak or Guinness, but there’s also far less of a temptation to head to a foreigner district and eat Subway every night – mainly because there isn’t one. Here you’re almost forced to go and make a fool out of yourself trying to order from a Korean-only menu; or to meet and make friends with locals; or to have Korean lessons because otherwise you’re not going to be able to get yourself home, and I think I’ve had a more fulfilling experience because of it. I like Seoul a lot but I’d live there for a year and wonder why I spent 12 months interacting with Korea slightly more than I would in London only with far fewer old friends and family.