About three weeks ago, I began my EPIK placement in Jeollanamdo province at Nampyeong English Town. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have Labor Day, a long weekend, and to have made some great new friends: both new arrivals like myself to explore with, and some “veterans” who have shown me around a bit. Nampyeong is a small town, technically within the city limits of Naju. While it is technically an urban placement, it definitely has a country vibe. As someone who grew up in somewhat rural Pennsylvania, I definitely appreciate the mountain views, slower pace of life, and hiking opportunities in my town. As the type who blogs about his “adventures,” however, I’m also quite happy that it is so close to Gwangju, Korea’s sixth largest city. Gwangju is both a vibrant and interesting city, and the transportation hub to the rest of Korea and Jeollanamdo, with the beautiful Mudeungsan National Park within its city limits.
Gwangju: The City of Democracy
The city of Gwangju has an interesting place in modern Korean history. It is the site of the May 18 Democratic Uprising in 1980, where hundreds citizens of the city – mostly college students – were massacred protesting the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan. The city is very proud of this history, and to this day considers itself to be on the cutting edge of Korean society in terms of its democratic and anti-establishment values. As I write, we stand three days away from the 38th anniversary of this event, and I am curious to see how the city goes about commemorating it. Visiting in the days immediately following the 2018 inter-Korean summit, Korean unification flags are on display all over the city.
Gwangju has a cosmopolitan feel, many free public museums, and is a haven for art, music, and culture. At the center of all this is the Gwangju Asia Culture Center. While I haven’t managed to be there yet at the time when the center’s exhibitions are open, I have seen how it is the focal point of the city in many important ways. The first time I visited, there was a fun Asian culture market, with crafts, foods, and drinks from various countries in Asia. The second time, they were having outdoor events for Children’s Day, including street food, arts and crafts, and fun and games for the kids. Both times, several talented street musicians decided to post up and perform in the area. I look forward to getting a chance to properly explore the museum exhibitions and to attend an (official) concert (or three!) there in the future. I’ll certainly write more about it when I do.
If you are an expat checking out Gwangju for the first time and wondering where the “hangouts” are, check out The First Alleyway, German Bar, and Speakeasy. The First Alleyway is the largest, most well-known, and “put together” of these establishments. In addition to its nice selection or domestic and foreign beers, it has an extensive western menu, including the best pizza I have had so far in Korea. It also has a large selection of board games to keep yourself and your friends entertained for hours. German Bar is a smaller operation run by a Korean man who spent some time living in Germany and learned to brew beer there. So, if you are looking for German style beers at a fraction of the normal price, as well as the chance to chill with your friends playing darts, it’s a great spot. Speakeasy seems to be the place to go for live music and a laid back evening atmosphere. It was nice to go there, meet some other expats, and listen to Jimi Hendrix covers.
The Folk Museum with Mr. Park
My most memorable experience in the city so far is my visit to the Gwangju Folk Museum on May 1 (Labor Day). My friend Saul, another new JLP teacher from Tasmania, told me that I have to meet “Mr. Park,” the volunteer guide there (unfortunately his full name escapes me). We were under the impression he only worked there on the weekends, but it turns out he was there when we visited.
Before giving me a very thorough and detailed (free!) tour of the museum, Mr. Park joined us for coffee. He is a retired teacher who taught in the Korean public school system for 40 years. He is a very thoughtful and interesting man, full of knowledge and life experiences. After meeting an American Peace Corps volunteer as a teenager, he took an interest in learning English. His command of the language is quite strong and allows him to talk about very abstract and complex topics, which he speaks about in a very thick and characteristic Korean accent. He recalled a childhood where his family lived in a small hut with a roof made of rice stalks. Their diet also primarily consisted of (not enough) rice, and the Korean War provided a terrifying backdrop to his formative years.
In spite of the challenges, Mr. Park looks back on the Korea of his childhood fondly. He reminisced of a Korea where everyone was your neighbor, everyone would invite you to come for dinner or to sleep in their home. As Korea has become more developed, and westernized, it has become a hyper competitive society, where many people feel quite isolated from one another, living in high rises and working long, stressful hours. He hopes that this is just a phase, and that the traditional values of community and togetherness won’t be lost in Korea.
Mr. Park also spoke very critically of the modern Korean education system. In his words, “when we make children remember, but not think, this ruins their brain.” He believes that this has harmed a generation of Koreans by immersing them in dominant “bali, bali” culture (Korean for “hurry, hurry”) of overwork and lack of imagination. In his words, “this takes the joy and discovery that made Archimedes shout ‘eureka!’ out of learning .” Anybody who knows me can see that this is truly a man after my own heart! I was grateful for the recommendations he gave me for improving my teaching and making it more interesting and enriching for my students.
The museum itself was an interesting introduction to Korean folk history and culture. Family traditions, music, holidays, cuisine, livelihood, and the role of religion and philosophy (including the dominant Confucian system and the historically suppressed Buddhist system) were all topics that were covered in exhibits that brought the concept to life. If you are interested in history and how it influences the present, I definitely recommend visiting, in order to get a sense of where the Korea of today comes from.
Mudeungsan National Park
Just outside of Gwangju (technically within its city limits) is Mudeungsan National Park, home of Mudeungsan mountain: the highest peak in Jeollanamdo. Saul and I decided to spend the beautiful Saturday of our first three day weekend in Korea to climb the mountain. Prior to our
visit, we had heard that the hike up and back down from the 1100 km summit could take anywhere from three to seven hours. It turned out to be about a five hour journey for us, and it was an excellent balance of leisure and activity.
I’d been told by many of the teaching veterans here in Korea that if mountain climbing and hiking are not yet hobbies of mine, they are very likely to become so this year. I was very excited about this aspect of the year, although it had been a while since I’d done such climbing and I am definitely not yet in ideal physical shape for it. My first (twenty minute) climb to a summit in Yeosu during orientation left me out of breath and sore for several days. So, I was a bit apprehensive about whether the hike of Mudeungsan would end up destroying me. Happily, it seems that my body adjusted fairly quickly after that first climb in many months, and I found the Mudeungsan hike to be very manageable.
While some people take a more hurried approach to a hike, I prefer to stop and enjoy the scenery, and to go with the flow of the experience as much as possible. Mudeungsan offers no shortage of beautiful wooded areas, tucked away streams, and incredible panoramas of both the city and the countryside. While the pictures I’m posting here don’t really do it it justice, I hope that they at least give you some sense its beauty and motivate you to go there yourself if you find yourself in the area!
During the hike, we also met two very friendly Korean men in their 50s. Saul has shown a real talent for connecting with Koreans that we meet in our travels, despite having little to no ability to communicate with them in words. After sharing a snack with them on the trail, they decided to stick with us for the rest of the hike to the summit and back down. After reaching the summit, they included us in their hiker’s feast of hard-boiled eggs, fruit, rice wine, and hoegaarden. Song Mo provided a playlist of 70s and 80s Korean easy listening tunes, and when his radio died, I played some Western folk and rock.
When we reached the end of our journey, we passed through the grounds of an active Buddhist temple. Amusingly, we as the westerners were interested in sticking around to take it in, but our Korean friends were bored and anxious to leave. Our new friends were kind enough to give us a ride back to the city while we sang the ubiquitous Korean traditional song Arirang. Not a bad way to conclude a memorable day of 24,000+ steps and 202 stories climbed, which I have no shame in admitting had me in bed by 8 PM!