Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More Like a Resident

Sure, sure, I have a job, an apartment, and a bank account here in Korea, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm a real resident. But recently a few key things have made me feel like I'm digging my heels in a little more.

1. Commuting by bike

I love love love riding a bicycle in this city. I was a little scared by sharing the road with Korean drivers at first, but my worries have proved unfounded. There actually is some order to the chaos. I've gotten good at watching out in every direction and knowing when I can go or when I should wait. Gunsan is fairly flat, and in some places even has bike trails. It's sooo nice to not have to take a taxi everywhere, or walk 45 minutes into town. Two of my coworkers went bike shopping at the same place, and now we all have matching bikes.

2. Running a race

Since I arrived, I have been training for the SaeManGeum (SeaWall) half marathon. It gave my days more rhythm, and gave me a reason to quickly explore the urban trails here. The SaeManGeum is the longest Sea Wall in the world... Gunsan's claim-to-fame. It's 33 kilometers long. The thing is built, but there is a still a lot more development to be done on it, and it's been a controversial project from the start because of cost and environmental impact. I think it's a PR move that they hold Gunsan's biggest race on the Sea Wall- marathon, half, 10K, and 5K in a 14,000-participant event which just happened this past Sunday. It does provide a flat course with a waterfront view the whole way, and besides being a little monotonous in the straight out-and-back run, it was nice.

There were quite a few other foreigners running, both English teachers and US military from the nearby Air Force base. It was a festive atmosphere with drums and onlookers and hot sun and the pre-race buzz. I ran with a friend Andrew who I had just met, and he kept me thoroughly entertained. He's a hilarious man. I had to ask him to not make me laugh so hard so I wouldn't get too out of breath. He ended up going ahead of me at the halfway point and I finished the race pretty tired, but managed to shave a few minutes off my last half-marathon time. At the end they give you water, sports drink, a medal, beer, tofu and soup, and a bag of rice. Here we are with our hard-earned kilo of rice.

Then, if you want to feel even more authentic, you should follow up the race with...

3. Going to a Jimjilbang

Jimjilbang means "steam room", and is basically a Korean spa. I've been meaning to go to one since I got here, and it finally happened. It might seem counter-intuitive to sweat more after running a long race, but it felt really good to soak and stretch. And nothing makes you feel more part of place than getting naked there. There are locker rooms with separate shower/body scrub/hot tubs for men and women. There were 6 different tubs of varying temperatures. They give you cotton shorts and a t-shirt to wear in the co-ed saunas. There was one big sauna room, then 4 other smaller, rounded saunas of different temps and humidity, plus a cold sauna. Massage chairs. Massages. Restaurant. Weight-room. Oxygen room with pillows. PC Bang or internet cafe, in case you can't live a few hours without a video game or checking your email. This is the symbol for jimjilbang, and you see them all over the city. It was so relaxing, and I can't wait to go back.

4. Getting a library card

My coworker Bryony was kind enough to go to the public library with me to help me get my card. The librarian spoke some English and was very helpful, even taking us to a staff lounge and for coffee and tea. He gave us a tour of the libray, including the DVD room where you can watch movies on big flat screen TVs with wireless headphones. There is a moderate and random collection of English books as well.

5. Starting a garden

Koreans are amazing guerrilla gardeners. Because the living is high density, and no one has yards, people have to garden in any available spot. This may be container gardens on the sidewalk, abandoned lots, sunny alleys, any unclaimed plot of land. I see gardens all over the city, and it makes me really want my own. So I finally asked the headmaster if there was any extra room at the school, and he directed me to the hidden side of the building. It's a great spot! It has a fence from the road, is out of the way, and gets a good amount of Southwest sun exposure. The soil is really clay-y and rocky, but that hasn't stopped any one else here from growing beautiful crops. So this is what it looks like. It's not much now, but just you wait! I've been digging, buying seeds, and got some tomato and pepper starts from a shop down the road. It feels soooo good to get my hands dirty.

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