Goesan is tiny by Korean standards. It reminds me of China, but considering that’s the only other place I’ve been outside the US and this is Asia, that means very little. While not mentioned in the highly informative Wikipedia article, my own experience here has shown that it’s almost completely free from consumerist trappings as I know them. There are no McDonald’s or KFCs or other creepings of western corporate culture to be seen. It’s less than ten minutes from Jungwon’s campus, and a photo scavenger hunt set up by the program coordinators gave us an opportunity to look around.

Yes, that’s a tractor driving down the street. I got a flashback to rural Minnesota, but just for a moment. Goesan, in a way, is like much of East Asia I’ve seen – businesses and restaurants competing for space, pushed right up against (or on top) of one another, creating a clutter of signs and storefronts and varied facades. Very few of the townsfolk seemed to stare as an onslaught of Americans came traipsing through their town, cameras in tow, trying to find a Family Mart to arm wrestle in front of or a smiling animal on the sign of a restaurant. They seemed pretty blase about the whole thing, to be honest. I figured it was because it was a university town and the people were jaded, until I learned that Jungwon University is less than two years old and it’s the first time they’ve hosted our program for the seven week orientation. So maybe we’re just not as impressive as we think we are.

The young people were a world apart from their disinterested elders. They’d smile and wave and give the obligatory “Hello!” that all Asian children are compelled by nature to yell at foreigners whenever they see them. From what I’ve gleaned about the school system in Korea, many schools only provide a couple weeks of vacation during the summer. Despite this, the streets were teeming with kids. Some walking, some biking, some playing, and some just sitting around staring out into space, waiting for something but seemingly not sure what and not caring if it ever arrived.

The Korean university students don’t seem to care much for Goesan. There’s really not much to do beyond norae-bangs (karaoke) and drinking. Jungwon University has a strict curfew of 11 pm. Any students not in the building by curfew are locked out until the doors open again at 5 am. Some of them just sleep on the lawn or hang around town until then if they should chance to get locked out. I can’t imagine what they do to kill time apart from sing and wander.

And cover their faces the second a camera comes into view. The shyness thing is going to kill me when it comes to teaching class. I’m requesting a co-ed school but wonder whether an all-boys school may be better. Boys are rowdier and more of a pain in the ass but having to draw responses and sentences out of petrified Korean girls with most of their face perpetually trapped behind their hands sounds like a very special hell indeed. Presumably they’d warm up to me after a fashion but those first few months… argh.

Goesan is the only Korean town I’ve ever spent any time in, so I’m not equipped to judge, but it seems to have that feeling that so many Korean films, particularly during the early hallyu days of 1999-2001, captured very well. The small town life and insouciant youth that will eventually be trampled by urban modernity and relentless grind when the film cuts back to the present and the bright colors and sunlight can’t seem to reach anymore. But that’s probably foreigner naivete talking. We’ll be going to Seoul in a couple of weeks for a weekend trip. I’m looking forward to experiencing the contrast.

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