My childhood neighborhood felt like my entire world, mostly Field Avenue and Mohawk Avenue, and it felt like that was always the way things ever were. The more I branched out, to Minnesink Blvd. and, gasp, Delaware Avenue (where all the bad kids lived), the less mystical the other end of Field Avenue began to feel (the area where the road ends and leads up to the railroad tracks, what we called “The Jumps” back in the day). Going back now, they’re just roads.
Mostly. Thinking now, trying to put my head in its three-year-old, four-year-old, five-year-old space, I feel a little of what I felt then, when every corner was a new world, where even a five-minute-walk down the road could be something special.
Such was the case when, on Saturday, I was in Jinju for the first time in eight years.
Funny, a part of me doesn’t want to feel good. Isn’t that interesting? I think it’s because a part of me, a big part, wants to pack it in and go home. I miss you all so much and I don’t know if that will ever go away. But, you know, I AM here, yes? I could either make it a halfway decent experience, a totally rewarding experience, or an absolute shit experience. Those are the paraphrased words of Jaime, The Boss we call her around these parts. She’s been doing the ESL thing for about four years and knows the in’s and out’s of the profession. She also serves as an understanding ear. Last night, I went out for drinks (Cafri’s. Hite is just a horrible beer) and talked about everything on my mind … and she said basically, I need to enjoy my stay here. It can’t be forced and, it doesn’t have to be. But give it a chance right? She said a good benchmark is three months. If, after three months, I still want to go home, then I’ve at least given the experience its due.
~ Nov. 23, 2005
Amanda, my best friend from home and a fellow expat here in Busan, wanted to make sure we got to see Jinju’s annual Namgang lantern festival before it concluded on Sunday. So, we bused our way from the Seobu Bus Terminal in Sasang to Jinju (without the aid of a Korean friend! We’re growing up!) mainly for that purpose. But, she knew there was a little more to it for me than that.
It was Jinju, about 80 minutes by bus from Busan, where I first found myself teaching English in South Korea. It was by chance I ended up there on Nov. 15, 2005–unlike Busan, which I had wanted to get in 2010 when I came back to Korea through EPIK and in 2013. I did not realize at the time this small-ish city of about 350,000 residents holds several wonders, including a beautiful concert hall, copious bike paths along a river, and Jinju Castle, the sight of much of the lantern festival’s festivities. Even though I experienced them all then, on Saturday it was kind of like seeing them for the first time.
I’m doing OK today. At least, I’m trying to. I sent out an SOS on the Jinju_ESL message board I’m on on Yahoo, introducing myself and asking about activities and socializing and stuff. I need to meet more people. And, I’ve only smoked one cigarette today! Yay! OK, looking forward to your letters, postcards, whatever! ~ Nov. 28, 2005
I did not know what I was leaving on Dec. 24, 2005, 40 days later, when my director, “Emily,” picked me up in her Hyundai Starex minivan and drove me to the bus depot, which would then take me to … I don’t even know where it went before I caught another bus that took me to the airport and home. It could have been Nopo-dong station in Busan, a station I have used several times. I was too in my own head and too ready to leave Korea by then to take account.
I’ve been writing in this thing a lot lately. Maybe, it’s because I know it’s about to come to an end.
Daniel, the man from Gwangju, came to the school today. He got the job. He got the temporary visa to keep him legal in Korea until he can get his E-2 work visa. He’s in. I’m out. ~ Dec. 20, 2005
But, something obviously stuck with me since I tried twice coming back, this time finally succeeding (eight months so far as of yesterday). And both times, when I only lasted 55 days in 2010 and all the time I have been here in 2013, I felt like I needed to go back to Jinju, to … Well, I’m not exactly sure. That is what I told Amanda when she asked what I was expecting to get from a visit to my first Korean stomping grounds. Hadaedong, to be specific, though I had no recollection of that until we told the cab driver to take us to Top Mart, which is how I would tell cabbies how to get me home since it was so close. Apparently a second one opened in Jinju since then. When he asked, “Hadaedong Top Mart-uh?” something clicked. Mostly. We changed our minds in the cab twice before finally settling on it.
I felt like I needed to go back to Jinju because I felt like I needed to go back. Since before coming to Korea way back then, I had it in my head that all this would be the guts to an eventual book on my journey, back before I realized it was yet another blog about Korea. That does not make it any less important, and I don’t want to feign modesty about what I have seen and accomplished in some attempt to come off as humble. But, I realized that what had grown and been built up to such unsustainable proportions in my own head could possibly not be quite so important to someone not named John Dunphy. Possibly? Probably? Definitely.
Still, Amanda understood the significance of the visit, and told me I could be as self-absorbed on this day (and only this day) as I wanted to be. I am thankful for her.
We did end up in Hadaedong, and it became clear that Jinju proper is not so big of a place. It would be a long walk to the city center, but not impossible. It seemed so much bigger then. We found my old apartment (on the second or third floor? That’s lost), the park behind the building my hagwon was located, where I took the kids to play for the last five minutes when I had nothing else to teach and I was panicking because of the extra time. I found my old school, now a math academy instead of English. Was “Emily” still there, finding the English business no longer profitable? I decided not to walk up the stairs to find out.
I found the bike shop I bought my used bike that pedaled me with Estevez on his own bike throughout the city, eventually landing at another friend’s apartment. I locked the bike up and took a taxi home, never coming back for it. I found the old “toast” place I sat inside one bitterly cold evening as the nice owners tried to communicate with me in broken English. That one surprised me. I didn’t think it would still be open.
Downtown, I found the tea shop Estevez and I visited during our long bike ride, where I was served ice cream with little cherry tomatoes on top. I found Zio Ricco, the Italian restaurant/bar the foreigners would gather in on Wednesday nights to decompress. It was much more restaurant than bar this time, so I wonder if the foreigners still frequent the joint?
I found all this. And yet, thinking back now to this weekend, I realize they could not possibly sync up with what I had built up in my mind. While taxiing back to downtown to begin exploring the lantern festival, Amanda asked if the journey, seeing these things again, gave me what I was looking for. At the time, I said no. Not because I wasn’t satisfied, but because I knew it wouldn’t ever match up to what I had built up in my head. But, I needed to do it anyway, or the fantasy would just continue to grow bigger and bigger and become more and more impossible to ever really exist.
While Jinju had continued to grow bigger over the past eight years, that growth slowed over time. The further from it, the more experiences worked to crowd it out a little, though certainly not completely. Like the long road I lived on from birth until 2006, a little mystical whimsy remains when I look back, even now. The memories, experiences, personal connections are still important. And even Saturday’s return may add to the legend eventually. But, in the end, it’s still one city in one time experienced by one person. Saturday also showed there is more to even that one city I could not have imagined in 2005. And, there’s always more to come.
What came for Amanda and I Saturday night was a beautiful festival, not in the place where I lived for 40 days in 2005, my first real experience away from home, where I smoked more cigarettes than anyone’s lungs should be forced to suffer, where I woke up in the middle of the night to the eerie orange light of an oscillating heater I had never seen before in the States, where I met a tiny Laos Australian nicknamed “The Boss,” a future Canadian husband and wife and future New Zealand celebrity. It was in Jinju, a city in South Korea, about an hour-and-a-half from Busan, where I live now.
JPDdoesROK is a former news editor/writer in New Jersey, USA, who served a one-year tour of duty in Dadaepo/Jangnim, Saha-gu, Busan from February 2013 to February 2014. He is now a teacher in Gimhae.