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Perhaps if I’d moved to a city I wouldn’t have a toaster next to my feet. Waking up from a cold and fitful sleep, I throw my mismatched quilts off and make some wheat toast. Something about seeing my toaster there bothers me, as if anyone with a toaster on their floor can’t be leading a normal and practical life. I ask myself if deciding to stay in this provincial town for a second contract was the right choice.

Three months earlier, I’d told my co-teacher that I’d decided to stay in Geumsan. But seconds after I’d made my choice, I was told that I would have to move apartments. The ink was still drying on the contract and I felt betrayed. One of the main reasons I wanted to stay was for my apartment that I had become attached to. It was spacious with niceties, like a bathtub, oven, and balcony, that were not basics in other foreigner provided apartments. Choosing a small town over a city was supposed to benefit me, not hurt me. This was all wrong; this was not what I’d planned. I tried to stay calm as I explained that being able to walk to school and live near a running trail were necessary for me to be content in this town, but all I got in return were looks of confusion and the Korean phrase of finality, “it is not possible.” Frustrated and slightly shocked, I went outside to cry on a wooden bench.

I wiped my wet face and looked around at the crumbling surface of my little town. Geumsan is a blip on the map with a lack of popular shops and restaurants, a population made up of mostly farmers and blue collar workers, and famous only for its crop of bitter ginseng. It’s not what I’d call a postcard destination and yet, I really did love being surrounded by mountains, recognized on the streets by locals, and being part of a community. My fear of being stagnant and missing out on a city life that promised hip bars, Koreans dressed in suits, not jeans, and that energy that seems to fill the air when the streets bustle with people who have places to go and people to see, was why I was crying. It wasn’t the apartment, it was wondering if I had made the wrong choice.

My wheat toast fuels me as I stand and put all my weight onto the bike pedals to make it up the slight hill to my school. I pass my students in their gray uniforms, all brass buttons, vests, and perfectly tailored skirts. They gasp with the excitement of seeing me outside of school and on a bike, “Oh, Hannah! Hello!”. Its been a year and yet they still find me a novelty. They giggle when I make a silly face at them. “Teacher, you look like student today!”, says my favorite precocious third grader pointing to the ponytail I’d thrown up, after my hot water went off, in an attempt to save my half-showered hair. I laugh and as I chat with them and make jokes in stilted English, the question that my toaster brought up slowly melts away.

That night, I’m back in my new apartment and it’s Ladies Night, the time once a week where my friends and I create whatever tickles our fancy, gossip, and make dinner together. Jess is painting an ode to her hometown, Detroit, on a canvas, as Jasmine smears purple on her makeshift earring hanger of ribbons and styrofoam. Margo is eating Pringles and milk, a combination that I expect to curdle. When I’d made a pros and cons list for moving I’d put “best friends in the world” on my pros list for staying in Geumsan and looking at my friends now, the thought of leaving them for neon lights and snazzy streets seems selfish and like a decision I would have regretted. After they leave, I look out the open window that sits high above our town and take in the sparkling view, letting the cool air hit my face. I’m still giddy from our conversations about making our costumes for Halloween, going to the coastal city of Busan for Margo’s glitter themed birthday, and dancing around to ridiculous rap music. I wonder, could I have been this happy in a city?

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4 thoughts on “Why I Decided to Live in Small Town, Korea

  1. Hey, I enjoyed this piece. I work as an ESL teacher in Chungju, which isn’t tiny but has its slow times. It is a hard decision to make whether to stay…im sorry to hear you have to move apartments. That throws a big knot in the rope. Just remember that where you are is where you’re meant to be. You are experiencing a Korea that is unique and unlike the western influenced cities of Busan, Seoul, and Deajeon. Cherish it! Find a little satisfaction in the cool breeze, the fall leafs, the tweeting birds, the faces of dirty farmers, and the genuine attitude of the people. Hope your time goes well!

    Check out my website http://www.alittlesatisfaction.com and i wrote a lab piece as well at http://cyth.matadoru.com/2011/10/25/the-cubicles-set-me-free/

    ..if you feel like commenting c:

    I am heading to Busan this weekend for Halloween as well. Don’t be afraid to connect.

    Cheers,
    Tom Cyr

  2. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for reading my blog 🙂 The apartment actually turned out to be much better than expected (minus some hot water issues, but that’s become a way of life for me in Korea ha). I’ve never been to Chungju, but you’re right about our small towns. More and more, I see why staying here was worth it.

    I was in Busan last weekend for the Fireworks Festival, which was amazing but I’ll be in Seoul for Halloween. Have a good one and I’ll be sure to check out your stuff 🙂

    Hannah

  3. Hannah,
    I’m working as an English teacher in quite a small town as well. You are far braver than me. This year has been a rough one. Not having a Homeplus around has nearly killed me. I, unfortunately, won’t be staying for another year. It sounds like you’ve got some great friends and stimulating activities to keep you busy.
    I was at the fireworks festival this past weekend and will be going to Seoul this weekend. =) If you’d like, we can try to meet up. Search for me on facebook. wendyclears@hotmail.com

  4. Rebekah,

    I just do my Western eating on the weekends and stock up at Costco every once in awhile. We have one about 40 min away. Sorry, that the small town sitch isn’t ideal for you, but you get to escape on weekends at least! Added you on Facebook (at least I think it is you haha), would be rad to meet another Matadorian 🙂

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