Thor's Korea Diary

Bansong Dong

@30 September 2000
[see also the photo-essay of Bansong]
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You've seen those picture post cards of otherworld villages whose inhabitants once thought they lived in draughty old shacks with bad plumbing, only to wake up one day and find that they had become picturesque tourist attractions... Well, the stolid town blocks of Bansong Dong do seem to have plumbing that works, and buses go to somewhere else every ten minutes or so. To my outlander's eye though it does have a certain charm and character, even if being picturesque is not yet on the mental map of this urban village either, nestling in a steep valley with only a tenuous artery of bitumen tying it to the outer tentacles of Pusan city in South Korea.

The roof of the red brick apartment building, where I live by grace of my college employer, has a flat roof where clothes are dried, and garden chairs for the foreign teachers to sit around sometimes and drink beer. Up there, you look out across a broken plain of other flat roofs, each one with large tanks in bright yellow and naked blue that seem vaguely sinister. The buildings, separated only by centimeters, are linked with a precariously strung tangle of cables. Intersecting this plain are narrow canyons, and below in their shadows are lanes barely wide enough for a single car to edge past the children's tricycles and dull brown bins.

If you raise your eyes over the concrete quiltwork, low mountains hedge the town for almost three hundred and sixty degrees. At one point this vista is interrupted by a cluster of enormous residential tower blocks, projecting like broken and discoloured teeth from the slopes. A large chunk of Pusan's five million people are shoeboxed in similar clusters at odd point throughout the city, and the local one here is clearly the engine behind the district's myriad of small stores. The sheer concentration of humanity in the tower blocks may, in a way, leave space for the surrounding greenery. Bansong Dong's steep hills are heavily wooded with pine trees to the very crests, a dark, furry horizon several hundred meters above against the blue sky. The feeling is distinctly insular and alpine, though I am told that in the far south of Korea here, around Pusan, it rarely snows.

This time of the year, early autumn, may be one of the best, for the days are still mostly sunny. In the last month it has been occasionally overcast, raining lightly, and late in September there were two days when the wind howled like a banshee, and sleet drove horizontally down the gullies. Maybe more of that to come. But most mornings when I run, following the road to Ulsan which skirts the town, up into a mountain pass, the air is clear. Sometimes higher in the valley there is a light mist, and where small farmers work in market gardens, they burn off cuttings, so thin plumes of white smoke rise into the air and gradually cast a gossamer veil across the green hills.

My own apartment is at street level, looking onto one of those narrow lanes. The streets and lanes here seem very clean after China, but earthier than the fastidious gloss of Japan; (curiously though, public rubbish bins are extremely rare in the whole city). Not much light gets into the apartment, and people walking up the lane can look in if they want to. I found some bamboo blinds lying in a corner, although of course there is even less light when they are rolled down. I shouldn't be complaining though. It is quite comfortable, and even has a small spare room. There is a gas burner that works, a grubby fridge, three broken chairs, a wooden bench, and an old steel desk that I rescued from a stair landing. I was even lucky enough to inherit a single bed and a wardrobe. Most Koreans sleep directly on a quilt spread on the floor, the floors being heated in winter by a system of hidden channels for hot air. The apartment I had last year in China was definitely in a superior league, but then the salary was a fraction of what is on offer here, and visitors had to be signed in by a "xiaojia". In Pusan you can go to hell according to your own tastes.

The hilly, narrow roads of Bansong Dong look their best in the early evening. At this time people hang about chatting in doorways, and the cluttered tile and brick faces of two to five storey buildings are slashed with neon lights, so shopping streets disappear like long streamers into the darkness. There are endless numbers of small shops, whose glass fronts and well-lit interiors give an air of prosperity (unlike the countless, dank, open fronted garage shops in Chinese towns). Korea seems to be a nation of small shop keepers, with mom & pop grocery stores every few meters. I have only been able to find a tiny handful of big department stores in this city, and those are "women's shops" -- basically fashion clothing stores at inflated prices -- with some minor gestures towards food in the basement and home furnishing on an upper floor. All profoundly uninteresting to me : I like big hardware and electronic component shops, and good book shops. In spite of their numbers (or maybe because of their numbers), the myriad of small stores in Bansong Dong (and throughout Pusan) have an extremely limited variety of stock. In every two hundred meters you can count on a ready-made clothing store of some kind, a small grocery shop, some place with a collection of vacuum cleaners, TVs and radios for sale, a mobile phone shop, a fast-food joint or small restaurant (some with traditional low tables where the patrons sit cross-legged), a brightly lit shop full of those plastic hairpins, Snoopy bags and costume jewelery that teenage girls like ... Less frequently you will find a small establishment full of rolls of floor linoleum and folding blinds, or a tiny confused cave of plastic buckets, hose, some cans of paint, maybe one or two tools in bubble plastic packets. There may also be five or six "bakery shops" in the town, spotless, with little trays and stainless steel tongs to make your selection. Your selection though had better be confined to sugary confections and sweetish white bread. The town boasts a single supermarket, or rather half a supermarket. It has the food needed to keep body and soul together, more or less, and a wildly eclectic selection of general merchandise, from car air fresheners to tampons to audio cassettes, but probably not what you actually want at the moment. In fact, the bottom-line message in Bansong Dong is that if you set out to find some particular item, from scribble paper to bed sheets, with a mindset calibrated in some other culture, then you probably won't find it in Bansong Dong, or maybe not even in Pusan.

Naturally people live quite well here within their own expectations, and basic supplies of a Korean kind are always available, even late into the night. At selected spots you will find old ladies with little pyramids of apples, pears or grapes in plastic basins on the pavement. I have discovered one precipitous, crowded locale with a clustering of these ladies, often sheltered by flimsy bits of canvas, and branching out into various kinds of vegetables. They call it the market, but it's a only a pale shadow of the municipal markets that are spread throughout most of China and the so-called Third World. It is strange and puzzling some of the food you can't buy here : no baotzi (steamed bread, which I've become quite fond of), no rolled oats (for breakfast), none of those dried fruits that Chinese supermarkets are full of. Fruit and vegetables, as well as meat and fish, are five to ten times the Chinese market price (though a visitor from America, let alone Japan, won't feel affronted by these costs).

How about clothing? I had read somewhere that a) Korea was a very formal country where I would be expected to wear a collar and tie, and b) that clothing was cheap so it was foolish to bring much. I brought a suit and tie, purely ornamental concepts in my life for the last fifty odd years, and left most of my casual clothes at home. Hmm, so much for the wise advise that you read (.. reader, beware of this!). My students wouldn't be seen dead in anything but stretch jeans and casual gear. It is true that some of the Korean professors affect the tweed jacket and old school tie look, but I was reassured to be greeted by the acting president of the college wearing an open necked shirt. Perceptions are relative to where you come from of course, but the general dress I see around town is downmarket casual. If it's good enough for them ... But as for clothing being cheap, ha! With Korean language skills and local knowledge you might hunt up some bargains. But for your average mug foreigner, this is not the place to buy rags. Go to Bangkok or Jakarta, or at a pinch, China. In Pusan, even a jacket can easily set you back $200 or $300. I'm not looking forward to buying the layers or warmth needed to survive a Korean winter.

If your are six foot six, or a blonde bombshell you might get some special attention walking around the streets of Bansong Dong. Luckily I'm a more or less weedy specimen of the caucasian species, a mere 168cm, with an aversion to the greasy food that guarantees big bums and pot bellies in most compatriots of my age. Even chestnut hair and grey eyes hardly stand out. There seem to be few women over fifteen in Pusan who actually have black hair nowadays, and any number of young men have startling orange or multi-coloured manes. In other words, I fit quite well into the Asian landscape and nobody gives me a second look. This is a relief. The locals on the street seem to be neither hostile nor friendly to my presence, simply indifferent. Of course, I can't understand what they are *saying*. Unlike China, anyone in South Korea with the price of a plane ticket can leave the country, so I am no longer approached by instant friends nursing the forlorn hope that by some miracle of "guanxi", generosity or even marriage I can be the messenger of their deliverance to prosperity. This is both a blessing and a pity, because to be honest, in the course of pursuing their relentless self-interest, some of my "Chinese friends" gave me insights and offered favours that were genuinely helpful. In Korea, anyone with a good job probably knows that I'm earning a quarter of their salary, and some may see the small army of foreign language teachers as transient mercenary trash. I am reacting here to the comments of a few colleagues who claim to have learned Korean well enough to understand the snide comments around them. Hmm, maybe. I simply don't know yet. I am still fresh enough to be amused by the way my Korean colleagues bow to me (and to each other), and the respectful bows of my students, as they wander in forty minutes late for a class, then talk to their classmates, oblivious of my lesson. But I do understand very well the bow of the grocer on the corner near my house, I understand his smile, and the especially respectful "annyong hashimnikka" he greets me with. That's business, and it is universal.


Korean language notes: English translations of Korean words frequently treat the following sounds as if they are in free variation: p/b, t/d, k/g, s/sh, l/r . In other words, English spelling may use either of these letter pairs freely, which is a bit confusing. Therefore, Pusan may be written Busan, or Panson Dong as Banson Dong ("dong" means "district"). Actually, Korean language and spelling has *three* sounds for p/b, none of which is quite the same as the English forms. Ditto for the other pairs. This is all too hard for phrase books, and even many books on learning Korean, which are often incomplete and inconsistent in their teaching of Korean phonology.

"Bansong Dong" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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