Through My Lens: Lessons of Context from Gwacheon

Its red-tile roof and soft exterior walls give it a distinctly Mediterranean look as it dominates this quaint farming area at the foot of a prodigious peak, accentuated by massive power line towers. In fact, this entire area seems to resemble something out of an Italian hillside, complete with pasta restaurants, streetside produce vendors, and cozy outdoor cafes. This tiny village is, however, on the opposite side of the Eurasian landmass, and just a few blocks away, the stacks of competing mandu, bulgogi, and samgyeopsal restaurants remind visitors that we are still, indeed, in Seoul.

Gwacheon is a small city in the Moonwon division of Gyeonggi-do Province about halfway out of the city on the 4 line of the Seoul subway system. A suburban area with 1970s-era business structures alongside flashy new apartments and office buildings, it has one main thoroughfare along which much of the business has attached itself. On the east of side of the road, a public park provides walking trails and picnic areas. On the other side is a maze of restaurants and boutique shops, both authentically Korean and distinctly Western. As I have a soccer match here this afternoon, I decided to use the morning to explore the area. As I explored in search of a cafe in which I could work on some research, I found a host of attractive establishments. On a hidden corner, I found Cafe Tortoni, tended by a single older gentleman, who courteously prepared my americano for a very reasonable price. On the small patio with rain dappling the street, I got to work on my next traveler post. I hope to have it up within the next few weeks.

After getting distracted by articles about recent US Supreme Court decisions from one of my new favorite news sources, Slate Magazine, I decided to find lunch. Just a few blocks down, I found a row of tiny eateries that all competed for my attention. Settling on the smallest of them: a 12-seat boutique with the owner preparing dozens of tiny mandu (dumplings) at the window. As I read the menu from outside the door, he stepped into the doorframe and politely asked what I would like. I ordered a bowl of mandu soup – I had to repeat it multiple times as my Korean pronunciation is still a work in progress – and took a seat crammed between his prep table and the refrigerator.

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Mandu Soup (민두국)

As I ate, I began to realize that this entire encounter has been occurring in a foreign language. He did not appear to speak any English, and no English was present in the restaurant. In fact, I didn’t even have a menu at which I could simply point. Though my Korean is far from conversational, it is useful.

Yesterday, I had yet another lesson with my new language partner. After successfully using a series of new verbs in sentences (which I primarily was writing, not speaking) we attempted our first session of Korean-only dialogue. Although it lasted only 12 minutes and she had to slow down to uncomfortable pace, it was probably the best practice I have gotten since we began a few weeks ago. Minkyeong and I have been meeting once or twice a week in different places around the city, first sharing lunch then finding a cafe in which to study. For an hour or so, we review new words and practice using them in sentences. My vocabulary is expanding rapidly, but my ability to understand and to use that vocabulary is progressing much more slowly. These Korean-only sessions, which I knew were to be the most important from the beginning, will certainly become the centerpiece of our lessons in the future.

Back in the restaurant, I began to think about my fellow expats who have not made the efforts to learn the language that I have. They may be perfectly content with finding other ways around the language barrier, and I do not mean to make myself sound superior. In fact, my method is probably the least efficient way around the language barrier. However, it has emboldened me to hold true to the reason I moved abroad: to learn and explore every inch of this world. Without it, I most likely would have settled for one of the many restaurants along the main route that clearly displayed menus in English. It wasn’t the best mandu soup I’ve had, but it was quite tasty, and seeing this man work at his craft was an education in Korean culture. It was nothing profound, but it was another small piece, like the jigsawed tile of a puzzle that I can lay on the table as I slowly fit together the image that creates my understanding of the world.

These pieces, and the parts of the image they form, are a lens through which I understand what my eyes see. Red roofs, like the one capping the house here in Gwacheon, are not exclusively European. I remember one that sits on a corner along Scenic Highway in Pensacola, I’ve seen them  buried in neighborhoods of my hometown, and I know they dot the coastlines of many seas apart from the Mediterranean. However, that is my lens. Right or wrong, I still cling to an ideal that I hope to find in the cultures of Europe. I recently changed the wallpaper on my phone to a shot along the cobblestones of the Charles Bridge at dusk. Anyone who knows me well will know that I have had an unhealthy obsession with Prague and the Czech Republic since I spent a far-too-short weekend there exactly two years ago.

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Prague Sunrise – Courtesy of Eller College of Management, Arizona State University

This preoccupation with everything European is now my lens. It is the section of the puzzle on which I intently focus when I look at the world. When I see these small farming areas even in Korea, I am looking for something that resembles that idyllic future home. As much as I may try, I cannot free myself from these biases. However, I can expand them to include more of the real world. Europe is not all I see in these hidden streets. I see a crosswalk that resembles one I drove over when I had to borrow a classmate’s car while at a conference in Greensboro, North Carolina. I see a rockwall on the side of a youth center that resembles the one in the auxiliary gym of Cache La Poudre Junior High. I see a museum information desk that resembles the one at a Mississippi welcome center along I-10 that I stopped at when I took my solo jaunt to New Orleans just shy of one year ago.

Those are memories of a distant past projected onto the world as I see it today. With each new exploration and every new part of this city that soccer or a language lesson will bring me to, I form a new past that adjusts – if only an imperceptible amount – the lens through which I see the world. Perhaps one day, as I continue my travels, I will sit down in a restaurant in some distant corner of the globe that resembles the one I ate at on a hidden sidestreet of Gwacheon where I spent a morning before a soccer match.

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