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My Korean neighborhood: How to make a “Home” away from home
Do you find you often take your city for granted? I know I do.
I’ve absolutely loved living in the Korean suburbs, where life is steeped with a slow-brewing charming character.
But if you remember my first GRRRL whimper, I didn’t start that way. Instead, I went into culture shock! My apartment was on a dark and dingy alley street and my neighborhood was in the “not-so-good area”; a lower-income sector, exiled from the neon radius of city life.
Over time though, my little neighborhood of Singi revealed itself as a true gem!
My Korean neighborhood: How do you make a home away from home?
Despite that there’s nothing familiar or reminiscently “U.S.” about a Korean neighborhood, there’s only one thing I needed to make my home abroad feel like”home”… belonging.
Here’s four ways to create a sense of belonging:
Discovering the beauty of the Korean suburbs
• Finding your Korean neighborhood’s “cool factor”
When I first got here, I wished I was more central to downtown. I envied those who did. But gradually, I started noticing “unique and likable things” in my Korean neighborhood. It was more personal, small town, charming, warm, family-oriented and there was enough space for a more natural life removed from the urban jungle. It had a personality. My home away from home … was homey.
My neighborhood had children playing in the park, family picnics and laughter, old mom-n-pop shops, chatting ajummas congregated on the sidewalk and a neighborhood truck occasionally driving through the streets with a loudspeaker, advertising …eggs.
The park is the heart of the town and a host to town festivals and activities. Some days, vendors line its walkways selling everything from clothes, food, produce, comforters and shoes. The park field is almost always occupied either, with Little League or kids playing basketball and badminton.
There’s an everyday ajumma and ajosshi social network hanging out and every Friday evening is ladies outdoor aerobics!
If you’ve never seen ladies outdoor aerobics, it’s entertaining.
Children’s wrestling match during a park festival.
Fresh Market Days in Singi-dong
Wednesday and Fridays are fresh market days, where everyday town life transforms into sale tents buzzing with shoppers in the search for fresh produce, fish, clothes and duk (rice cake). It’s like a country bazaar and it gets pretty lively.
• Exploring your surroundings
I’m always attempting to decode what I see in my neighborhood.
I improvise on my walk to school each day. My neighborhood is small but I could also easily get lost weaving through the streets.
Behind the town’s main street of restaurants, stores and bars, residential life holds a slightly different character. Kimchi stone pots line rooftops and laundry lines occasionally wear the flags of a new wash. Meanwhile, bright red buckets for waste perishables sit outside houses on stone pathways, stained with coarse and uneven age. They all give “life” and “marked character” to the white-washed walls, which encase the older homes. No apartments– no building rises past 5 floors here; there are only houses and villas and this has a wonderfully personal feel.
Oddly, this is my favorite path to school…
• Making yourself belong
It’s like that tv show, Cheers. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name…
When you’re an English teacher, your neighborhood kind of knows you already. If you look foreign, you can bet they know who you are.
“Owning a sense of place” and developing support in my lifestyle makes me feel integrated. I have a neighborhood doctor, dentist and banker. I have favorite stores I frequent, walks I like to take and a nearby Lotte grand plaza!
All of these things root my existence; they cradle me.
• Syncing with your surroundings.
What does being an “American living in Korea” feel like? I couldn’t tell you, but my body knows…
Each day it shapes to the sounds and smells of my neighborhood, absorbing and negotiating a balance between “alien” or “foreign becoming ‘familiar'”.
Our surroundings change us. Unconsciously, we absorb it and it slowly beings to change our walk, breath, how we think and feel in our bodies.
Living in a Korean suburb,there’s a gentle and relaxing pace of freedom. It forms a new posture, which gives me time and space to just Be. People call this, “adapting to our environments” but sometimes it feels like my environment creates a new me so that I can live in harmony with it.
In my neighborhood, I don’t feel “American”. I’d say I was a “waygook” (foreigner), though whose mastery of Korean still sucks, is becoming just an inch of Korean each day!