When my son and his Korean-born wife lost their jobs in Toronto due to Covid and upped sticks to Korea, I assumed that I would likely visit them at some point, but there was certainly no rush to do so. When their son was born earlier this year, Korea suddenly roared to the top of my travel list.
I am ashamed of my ignorance of the Far East. It somehow got stuck on all those war and relief agency photos of the 1960s and 1970s, and never advanced. I remember listening to an acquaintance wax on about a trip to Vietnam, and thinking, ‘Seriously? Vietnam?’ The same reaction surfaced when a travel agent suggested a two-night stopover in Singapore to break up a long flight back from Australia: ‘Who goes to Singapore?’ When we eventually arrived in Singapore, I turned to my husband: “How are we not better informed about Singapore? And why are we only spending two nights here?” Its authoritarian regime notwithstanding, it offered a vision of Utopia: architecturally rich, culturally diverse, and socially civilised. It was one of the most astonishing places I have visited. This is the sort of awakening that once prompted people to travel before the world was turned into an American mall.
Now it was Korea’s turn. I tried to envision Jeonggwan, the suburb of Busan where we would be staying. “It reminds me of Canmore,” said my son helpfully. I struggled to reconcile images of a mountainous Alberta town with my zero knowledge of the Korean landscape. Google maps is not always helpful.
And so, we went. Frankly, all I expected—all I wanted—was a big chunk of time with my new grandson and to be able to provide some relief to his overwhelmed parents. But you can never spend two months somewhere without making acquaintance with it. So, I’m going to tell you a little about Jeonggwan, a place you undoubtedly will have no need to visit, but one that you would enjoy if you did.
First, it is absolutely new. Twenty years ago, Jeonggwan was an industrial eyesore of belching smoke, sludgy rivers, and virtually zero wildlife until a decision was made to redevelop it for residential use. Now, everything is shiny, modern, very tall, and meticulously planned. Behind the glass of some of the business blocks are offices waiting to be occupied; the wide roads are strangely free of the dense traffic one would expect. It has not stopped construction. There is a belief that the space will be filled, and fast. Jeonggwan was built with the future in mind. To refer to it as a town seems unfair; it’s more like a mini city.
Each day, we made the 20-minute walk to and from our Airbnb at one end of Jeonggwan to the flat of my son and his wife at the other end. We had a choice of two routes—via the river or via the town. The river route took us along a clean, cultivated riverside trail lined with cherry blossoms (late March), vibrant azalea bushes (April to June), and tidy drifts of various floral species, each identified by their Latin names. The river—perhaps stream is a better term—is alive with herons, egrets, turtles, mallards, and fish. At night, the trail is well lit and busy with families out for a stroll or a run.
The other route, the one through town, took us along wide urban streets of office blocks, shops, patisseries, large grocery stores, banks, hospitals, cinemas, and endless eateries. Familiar stalwarts (McDonald’s, Subway, Baskin Robbins, Starbucks, Domino’s) coexist among the more prevalent independent outlets, Korean barbecue restaurants, and a large twice-weekly farmer’s market. We rarely ate out. My son is an avid cook and insisted on repaying our childcare duties by cooking dinner. He struggles with this aspect of Korean life: kitchens are small and toy-like—no one has an oven. For anything roasted or grilled or that requires the use of more than two burners you pretty much have to eat out. Weirdly, food is almost more expensive in the grocery stores than it is in restaurants.
With no knowledge of Korean, save for the few words picked up watching Kim’s Convenience, we got by with the Papago app, or had our incredibly patient daughter-in-law as translator. However, it bears mentioning how liberating it is to live in a culture where you do not know the language and cannot read its signs. A part of your brain gets a rest from the assault. You slip into a relaxed state of mind knowing you are a galaxy away from the exhausting political shenanigans, celebrity gossip, and constant media barrage that assails you at home. You instead gravitate toward nuance and the kindness of others. Koreans are shy and modest—young and old still bow to one another—but some called out “Hello” and wanted to practice their English. We were about the only white people in the town so we rather stuck out.
You do not spend time in the East without making comparisons to the West. For example, there is no graffiti. No vandals or Banksy wannabes defacing every park bench, wall, and fence. (When and why did we in the West ever sanction this behaviour?) The same is true for litter: there is none of it, nor are there rubbish bins. Your candy and burger wrappers, or take-out coffee cups go home with you for disposal. If the West were to eliminate the huge public bins (often overflowing with garbage) from its streets and parks, would it make us a tidier, more considerate society? Discuss! Granted, this was only from the perspective of Jeonggwan—it might very well be different in Seoul. That said, there was no evidence of such blights in Busan.
Other sights? The affection Asians have for Anne of Green Gables is well-known, but it was a surprise to find a shop that sells “Anne” clothes, none of which would look out of place on the Prairies circa 1850.
Koreans are dog lovers, but they opt for extremely small versions; dogs that literally fit in your pocket or purse.
Smoking and drinking outdoors is banned in many of Jeonggwan’s parks. Instead, outdoor exercise machines abound, some with mini versions for little ones. Hiking and walking trails are everywhere, and they are well used.
Korean coffee culture is huge. Rather than small cafés—though there are many of these—most are enormous, multi-storey concerns. One we visited, mid-way up a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, was five-storeys tall with an extraordinary view of the town. Most cafés are at least three-storeys, and have the vibe of high-end spas.
On the downside, food delivery motorbikes seem to have been given carte blanche, blasting through red lights, and mounting sidewalks without concern for pedestrians.
Obviously, I’ll be back: There is a little boy I can’t wait to hold in my arms again. But I’m also keen to revisit this sunny mini city in the mountains where my Western habits and anxieties can be rinsed away, and my brain restored to its default setting of “awake and alert.”