Seven strange months in the mountainsIn the spring of 2003, the hagwon (private language institute) where I was working was in trouble. Enrollment dwindling, revenue dropping, my boss was acting more and more irrationally. One evening I asked him for some money I was owed. He pulled out perhaps 10 million won ($10,000) from his pocket and peeled me off the 400,000 won he owed me, and we said goodnight.
The next day, two days before payday, I woke up, ironed my shirt, cabbed to work and took the elevator to the fifth floor ― where there was no hagwon. The furniture, the computers and even the sign on the wall were gone. The place had been stripped to the fixtures and locked up. I called my boss; he said he was in Bundang police station, having been arrested for failure to pay debts.
Even though I was still owed a month’s pay, the feeling of relief that swept over me was indescribable. Unbeknownst to my boss, I had signed a contract at a small university in South Chungchong province a month beforehand. I had seen this coming, and now I had been released from the hagwon’s bonds. Someone upstairs was obviously looking out for me.
My first impression of Gongju was that while it may have been the capital of an ancient Korean kingdom 1,500 years ago, it had evidently had a pretty rough ride since then. A beautiful setting on the wide Gumgang River, a fascinating restored fortress towering over the town and a small shopping area were good enough for me.
I lived there for seven months, and learned that the people were proud of their conservative upbringings and had a deep connection to the land. The hometown of both Texas Rangers pitcher Park Chan-ho and LPGA sensation Park Se-ri, Gongju is a town of about 150,000 people, boasting a national university and a teachers’ college, but it often seems much smaller.
Life is slow there, since it was off the train line. The best thing to do was sit outside the Buy The Way with a two-liter bottle of soju, practice some English and meet the sordid collection of expats who had ended up in a town that many Koreans had never heard of.
What Gongju lacked in nightlife, it seemed to make up for in its ability to drive foreigners around the bend. There were about 15 ESL teachers in town; the women were whacked on prescription painkillers for lack of anything better to do, and the guys were fantastic at pounding two-liter soju bottles, fighting with police and disappearing without a trace for days on end. Between swilling beer and eating chicken feet, I bought a scooter and spent most of my time in the mountains with the monks. This made me, officially, the world’s worst Buddhist.
Gongju’s civic fathers, I am told, actually voted to keep themselves off the Korean rail line in the reconstruction period following the Korean War. They feared encroachment on their dog farms and their future LPGA proteges from the liberal ― ha ― elite in Seoul. Despite having been the capital of South Chungcheong province for centururies before being usurped by Daejeon, the town fathers had the train station places in the much smaller town of Jochiwon.
Now they want the investment dollars, and so a rail connection is finally being built. Its disconnection from society has left the town in a sort of time warp, where people talk much more slowly, with soft, rounded vowels, and take their time about things. The McDonald’s and the KFC in Gongju both closed last year. That’s right ― they closed.
The truly tacky Hi OB served awful draft beer in a brightly lit college bar atmosphere, where there seemed to be about 20 birthday parties a night, complete with blaring music and creepy businessmen who would rub your leg and insist that you sing old Beatles. songs. If that’s what you want, wait no longer. I liked the place to the left of Hi OB, which had a pencil-and-paper logo on the window. Despite the apparent academic theme, and its location beside the back gate of Kongju National University, they served soju like it was going out of style.
Gongsansong, the ancient Baekje fort, was my stomping grounds for one crazy winter during which I broke the cardinal rule of staff rooms: don’t get jiggy with your co-workers. I spent my afternoons gazing over the Gumgang mountains and visiting mysterious temples in the woods, but after trudging through the snow for what seemed like the thousandth time, I longed for hijinx and hilarity in Seoul. I’m back now, in a job with more vacation and what seem to be better benefits, but I sometimes miss my crazy little town in the mountains.
by Kenneth Craig