Sunday, December 30, 2007

First night in town

For the sake of a good narrative, I'd love to say that I arrived in a whirl of drama, but unfortunately my first few hours in Korea went extremely smoothly.

After arriving in Seoul I was by the boss of my recruitment agency (in his Manchester United jacket) with his family in tow. I was quickly shuttled straight onto a plane full of stolid salarymen for the thirty minute trip to Busan, where I received another friendly welcome and a pretty good takeaway cappuccino.

Providing the coffee were two teachers from my English academy, who had given up their Saturday night to drive me along the highway to Changwon. They quizzed me on the weather in England, and told me a bit about Changwon and their hectic work schedules. They also insulted each other in a (I think) good natured way and sang along to Korean and US tunes on the radio - Vicky, the driver and head teacher, performed a mean rendition of Because of You by Kelly Clarkson.

Suffice it to say, their English was excellent (even to the extent of making fun of their own tiny quirks of pronunciation), so my pathetically limited grasp of Korean wasn't tested.

After speeding past the drab apartment blocks and sprawling factories on the city's outskirts, we soon hit the island of light that makes up downtown Changwon. Even without the rather pretty Christmas lights, the city centre would be a riot of illumination.

As I'd soon learn, the buildings are much more striking at night, with bright, gaudy signs scattered seemingly randomly over the surfaces of the mostly featureless, boxy and not-quite-skyscraping tower blocks. That's not to say that Changwon seemed unattractive at first glance (and it soon revealed its charms and even the odd touch of architectural flair), just not particularly dramatic.

For a Saturday night, it all seemed a little quiet, with plenty of people milling around, but hardly the bustling crowds the explosion of brightly lit signs would suggest. I soon realised that a) most of the action happens away from the ground, with hundreds of bars, restaurants and clubs spread over all levels of almost all the buildings, b) the preferred method of transport is to drive from one building with an underground parking garage to another, and c)
it was flippin' cold out.

My flat turned out to be very close to the heart of the city centre, so after having dinner (over which I tried to explain to my hosts - and maybe to myself - exactly why I'd chosen to come to Korea) and being dropped off, I decided to have a quick walk around the block. Again, I'd love to say that drama ensued, but I felt instantly very safe out in Changwon. Though I was obviously a curiousity to the kids on the streets (which was slightly surprising, as I imagined they'd be very used to seeing westerners), the closest I came to feeling threatened was the odd brave soul who blurted out a quick 'Hi, how are you?' before running back, giggling to his or her friends.

By about the third round of this, I tried to answer in Korean ('Annyong Hasseyo'), but realising that I could only manage a mumbled, sleep-deprived 'Ahhyo', I decided it was time for bed.

Photo album:

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Vague plans and imprecise investigations

Changwon doesn't make it into the guidebooks, and I didn't want to sour the sense of adventure by trawling through forums and blogs before setting off, so my only attempt at research into the city had been a quick glance at Wikipedia and a browse of the official Changwon website.

The site is introduced with brilliantly upbeat exhortations like 'green city always clean and blue', and mixes information about the city's industrial prominence with cartoon mascots and a celebration of nature. As well as the mascots (Chang-e and Wong-e, two aliens who represent the harmonious coexistence of nature and technology), the city also has municipal flowers (Azaleas - celebrated in a festival in the Spring) and a municipal species of tree (pine).

The city's logo and official slogan - 'Young City Changwon' - are also liberally sprinkled throughout the website. The slogan refers to Changwon's position as Korea's newest city (It was established in 1974); the logo seems to have something to do with the very ordered (read grid-like) way that the city was planned, with the coloured squares representing the different influences (natural, technological, human etc.) on the infrastructure. Something like that, anyway.

In the 'Culture and Tourism' section of the website, the details of Changwon's annual festivals caught my eye. For example, the watermelon festival features a Miss Watermelon competition and a singing beggar show. Highlights of the sweet persimmon festival include not only a sweet persimmon eating contest but also a sweet persimmon piling contest, as well as the obligatory Miss Sweet Persimmon competition. It all sounded rather sweet natured, whimsical and innocent, somehow, and a long way from the (presumably) overwhelmingly impersonal bustle of Seoul.

After signing up to teach in Korea, I had always imagined I'd end up in Seoul, and was actually quite looking forward to getting lost among 10 million people. When I was offered a job in a city with a population of only 500,000, though, I quickly adapted to the idea. Even if it did sound like it could be the Korean Milton Keynes, with all that apparent buoyancy, greenery and youthful energy, I was sold on the idea of Changwon.

I was looking forward to finding out more about the city and its people, and if the website's apparently very sincere sense of civic pride (okay, so it's marketing, but somehow convincingly uncynical) had any bearing in reality.
Also, from what I could tell, Changwon seemed to be a great base to explore South Korea and Japan, with a major city (Busan) and plenty of historical and natural attractions very nearby. So, with a possibly unfounded sense of optimism safely stowed in my hang baggage, I set off...