Written by Jenna Gibson ETA’11-13
We pull out of Cheonan just as the sun begins to set, so by the time the city’s rows of gray high-rises give way to country fields the entire landscape is alight. From the window seat, I watch my train’s shadow push across the brilliant green rice paddies stretching for miles on either side of the tracks.
I am headed to Mokpo for the weekend for the first of many lengthy trips after settling into my placement city. And I sit contently with my chin in my hand, elbow resting on the window sill of the Mugunghwa as the Korean landscape chugs by.
The shadows grow longer as we pass fields and towns and bridges. For me, a Midwest girl through and through, movement means freedom. Back home, I lived 20 minutes from nowhere and never owned a car, meaning I had to rely on my parents or particularly generous friends to rescue me from constant isolation. In college, I was forced to stay within the radius of where my legs could take me — which in Nebraska isn’t too far.
But here in Korea, I can just go. As long as I don’t mind getting stuck with a standing-room-only ticket every once in a while, I can run to the station at a moment’s notice and be gone a few minutes later. My Minnesota hometown had buses, of course, although they were so ineffective they were never worth trying. But with such an extensive railway system running through Cheonan, I can take my movement into my own hands without waiting for someone else to offer their car and time.
Sprawling Daejeon passes by, clusters of brilliant neon lights flickering in the dimming light. The car is mercifully quiet. After a week of hearing nothing but screaming middle schoolers and the constant background chatter of a language I don’t understand, this bubble of relative silence is bliss.
I check my ticket — departure at 4:47 p.m., scheduled arrival in Mokpo at 8:44 p.m. A friend will be standing at the station when I arrive, ready for three days of catching up and exploring the tiny islands sprinkled off the Korean peninsula’s southern tip. A full weekend ahead, but it’s not hard to put the plans out of my mind as the steady hum of the train fills my ears.
Any wish for speed would be useless. Even while zooming through cities and cutting across fields I’m stuck. I can’t indulge in my usual hobbies of scanning Facebook and obsessively refreshing Twitter to keep up with the minutiae of what’s going on around the world. Even if I wanted to pass time chatting on the phone or striking up a conversation with my seatmate, train etiquette stands firmly against loud English conversations. In the Mugunghwa — headphones firmly stuffed in my ears — everything is out of reach. No matter what I do, we will still pull into Mokpo station at 8:44 p.m.
Nonsan, Iksan and Jeongeup drift by as I stare out into the now dark landscape. My Korean textbook lies open in my lap, but I have abandoned it in favor of studying Korea as it passes outside my window. I should have learned by now. No matter how determined I am to finally finish a magazine from home or master a new grammar form, I always end up entranced by the endless alternating of grass and concrete outside the window.
But taking the train is not just a mode of transportation or a way to disconnect for a few hours as I make my way from Point A to Point B. It also indulges my love of novelty — taking the train includes not only a little fantasy but also nostalgia for a time before I was even alive. Yet trains, somehow, are new, a reminder of how many new places are out there lining the tracks, how many possibilities there are and how easy it is to hop on if I ever feel the urge to escape. Even now — nine months and dozens of rides into my year in Korea — I still feel a similar exhilaration each time a crisp voice rings through Cheonan Station’s loudspeaker, announcing the impending arrival of my train.
Inevitably, 8:44 p.m. arrives. “We will soon be arriving in Mokpo,” I hear a bright voice chirp through the loudspeaker. I am excited to see my friend and explore this new city, of course, but I still find myself sighing, a small pit of dread in my stomach as I prepare to exit the peaceful world I have built for myself in the train car.
My untouched textbook returns to its place in my backpack, my headphones wind around my iPod. It’s time to disembark and actually move into the world outside the window. Four hours is never enough.
Jenna Gibson is a 2011 ETA at Cheonan Ohsung Middle School in Cheonan.