Written by Jenna Gibson
My life now couldn’t be more different from my Korean life — I’ve gone from teacher back to student, and I’m far more likely to spend my weekend in a study room than on a mugunghwa[1. One of South Korea’s trains]. But still, no matter where I am, when my iTunes shuffles to a certain song, I am instantly back there. One note and I can vividly remember a month in Seoul, a weekend in Busan, a walk home from school. My Korean life, captured in moments, recalled by the music that accompanied them:
Big Bang – “Cafe”
It had been on loop for three days now as I dashed through the claustrophobic gray stone hallways of Jungwon University. On the long jog down the 10 flights of stairs from my room to down a pile of wonderfully old kimchi and, if I was lucky, an oddly sweet egg sandwich. In the brief break between lectures as I rushed to grab red bean bread from the convenience store. In the late afternoon as I tried to wrap my tongue around the twisted syllables of basic Korean I had learned that day.
I didn’t understand a single word, even after looking up the lyrics and dutifully copying down each line in awkwardly precise hangeul.
I had discovered “Cafe” by accident, just one of literally hundreds of tracks in the “newly added” section of my iTunes after a fellow ETA gave me my first taste of K-pop. I didn’t realize until the next morning that one of the songs I had heard on shuffle was solidly stuck in my head. For the next week straight, I had TOP’s gravelly rap introduction streaming through my head, whether my earphones were in at the time or not.
EXO – “What is Love”
Four people, two bunk beds and about three square feet of floor space. We spent February in Seoul living literally on top of each other, ondol[2. Floor heating] cranked up and music blasting from laptop speakers nearly 24/7. I was starting to actually understand the songs too, each moment of clarity like a lightning strike. The winter Korean classes seemed to be paying off.
One roommate always said it was the best month of our grant year. Crammed into that tiny hostel room, she said, “Every day I went to bed laughing and every day I woke up laughing.” Maybe not so much on the days when an 8 a.m. bowl of cereal filled the whole room with a crunching noise louder than a thunderstorm. But we made up for that in “Sherlock” marathons and kalguksu[3. Noodle soup] and turning our little room into a makeshift noraebang[4. Karaoke room].
Super Junior – “언젠가는[5. “Someday”]”
“어디로 가는지 아무도 모르지만[6. “But no one knows where we’re going…”] …” It was true. We didn’t know where we were all going. It was the end of our first year in Korea, and half of us were splitting off, returning back to a land where communication came easily, where public transportation was a little more limiting and where a good sauna scrubdown was a mere fantasy.
So we celebrated those leaving and those staying with Gwangalli Bridge in the background. We waded into the East Sea at midnight, cackling when a rogue wave left a few of our group waist-high in water. We created a makeshift picnic, forgetting a bottle opener and enlisting the help of a group of ajusshis[7. Middle-aged men] to open our wine with a chopstick. We stumbled back to our hotel at a not-so-decent hour in a not-so-decent state, wailing dramatically and fake sobbing along with the lyrics: “언젠가는 우리 다시 만나리~~~~~[8. “Whenever we will meet again;” the “~” is used to indicate drawn-out sound.]”
All we seemed to know at that time, shuffling around the motel floor to fit too many people on too few mattresses, was that song.
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”
I made a huge mistake.
My girls had asked for some song recommendations for an English speaking competition — something upbeat but not too fast, easy to follow but not too simple. Of course my first thought was to give them some Backstreet Boys — a throwback that would certainly make them unique in a competition that was sure to be full of over-played tracks by Adele and Maroon 5. But they wanted something newer, something brighter (I maintain that nothing is brighter than Brian’s smile, but I wasn’t going to argue with a group of teenage girls about the merits of 90s pop).
So I jumped around YouTube, finally making it to the earworm of the fall. And my girls were immediately hooked, thanks in part to the hunky boy next door who starred in the music video.
And so began weeks of after-school practices, trying to hit every note and get every word right (“Teacher, what is ‘foresight??’”). But the grins on the girls’ faces when they won the regional competition was certainly worth every night that I went to bed with Carly’s perky voice ringing in my ears.
Shinhwa – “This Love”
We only had a few weekends left, time enough for one more trip. The criteria were simple: 1) somewhere outdoors, 2) somewhere I could take good pictures and 3) somewhere tourists would not normally go.
Well, we certainly hit the last one, at least. Oeyeondo, one of the farthest islands off Korea’s western coast, was supposed to have an evergreen forest and beautiful views.
We also assumed it would have a place to stay the night. And maybe a restaurant or two.
Instead, we ended up staying in a room rented out by a quiet old couple, cramming two of us into a space completely filled by a twin bed. And the only food on the island was the cup ramyeon sold out of someone’s garage at a 200 percent markup.
But once we started hiking, power-walking up the island to cut the chill that lingered there even though it was long past summer on the mainland, the views were unforgettable — fog-encrusted islands breaking through an endless plane of water.
That night we stole the comforter from our tiny bed, stuffing it and the only bottle of makkeoli[9. Korean rice wine] left at the garage mart into my backpack. We watched the sun set over the ocean, content with that one cliché in our otherwise less-than-ordinary trip, as Shinhwa’s latest blasted through shared headphones.
High School Musical – “We’re All in This Together”
Irony is spending your last night in Korea, the last few hours before saying goodbye to two years and to many friends, watching Korean celebrities act out a perfectly translated adaptation of one of the most quintessentially American stories there is: “High School Musical.”
Last day in Seoul checklist:
□ Watch “High School Musical” in Korean (check)
□ Sit less than 10 feet away from no fewer than four members of your favorite K-pop group (check)
□ Take a few too many “final” selcas[10. Short for “self-camera,” or taking a picture of yourself] (check)
□ Eat an extra serving of galbi[11. Grilled meat] at 2 a.m. (check)
□ Watch a fellow ETA vehemently dispute baggage weight limits with an Incheon clerk at 6 a.m. (check)
□ Say goodbye (check)
Jenna Gibson was a 2011-2013 ETA at Cheonan Ohsung Middle School in Cheonan. She is now pursuing her master’s degree at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.