Written by Connor Dearing
Before arriving in Korea, I knew the country, and Seoul specifically, were known to have a 빨리 빨리[1. Literally, “quickly quickly;” it refers to moving fast and getting work done in a short amount of time.] proclivity. But I didn’t expect it to be so literal. From the early morning when I leave to my late evening return, I am surrounded by people moving at a rapid pace — up and down, inside and out, their motivations always obscure.
I understand the speed. With such fortitude, drive and tireless work ethic, it is no wonder that Koreans raised their country from sheer poverty to being the 15th strongest GDP in the world. However, those very qualities that created the “Miracle on the Han” are also what make being a citizen in the South Korea of today a difficult and tiring experience, where work, competition, pressure and worry never seem to end.
In my first year in Korea living with a host family in Gwangju, a major city in Jeollanam-do, initially it was easy to separate myself from the competition that affects Koreans, with my relatively short working hours and stress-free but incredibly rewarding teaching experiences. As a foreigner, I had my own set of problems — loneliness, language ineptitude and a lack of cheese among them. Slowly, I got more and more immersed in Korean life — distinguishing my 친구[2. Friend, one born the same year as the speaker] from my 형[3. Older brother, used by a male speaker to refer to someone at least one year older than himself]; taking the subway at 10 p.m. packed with sleeping, uniformed high schoolers finally on their way home; assisting my contracted co-teachers with administrative work into the early evening. However, one night I came home to my 12-year-old host brother’s tears, the first I’d witnessed first-hand in the country. Devastated by his mother’s reaction to his average test score, comparing himself obsessively to his older brother — the carefree, awkward and curious Yoo Jun that I had come to love was unrecognizable. I wanted him to see his strengths, to enjoy his youth and figure things out for himself via trial and error, but it was an idealistic response, and I held back. Lying on our bunkbed, it was silent but for his crying and the turning pages of his science book. He recovered quickly, eating dinner at his academy from then on and arriving home at 10 p.m. But I could no longer separate myself from the stress and demands of the people around me. I felt I had to keep pace. I buried myself in elementary Korean textbooks until the early morning and redid lesson plans again and again, yet never felt fulfilled after their execution.
It was unhealthy assimilation, and I needed to find ways to unwind. I used trial and (mostly) error to sort through the stress relievers that seemed to be common amongst my Korean peers. Copious amounts of soju? Not worth the piercing headache and Sundays glued to bed. Noraebang singing rooms? You can only sing “Africa[4. A song by American rock band Toto]” with tone-deaf friends so many times. PC bangs? No, I don’t think smoky, dark, dimly-lit rooms filled with screens of creatures fighting to the death would help calm me down.
So, upon moving to Seoul, I took a different approach. I rode my bike right into the city’s GDP-pumping heart, the Han River, joining hundreds, sometimes thousands, of others biking in two-wheeled synchronization. The Han is Seoul’s mouth — a tiny opening where its residents can breathe. But can they ever really let go?
From my apartment in densely-packed Banghwa-dong, a commuter neighborhood in far southwest Seoul, I’m on my bike traversing dust, construction and speed bumps — symbols of growth, change and ambition. Minutes later I’m through a tunnel and on the Han River trail, which begins with an ecological preserve, a nice moment of calm. However, with bikers coming at me on both sides, I don’t dare stop and admire.
I am dressed Korean head to toe, with matching neon green and black aerodynamic spandex and training shirt, a flamboyant pink and purple neck warmer, and blinking front and back lights. With these gifts from my host family and schools, I’m prepared to blend into the crowd. But I’m no match for the Koreans with whom I’m sharing the road, who take biking, like all of their other hobbies, seriously. I am routinely passed by groups of men in matching uniforms, on high-tech accessorized bikes who ride with such speed and effortless ease I want to believe the bike is riding for them. There are also the older ajusshis[5. Middle-aged men] who’ve found a way to trick out their antiquated rides with green and blue strobe lights and speakers blasting trot music[6. Named after the two-beat “foxtrot,” trot is the earliest form of Korean pop music.].
The ride across the city goes on and on, and much like the rest of Korea, sights seem to repeat themselves until they become a comfortable, if frustrating, familiarity. The 7-11s pouring out watery Cass beer and instant ramyeon, the overpriced and underwhelming chain coffee shops, the chaebol[7. A large corporation]-owned, characterless apartment cluster views.
As I near Yeouido Park, my ride transforms into a game of Temple Run as I navigate through Seoul’s most popular stretch of riverside. Couples in matching t-shirts attempt selfie camera shots while riding their tandem yellow bikes. Teenagers cruise through on plastic, tiny penny boards. Everyone stops abruptly at the sight of wildflowers. It’s an art to maintain a strong riding pace amidst all the commotion, and soon enough I crash into a middle schooler. Luckily he gets up and moves on unscathed; I lie on the ground with a bloody chin and a broken cellphone.
Is this letting go?
I look up. The sunset isn’t striking. The colors are subdued, creating a noirish orange-brown sky. Building lights replace stars. As more and more people come home from work, my thoughts easily shift toward the different lives unfolding, the different stories being told. The mother reading book after book to her captivated daughter over a bowl of frozen persimmons. The grandfather, after decades of poverty and manual labor, settling down to watch a blockbuster on his 3D Samsung TV. A brother and a sister, finding out their mother’s health condition, vowing never to abandon each other. There is pain, burden, pressure, learning and family.
I get up. I’m back on my bike. By this point my fellow riders have diminished, my calves feel fluid and my rhythm and speed are exact. I’m still not sure of my destination, but like my students, co-workers and millions of others sharing this confined cityscape, I feel driven. With each rotation of my wheels, I feel a sense of urgency and renewal. I have a wound to patch up, English to teach, relationships to strengthen. I’m not worried. I’m not relaxed. I’m going.
Around 10 p.m., there is still one last rider speeding past me: a fully-suited, briefcase-carrying company man. Head tilted back, eyes closed, hands free.
Connor Dearing is a 2012-2014 ETA at Deokwon Girls’ High School in Seoul.