I’ve started and stopped writing this blog several times. For a city that I have been excited to visit since before I even came to Korea I’m having trouble speaking about it. There is one thing that happened on this trip that has really changed my outlook on my future here in Korea, but I get ahead of myself. So let’s start at the beginning.
After four and a half-hour bus ride, I was filled with excitement and anticipation of what Busan 부산시 had to offer. I knew the second largest city in Korea and the sixth-largest port in the world would have a different feel, but I didn’t realize how much until I boarded the Metro.
Riding public transportation is an excellent way to get a feel for people in a city. At this moment, when people are going to and from work running errands or leaving home for a night out. In these moments between destinations, you can see how people treat each other, how they use these few moments to find peace for themselves, or how they use them to let off steam with friends.
Korean public transportation is usually quiet compared to the western world because many older generations consider talking rude. Not in Busan. While half of the car was napping or watching YouTube, the other half giggled and talked about their day. What struck me the most about this ride, though, was how different everyone looked. From their clothing to their hair and make-up, the people of Busan seem to have a strong fashion sense. They value the joy of choice and variety, which feels missing in my provenience of Jeollanam-do, where people dress in the same colors, black, white, and tan, or have the same 4 haircuts. Even in Gwangju, people often choose to blend in rather than to stand out. In Busan, that is not the case. Maybe it is more of the western individualistic ideals that have influenced the fashion scene here or Busan is less conservitive than Jeollanamdo or just the fact that where I live in Korea back home we would be consider it the “country”. Whatever it is, I was here for it.
After checking into my hotel, my friend and I walked around the neighborhood, exploring the local market, which was still busy despite the 10pm curfew. Busan was alive and thriving even with Covid going on around her. We grabbed some street food and called it a night.
In the morning, we got a reasonably early start. We grabbed coffee and a bite from Starbucks since it’s usually the only coffee shop open before 10a (Yep, I still can’t get over coffee shops not opening up till 10a). From there, we hopped on a bus and headed toward Haedong Yonggunsa Temple 해동 용궁사.
Haedong Yonggunsa Temple is built on the edge of a cliff looking over the sea. The views here don’t disappoint. Initially built in 1370, this temple has grown from a place of reflection and peace to a place where good fortune and luck are sought. Statues are worn down from those seeking the answers to their dreams rubbing them. Around every turn, this temple has ocean views and beautiful artwork of the Buddhist religion. Leading up to the temple, you see the statues of the Chinese zodiac welcoming those making the pilgrimage up. This temple, although touristy, is to spend your morning or catch the sunset. Its beauty does not disappoint.
We made our way back along Haeundae Beach 해운대 for a relaxing stroll from the temple before we headed to the largest department store in the world, Shinsegae 신세계. This department store is connected via bridge to Lotte Department store. Together, they contain a movie theater, a skating rink, two floors of nothing but food, and shops that go on for what seemed like miles. Shinsegae has everything you want, from Chanele to Balenciaga to H&M and Nike. Every corner of the store is packed with stores and kiosks carrying all the name brands imaginable. After walking around, my friend and I decided that we would come back for the three stores we wanted to shop in, but after that, the place was so large and overwhelming that we didn’t think we would be back unless it was a shop we couldn’t find anywhere else.
The sun was setting as we made our way towards Gwangalli Beach 광안리 해수욕장, where we grabbed a couple drinks and watched the sunset over the ocean as the lights of Gwangndagyo Bridge came to life. Relaxed and happy, we decided it was time to grab some street food near our hotel, having missed the last call before curfew at most restaurants.
Here is where we made a mistake. With ice creams in hand, we made our way to sit on Haeundae Beach to eat them while people watching. Having found a spot 10 feet away from anyone else, we sat down on some steps and enjoyed our delectable treats. Within five minutes of sitting, we heard a speaker nearby announce what we believed was no eating in Korean. After hearing it again, we slowly started to clean p seeing that a golf cart was making its way towards us, yelling at the group of six girls with drinks nearby. As we were putting on our masks, the cart with two police officers stopped in front of us and announced no eating again. We answered ok and finished gathering our things when the police officers got out of their cart and told us to stop. The guy told us to wait. He made us wait for his associate, who spoke English, to come and tell us that there was no eating past 6pm on the beach and masks must be worn at all times. As we were apologizing, we noticed that the male officer was taking our picture. We bolted right after that, not wanting to make a scene or be harassed any more than we already were
Let me pause here to take full responsibility for breaking the social distancing protocols. I could make excuses like it was dark, it was so crowded where the signs were that I didn’t notice that there were signs, and none of the signs were lit. All these excuses would be 100% true, but just because you don’t know something doest put you in the right. We fucked up. I use the word harassment even though we were wrong because we were singled out and treated differently than Koreans, also breaking the rules.
The girls next to us were in a group of six when the rules still said no more than four people. Although they were masked, they did have drinks in their hands. The police officers did not get out of their golf cart to speak to them. They did not take pictures of them even though they were violating social distancing guidelines. The officers saw that we were clearly packing up to leave, and they chose to stop us, they chose to get out of their cart, and they chose to record us. The difference in how we were treated to the Koreans on the beach was the upsetting part.
I struggle between excepting this experience as one immigrant’s experience all the time in the US because, in some way, I want it to justify how I was treated. It does not. For how many times I have heard the question about why Americans are anti foreigners, especially in this country, never once has someone said, “I understand. Ideals of nationalism, colorism, and supremacy are alive here as well”. Something that connects us all is the inability to see what you don’t like about someone or another culture reflected in yourself and your culture. The more I travel, the more I see the interconnectedness of all the major social-economic issues around the world. Most countries rely on their immigrant, migrant, and “illegal” workers; without them, they would see economic collapse, especially in agriculture and industrial work. No government wants to admit that they have colorism and racist issues; their concept feels foreign. They all will acknowledge that if the US can’t fix its racism issues, political divide, poverty issues, and environmental issues with the rest of the world, they don’t feel like there would be hope for any other democracy succeeding. It feels too far for them to say that they are this critical of the US because they see all of these issues reflected in their own country.
Even though my brain can logic the incident out and find moments t to grow as a human being, the emotional aftermath has taken a toll. Between this and the news reports, my awareness of the growing xenophobia in Korea has become part of my daily life here. I still have joyous moments of someone stopping me in the park to say I’m pretty or share with me that they too are American and owned a buffet on Pennsylvania Avenue, wishing they could move back without hopes of affording it. In these moments, you see how genuinely nice and friendly Koreas are. I just can’t seem to shake the feeling this incident left me with. I was hoping to stay in Korea for a while, and now I’m unsure.
However, that is a decision I don’t have to make yet. Worry not, reader; the rest of my weekend was not lost. In part two of my Busan trip, you might find it easier to forget this incident than I do.
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