Somedays, I feel like describing where I live is like telling a tale of two Cheonggye’s 청계면. A 30 min busied north of Mokpo in Muan County 무안군, Cheonggye is a farming community, a fishing community, and a college town nestled between mountains and the sea in Jeollanam-do South Korea. I live in the central part of town. Somedays, all six blocks of the city center are popping. Other days she’s a ghost town.
When I first moved to Cheonggye earlier this year (March 2021), she was empty. Most restaurants and coffee shops were closed. I had assumed that this was due to winter vacation and schools not being in session. I was wrong. It wasn’t till several months later, in September, that she became alive with the 3 bars opening up (one brand new) and restaurants serving people again. Covid had really shut down my town, making me feel like I was stuck on an island where the sounds of sheep, cows, dogs, and roosters woke me every morning.
The downtown area is split into two sides by a major street running straight through. On one side leading to the ocean, you have the bank, health center, the grocery store, and a few older shops and businesses until turning into farmland till you reach the sea.
On the other side is the newer part of town surrounded by mountains with all the newer shops, restaurants, a branch of Mokpo University, and more farmland.
Now you think university town, and you may think expensive homes, lots to do, and tones of parting, but that’s not the case. Although there are several very expensive new homes in my town, the majority of peopl live in smaller, older homes or 1-2 room appartments (rooms not bed rooms). On the list of things to do in Cheonggye, there is 1 small arcade, a billiards room, a coin Noraebang 노래방 (karaoke), and 3 bars. Cheonggye is more your quiet, studious college town and a gathering place for the greater community.
Hold that image and those I provided of my small town and hold that in your mind as I tell you a few stories that I hope complete your vision of a small town living in South Korea.
Let’s begin with My initial exploration of Cheonggye consisted of hiking the mountains that surround her. These trails lead you to amazing views of Muan, the ocean, and the Sinan Islands in the distance. Honestly, this is my favorite part of living here. If I have a terrible day at work or a rough mental health day, I put on my hiking booths and am in nature climbing a mountain within minutes.
One day looking for an easy way to get my steps in, I wandered down the only street that leads from the main shopping and restaurant area to the base of the mountains. I walked past the university, shops, and apartments which quickly turned to farmland. A half-mile later, I was almost at the end of the road. It ended in was seemed like a mini-industrial-like complex with a sign over the road. Next to the sign, there was a marker naming it as a community of sorts where “the best” person in Cheonggye lives. Instead of turning around here, I thought this could be an intriguing place to explore, so I walked further down the road. A few feet later, I look at the building to my right and see the Star of David on it. “Interesting,” I thought. “I didn’t think Judaism was common in Korea. Strange,” Curiosity made me walk further into the community till I got to a parting of the buildings to my right. There were a lot of signs, some in English others in Korean, so I took a moment to read and translate them. This is where my spidey senses started to tingle.
The translations talked about god, sinners, the new Jerusalem, the messiah, and this being a community that follows the word of Isaiah, who was burned by god to become pure. That’s when I noticed a pile of stones that looked purposely placed to be a monument and further away several monoliths with Korean writing on them surrounding one monolith. This was when I started slowly backing up to the road.
Once on the road, I looked to my left and saw several stones, again with Korean writing on them. One stone had a goat’s head carved into it, and another had a Pharos head. This was when my brain had an “OH, FUCK” moment, and I knew I had to GTFO ASAP.
Now power walking out of my predicament, someone came out of one of the buildings ahead of me. They turned towards the exit with reusable grocery bags in hand, not noticing the stranger in their midst. This was when I started praying that they didn’t turn around. As I followed them out of the cult community, I did not breathe till I was past the fields and back to the central part of town.
That’s how I found out that my town was home to a cult. Look, I’m sure they are all really lovely people and wouldn’t harm me, but I’m sure as hell not going to find out.
This second story is really two stories about dealing with the local health clinic.
The first time I needed to see a doctor in South Korea was when my ears were blocked and had been for about two weeks. After doing my best to find an at-home remedy, it was time to finally see a doctor. I decided to go to my local clinic, not wanting to make the 45min to 1hr trip to Mokpo.
I get to what I thought was the clinic, and it’s empty. I hear a tv on, but no one is around. The lights are off in all but one office, and all I see a sign for is Oriental Medicine, i.e., acupuncture and Korean herbs. I see no receptionist, no signs telling me if I need to go to another floor, nothing.
Discouraged, I left and went to search for the other health clinic in town. I ended up walking past the place, and when I realized it, I did a double-take. The windows were yellow-grey with dirt. I was cringed out, so I decided that instead of walking in, I would leave work early the next day and bus 30min north of me to the county clinic. One of my friends had been to the clinic before. She had a decent experience even though she felt like they googled her symptoms.
Tired and ready to be healthy, I leave work early and arrive at the county health clinic. I got there and had to sanitize in a giant anti-covid machine before going in. When I opened the door in the clinic, It was like seeing deer in headlines. I felt like they were thinking, “Oh Shit no one speaks English here.” I had assumed this would probably be the case, so I hit them with an I didn’t speak Korean and took out my phone, which has I don’t have an appointment, but I have an earache translated on it. The lade at the front desk gives me the one moment sign and runs into the back to get a college student intern. The only one with some English skills.
He looked at what I wrote and asked, “ear?” Me “yes.” He then said, “no tool.” As in, they don’t have the tools they need to look inside my ear… He then told me to go to a hospital. Defeated, I left. Luckily the next day, hearing my story, my Co-teacher found me an ENT doctor, where I successfully got help.
My second run-in with my local health department was when I got my COVID-19 vaccination. You remember that clinic that I passed up with those dingy windows? Yep, that one… Well, that’s where I went to get my vaccine. To summarize it, the inside was dirty, the exam tables were wood pallets with dirty vinyl, and they administered shots in the waiting room, possibly gloveless. Yeah… I’m sure they are all professionals, but what a culture shock. It really showed me how small town yet rural I was.
My third story starts with a goal thwarted. I was always planning on exploring Cheoyngge more after my run-in with the Cult. My goal was to walk from where I live to the other side of the town and reach the famed ocean mudflats where people dig for octopus. Now, I have happily given up on it.
A 10 min 3-4km drive from my work took me on a narrow two-lane road in which we had to pull over every time a truck needed to pass as we wound our way past fields and pockets of homes with no convince store insight. We passed one coffee shop before we got a turned around, trying to find our intended place to eat after a school field trip.
When we got out of the car, I knew I was somewhere special at the same time; I was nowhere at all. Seeing that the businesses in this part of my community included one abandoned, a shop that cleaned fish, a coffee shop, our intended place to eat, a raw octopus bibimbap place, and that’s it.
As we pulled up to park, the sun was setting over the Muan Mudflats and the ocean beyond I thought to my self what an amazing oppertunity I have to live and work in my small town I get to experince life in Korea completely iffrent from those living in a major city like Seoul or Busan.
To be honest, I do love the town I live in. My major struggles are my dietary restrictions, length of time to get places, and lack of community. I’ve talked before about my bus and walk to get groceries, which can take 30-40 minutes to get there, but I haven’t talked about how long it takes to get to wester restaurants or see another expat.
Outside my friend who lives closest to me doesn’t get home till after 6pm and is a 30min bus away; all the other expats live an hour to two-hour bus ride on the other side of the city. The main reason for the hour time discrepancy is waiting on the second bus to get on that side. That bus can be anywhere from 10-40 min wait and often it’s faster to walk the hour to that side than wait on the second bus. Even if I time everything right, I need to be back on the bus by 9 or 9:30p to catch my last bus at 10p. It’s not an easy journey to make when I work the next day.
to be fair there are two other English-speaking expats in my town. One I have never seen or been able to contact, and the other is just not my human.
Most days I spend alone, I’m lucky if I speak to anyone more than 5 minutes and I live for my weekends which sometimes I spend by myself traveling. Although less rural than living in other places especialy on the Sinan islands, living in this small town can be very isolating.
For now, this small college town and farming community is a great place to call home. I wouldn’t change this experience for the world.
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