A Tourist's Guide To Yesan
Caitlyn Ng Man Chuen
© Copyright 2019 by Caitlyn Ng Man Chuen
The first time that you ever hear about Yesan, itís presented to you with a shrug.
ďYesan is cute,Ē says the foreign teacher coordinator. Cue her shrug and a pair of downturned lips, arching toward her chin not in a frown but in a way that says itís not so bad or is has its charms. Offered to you on a platter like a plate of soggy pancakes. But pancakes are pancakes and covered with enough syrup, itís hard to tell good from bad. Positive thinking.
Later that day, you do some research on Yesan County.
The official bird is a stork and the flower is the golden-bell tree. It is a certified Ďslow city,í meaning itís a place meant to act as a connection to nature and a respite from the fast-paced lifestyle of the Korean metropolis. Itís known as the apple capital of Korea and every autumn, thereís a festival to celebrate the harvest. They grow things besides apples Ė mostly local vegetables in fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. Thereís also a few dairy farms and some factory farms. Itís home to the largest manmade lake in the country. More importantly, itís home to an intercity bus terminal and a train station, both with regular service to Seoul and a few other nearby cities.
When youíre being driven through the countryside of the Southern Chungcheong province, you see plenty of towns that look like nothing more than blips on a map. Places that people pass through but never stay and on the chance that they do stay, they can never leave. You imagine that theyíre places that somehow exist separately from temporal Ė that you could go back in a day or in ten years and nothing would change and everyone would still be where you left them. It makes you thankful for Yesan or at the very least, thankful for the ways out of it.
Yesan, Chungcheong Provinceís Cradle of Romance and Healing
In your first few weeks in Yesan, you manage to meet every one of the eight other English-speaking foreigners in the town. There are other foreigners but they keep to their own corners. All of you Westerners live in the same three apartments. You think it feels like living in a college dorm and for a while, itís nice to be able to walk down the hall and have someone to eat dinner with.
You hadnít planned on having most of your friends in your town be other foreigners, but in a place like Yesan, your isolation makes sense. Most of the locals shy away from all of you. At first you think itís because things in small towns are different from cities, that people are more conservative or traditional or something like that. Eventually you realize that they simply donít want to have to speak English in their interactions. For some of them, the group of you English teachers are the only Westerners that theyíve ever met.
Youíre left with a social circle of people around your age and from similar backgrounds as you in a country twelve thousand kilometres away from your own. Itís comforting when you first arrive to feel a sense of normalcy and to not feel completely alien to the world that you live in. Everyone is friendly at first but after a couple of nights out, you find out the history of their entangled relationships, things that started long before you stepped foot in Yesan. You find it sad that the isolation of small-town Korea had driven them into each othersí arms and beds. You promise to never let yourself do the same.
The first bus out of Yesan on Friday evenings is to Daejeon at five in the afternoon. The first train out is at five-twenty-seven, though itís always late by at least five minutes. You take one or the other nearly every weekend that you live there.
You buy your ticket on Wednesdays and when work finishes two days later, you rush home, collect your overnight bag and walk over to the bus or train station, whichever is whisking you away from rural nothingness for forty-eight hours. The bus gets you to Daejeon Bus Terminal at around six-thirty, depending on traffic. The train gets you into Seoul by eight or to the express train station by six-fifteen, where you take the high-speed train to other parts of the country far away from Yesan.
You usually have more than enough time to get dinner and drinks with your friends. They tell you about their lives in the cities and you tell them about your little apple town. You tell them itís not that bad and theyíre quick to list the benefits of living in a small town. Food is cheaper since a few of the grocery stores get their supplies from local farmers. Students are kinder with their countryside charms. Thereís no need to pay for public transportation because thereís nowhere to go. They agree that it seems like a pretty comfortable life. But on Sunday evenings, when you make your way back to Yesan on the last bus or train, all of your city friends go places without you. Their lives donít stop to the whims of a transit schedule.
There arenít a lot of things to do in Yesan. Thereís a cinema in the city, located in the old downtown where there are clothing shops and banks and not the new downtown where you live, surrounded by nothing but bars and restaurants. There are only two screens and they show only two or three movies at a time. A year after you leave Yesan, you hear about a bowling alley being constructed in the space above the bus terminal and you think that couldíve been nice.
For a while, you like to go fishing. In the early afternoons on the weekends or sometimes in the evenings during the week, you and a few other friends drive to the river together and cast lines. You donít do much fishing, leaving that to the more experienced farmers, but you eat fried chicken and drink beer together. Once, you bring supplies for a makeshift barbecue and you eat and drink until the sky darkens and you canít tell the water from the sky. It feels peaceful, like youíre on a camping trip somewhere instead of just a few kilometres away from home. You like fishing but it canít last forever and when the winter comes, you donít go again.
You heard once that there are Korean language classes over at the multicultural family centre and so one day after work, you stop by. There certainly are classes, but theyíre nothing like the social occasions that you hear about from your city friends. In those classes, they go for coffee or drinks or pizza when class is done. In Yesan, everyone else in the class is married. They are the immigrant wives from Southeast Asia who came to live with their Korean husbands in the farmlands. Theyíre nothing like you and youíre nothing like them but they all seem to know each other and so your conversations are stilted and uncomfortable. You stop attending classes after two weeks.
Your favourite place in town is a park by the shallow part of the river, where some fisherman set up their lines despite signs insisting that fishing isnít allowed. The park consists of several basketball courts, a baseball field, and an open expanse of grass that the Russian migrants use to play soccer. There is a track that circles around all of them, dips under overpasses and runs along the river. You walk the track every night that the weather permits and watch the burning sun slash through the sky and sink down behind the mountains in the distance. Its reflection melts away into the river.
The best way of occupying yourself in Yesan is by drinking.
There is no shortage of places to drink Ė old style pochas frequented by salarymen, typical Korean bars where you have to order food with your drinks, pricey cocktail bars, cheap cocktail bars, and the picnic chairs outside of the convenience store, which is your favourite of all. The bartenders seem to remember all of you, the ragtag group of foreigners who can hold their liquor and like to try things like dried cuttlefish, and they treat you well until you leave for the night and go to the next place.
After a long night of drinking, the sensible thing would be to grab a bottle of water and go home, but more often than not, you and your town friends end up in the singing room. To get there, you have to walk down a flight of stairs with a low ceiling that looks like it has mould along its edges. The stairs are lit only by a single flickering lightbulb and you joke that a trip down to the singing room is a descent into hell.
You like to get the big room so that you all can dance around while you sing, even though itís more expensive than others. You get your moneyís worth anyways. There usually arenít many other customers and the workers keep your machine running for far longer than you pay for. When itís time to pay, youíre the first to give your share and then you play with their countertop Christmas tree thatís up all year round.
The door to one of the other rooms opens and itís then that you see them. A girl younger than you and much too white to be alone in a place like this. Sheís accompanied by an older man who has his hand pressed firmly into her own. He lifts his hand to her hips and you look the other way. You had heard about the girls from Eastern Europe who come here to work in strange places like this but you had never seen one before this. You stumble backward for a moment and glance down another hallway. There are a few middle-aged Korean women in gaudy makeup and outdated, tight clothing waiting outside a door. They look at you, amused, and your friends pull you up the stairs and back into the surface world.
One of your friends tells you that itís just like that sometimes and that the men only really want company. You think back to the couch that you lounged on while someone sang a classic rock song and you feel sick. Seeing your face, your friend assures you that nothing goes on in the building. They have to go somewhere else if they want anything more than some handholding and innocent touches.
Places to Eat
For most of the time that you live in Yesan, your fridge remains nearly empty, like the rest of your apartment.
Sometimes you have a bottle of juice inside or eggs or some fresh fruit that a coworker gives you. Most of the time, there is nothing at all except alcohol and leftovers from the takeout meals that you get on most days. It makes more sense, you explain to people, to eat out. The cost of groceries is excessively high when buying for one. They package everything like itís meant for families.
You weave in and out of the same few restaurants for the entire year that you spend in Yesan. The kimbap restaurant with the nice old ladies that remember you every time you come in. The ramen place by the bus terminal that you donít mind eating alone in. The low-budget sushi restaurant. The soybean noodle soup house. With friends, you go to the same three barbecue places depending on what kind of meat youíre in the mood for Ė beef, pork, or chicken. Your favourite is the place you go for beef, where the owner greets all of you by name, gives you free soft drinks, and knows exactly which cuts of meat you like.
Once in a while you go to one of the two pork cutlet restaurants in Yesan with the exact same name. Theyíre located side by side on the outskirts of the old downtown. Legend has it that a married couple ran the original restaurant (surely the one with traditional floor tables and not the one that serves cream of mushroom soup as an appetizer). When they eventually divorced, they divided their assets and the now ex-husband kept the restaurant. His now ex-wife bought the empty lot right beside it and opened a second restaurant with the same name, the same cutlet recipe.
You go with a friend every week for two months right before she leaves, comparing the quality of the meat, the crispiness of the breading, and the assortment of side dishes. Itís a little mundane but itís an excitement in your lives and itís nice to do something with a friend. Eventually, you decide that you like the first restaurant better and your friend decides that she likes the second, but you continue to go because you like the story. Knowing this local secret, you feel like you belong.
After she leaves, you donít return to either one.
Mingling with Locals
There are a few gyms in town that some of the foreigners go to. You start going to one, every weekday but Friday, because itís a good way to kill time and the showers have better water pressure than the one in your apartment.
You see the same cast of characters day by day. A father and his gangly, teenaged son. Groups of high school guys still in their uniforms. An older man with a kind face that you think mightíve been a boxer once. A woman who uses the muscle massager religiously and once asked to use your shampoo. And you, the foreigner. All of you come to a strange harmony as the same playlist of local pop fare blares over the speakers, day after day. They correct your form and tell you when your locker key falls out of your pocket.
Sometimes you see them outside of the gym and although these interactions never last long, they make you happy. There are so many times when you walk around town in complete silence, nothing and no one approaching you. It makes you feel like a ghost, haunting the few streets that your circulate before retreating back to your apartment. A nod of acknowledgement is so insignificant, so inconsequential but it manages to ground your existence if only for a moment and you appreciate it.
There are only a few direct buses to the airport every day Ė one in the early morning and one in the late afternoon. You go to the airport bus platform at the terminal three times Ė once to fly to Okinawa for a two-week long vacation in the summer and twice to help two of your town friends leave Yesan forever. You remember helping them roll their bags across the pedestrian overpass, waiting for them to buy a one-way ticket to the airport, and loading their bags into the space underneath the bus. You remember waving goodbye to them as they left and going back to your apartment alone.
When itís finally your time to leave, you take the train instead of the bus. It involves multiple transfers and a much longer travel time but you prefer it that way. Everything moves so quickly on airport bus with no stops in between, but the train moves slowly through the countryside like its pacing itself to take everything in and you do too. You used to hate the slow trains that would take too long to get you where you needed to be but now it allows you to say your goodbye slowly and linger for a moment.
You watch as the train moves farther away from Yesan. The apple trees that line the main street, the red peppers lying out to dry in the sun on the sidewalk, the mutts tied up to gates to guard farmland and construction zones and homes, all the people who littered the background of your life in the past year, who had once seemed like nothing more than specks on wallpaper. All of them disappear into the horizon.
One day in the future, you will return. Youíll walk the same streets that you once did and youíll be able to trace the path perfectly from the train station to your apartment to the bus terminal like you had never left. When the bug man comes, pesticides spraying out from his truck like a gas attack, youíll cover your nose and rush inside the closest building like you used to. Itíll turn out to be that old karaoke place and youíll hear someone downstairs screaming out the words to a ballad that you remember singing with your friends.
Youíll walk to the track park and on the way, youíll look into the water of the stream that lines the path there. For the first time, youíll notice that in the streambed between the cracks in the shallow layer of moss and water vegetation, thousands of fish dart back and forth between the plants. They will be small, barely bigger than minnows, but there they will be. Theyíll be signs of life in what you have always assumed to be nothingness.
And as you leave, you will wonder if you had ever arrived.
But for now, you stand at the window of the train and watch the countryside fade away.
Caitlyn Ng Man Chuen (吴燕新) is a graduate of Ryerson University, where she co-ran a writing group and co-published a student-centered print zine. Her work has been previously published in Ricepaper Magazine and Looseleaf Magazine. Born in Toronto to a Chinese-Mauritian father and Filipino mother, she currently lives in Seoul. She has an interest in writing, photography, and film and her works shows her preoccupation with memory, permanence, and nostalgia.