Destination Busan: an EFL teacher’s perspective
This opinion piece is by Gareth Williams. Gareth, an avid blogger, cyclist, and traveller, spent four years working as an EFL teacher in Busan before moving on to teach in Spain. Here he shares with us an original perspective on the beauty of Dynamic Busan. To read more from Gareth, click here.
If I were to choose two sensations that embodied my experience of life as an ESL teacher in the Republic of Korea I would choose bewilderment and enchantment. After travelling, living and working abroad as an ESL teacher over the last six years I have also come to the conclusion that these two emotions are essential to the fulfilment and appreciation of adventure, the step into the glorious unknown.
I have the impression that most travellers, expats and ESL teachers abroad strive to ‘understand a culture’, become ‘fluent in a language’ or tick-off the ‘top ten must see attractions’ but my satisfaction comes with the knowledge that if I can’t walk away from somewhere still a little lost, confused and perplexed, but equally in love and with a desire to return for more, then I haven’t truly afforded that place the justice it deserves.
These are my exact feelings for Busan, a city that seemingly flies under the eyes of much of the rest of the world, cast in the shadow of the nation’s capital, Seoul. But Busan is a hungry city, one that embraces its heritage as much as it relentlessly sprints into the future. This dichotomy is evident on every street corner of Busan; for every ostentatiously-lit mobile phone dealership there is a kindly old lady selling bundles of unfamiliar vegetables, equally you are as likely to frequent an artisanal wine bar or jam-packed nightclub as much as you are to relish an impromptu traditional dinner at Jagalchi Market, Korea’s largest seafood market. The city’s official marketing slogan is ‘Dynamic Busan’, but ‘Diverse Busan’ could be equitably appropriate.
While guidebooks will often mistakenly revel in the cities more venerated attractions; Shinsegae Centum City, the headline grabbing world’s largest department store; and Haeundae Beach, the most popular and most overpopulated summertime beach in Korea. I would claim that Busan’s real charm can be found hidden in more inauspicious locations.
Eulsukdo is an island in the mouth of the Nakdong River on the less-frequented southern extremities of the city’s limits. A little internet research will uncover this island to be home to a bird sanctuary, and while I’m certain that twitching appeals to a mere fraction of the population my recommendation lies in the juxtaposition of environments. On a fresh spring day you can walk round the island, enjoy the famed Korean cherry blossom, take in some reasonably fresh air and peer across the wide river at the outline of mountains, apartment buildings and neon. As dusk falls and relative silence descends there are few better places to escape the hustle of the city than here, the only thing that may disturb you is a startled water deer as you wander around the paths that snake through the rushes.
The heartbeat of Busan lies in the streets of Seomyeon. While the tourists invariably head to the beaches of Haeundae and Gwangan and the kids stream to the Kyungsung and Pukyong University districts to get their kicks, Seomyeon offers a night out that truly represents Busan. After exiting the cleanest subway in the world, battle past squadrons of young Koreans in the Seomyeon Underground Shopping Center before grabbing some Korean street food in a pojangmacha or fill up on a variety of barbecued meats on the backstreets; just try to go relatively easy on the accompanying beer and soju. By now your appetite will have changed and you’ll be ready to sample a bar or nightclub, Seomyeon is rich in both. Check with locals for the latest hot spot as it changes as often as the latest popular K-Pop star. Seomyeon hasn’t stolen all your energy? It’s time for a noraebang with your newly found Korean friends, because you will have made some.
If the mere thought of your nightlife options are making you feel exhausted then you may feel inclined to shy away from my next suggestion, although I implore you not to. If Seomyeon is the heartbeat then Geumjeongsan is the soul. This expansive mountain dominates the city, shaping and influencing the landscape and districts of the city. Equally the creator of Busan’s diversity, it is also what ties it all together. Culture and history can be found in two contrasting temples on its forested slopes; Beomeosa, an expansive complex, often busy and colourfully decorated during festivals and Seokbulsa, a more secluded and peaceful site hidden in the upper southern region of the mountain and adorned with enormous elaborate rock carvings. A hike to the highest peak, Godangbong, is a must. Clear skies bring amazing vistas across all sides of the city.
I feel I am only able to touch on the appeal of this city, true emotion lies in personal discovery, I lived there for almost four years and to the day that I left I was still surprised everyday by the people and the city. I challenge you to not feel overwhelmed by Busan, to not embrace its multiplicity and to not feel a tinge of lingering desire when you have left.