To Gwangali and back again

One of the difficult aspects about living as an expatriot is the ephemeral state of personal relationships. People come and go; it’s the natural flow here. Contracts don’t get renewed, jobs are lost, immigration issues crop up, people go back to school, others move on to new professional adventures. It’s a small community of foreigners here in Busan, so friendships develop quickly. But they end just as quick. It’s something I have to get used to.

Very recently, a good friend, and the person who was invaluable in helping me to settle in here, returned to the US. I miss not only his friendship, but his presence — by that I mean the simple fact that he was always there to call on, and his wife and son formed a kind of surrogate family, and a relaxed anchor to a sense of cultural familiarity.

Last night I said goodbye to another friend. She’s leaving to join the Peace Corps. She’s an incredible talent, a fantastic singer, and we managed to play a few fun gigs together before I left for my vacation in the States. She also, of course, quickly became a good friend. So last night a small group went out on the town to have a last night out and say goodbye. The last email I got from her before meeting up was: “Take a nap, because we’re going to watch the sunrise.”

But before I get to that, let me back up, because yesterday was one of those great days.

After my morning cup of coffee, I intended to settle into my typical routine of going to my air-conditioned office to do some work. But it was such a beautiful sunny day that I chucked all that, hopped on my bike, and went to Gwangali Beach to get some lunch. It was hot, but there was a nice breeze coming off the ocean, so the mix was perfect. The beach was packed with people. LA and Rio have nothing on Busan when it comes to sheer volumes of people covering the beaches. We’re getting the residue of some intense weather happening in Japan and off the coast of China, so we’re actually getting waves here. The sound of several thousand screaming children riding the surf en masse makes for an interesting sonic atmosphere.


I was a little late for lunch hour and the beach restaurants were dead, so I went into Starbucks for a sandwich and an iced tea. Once back outside I decided to try and get lost. It’s fun to go off in a new direction and try to find your way back. I managed to get off my bearings enough to experience that strange objectified feeling. There are Korean stares, which happen every day. But then there are stares, when you know you’re in a place where white people do not go. I thought about this later and came to the conclusion that expat life here is somewhat akin to Native Americans living on Indian Reservations. We’re sequestered to our designated enclaves: Haeundae, Gwangali, Seomyeon, Kyungsung, Texas Street, and PNU. Once we venture outside these areas people stare as if they’ve never seen a white person before.

I found my way through some interesting neighborhoods and outdoor markets, and got to see some hidden city living. Eventually I found my way back to Mega Mart. But before I got there, I came face to face with a throng of protesters surrounded by what must have been 50 riot police. I don’t know what the issue was, but it was noisy. Still, even with all the cacophony, it was a pretty mellow affair. Many of the police in fact looked bored, and some turned to stare curiously at me rather than pay attention to what they were doing. I interrupted a traffic officer and, communicating in hand gestures, asked if it was okay to move through the crowd. He nodded and I filed right through the riot police, the protesters holding signs, video cameras capturing it all, and yet another encirclement of police. I desperately wanted to take pictures, but thought that would be pushing it.

I arrived back at my apartment building and was hailed by the security guard there. He doesn’t speak a lick of English, but he wanted me to sign something. I called my assistant at the University, who graciously came over from his home to translate for me. Turns out I owe three months in utility charges. I knew this was coming, so I was fine with it. I went up to my apartment and took off my shirt—with the heat I usually de-clothe when I get home—and noticed I had a perfect Farmer John sunburn.

I was tired so I tried to nap. But I only had a half hour before I was supposed to meet my friend outside Pukyong University to split a cab ride to Seomyeon. We all finally met up and went to what is apparently Busan’s only microbrewery. They also have a damned fine buffet, with sushi, Chinese cuisine, and shabu-shabu, which is a Korean thing where you take strips of raw meat and soak them in boiling broth. It’s three hours of all you can eat and drink for about $17. We stuffed ourselves with food and wheat beers and at around 10 o’clock we headed out into the neighborhood in search of a bar.

Seomyeon Night

I’d been to Seomyeon only once before and it was during the day. So this was a nice treat. Seomyeon is probably the most Korean of nightlife places in Busan, and it reminded me of Insadong in Seoul—brick roads and endless neon signs advertising food, karaoke, dancing, PC bangs, and drinking. We eventually decided on the Fuzzy Navel. We met up with a couple other friends there, played some pool, flirted with the waitresses, and then headed off to Gwangali—back where I spent much of my day.

Gwangali is one big party at night in the summertime. They close down the main drag along the beach and put out a mile-long stream of white plastic tables and chairs. There are no divisions among the various eating and drinking establishments. You can buy a drink at one bar (or at a store) and sit at any of the tables.

Gwangali party
We centered ourselves around a bar called “Thursday Party,” which is big with foreigners. It’s gotten to the point now where I recognize half the faces anytime I’m in an expat setting. I met a few new people, but I quickly got bored. I have a love-hate relationship with any gathering of drunk foreigners. Most of them are 10 or 12 years younger than me and the vibe is just not my thing anymore. But the people are interesting, and there’s always a foundation of conversation to start things off. Question 1 is usually “So how long you been here?”

Around 4 am I was getting really, really bored. I was tired of drinking, and it’s hard for me to get any kind of buzz off of the Coors-ish drafts they serve in this country. I thought about leaving, but eventually a group of us went down to the beach. The change of pace was nice and conversation rapidly took off into cool new places.

And then, just like that, the ambient light suddenly changed. I looked off into the distance and saw that the wisps of clouds on the horizon had started to form faint color. Before long we had our sunrise. There were still a lot of people around. Some girls stripped down to their underwear and jumped into the water. I was told that this is a regular thing. When the sun comes up, girls strip down and frolic in the water. This is technically illegal, but all the beach police do is blow their whistles and let off a siren while the girls blithely ignore them. No Korean beach cop is going to grab a girl out of the water to arrest her and it’s too trivial to give any kind of citation anyway. So it became this comical scene where the police make various threatening noises but just stand there. When people come out of the water, no one does anything.

Gwangali sunrise

I snapped a few pictures of the sunrise, said goodbye to my friends, and got a taxi home. I stood out on my balcony and watched the sky transition from pink to faded blue, and by 6 am I was out like a light.


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