Jeju Island. For months I’ve been throwing the name around as “that island” off of South Korea where I will be living and teaching for the next twelve months, but on Monday I finally stepped off of a plane and into a breeze 60 miles from the nearest land.
It is easy to measure the dimensions of an island. Jeju sits on the map as a green oval about 45 miles long and 30 miles wide, with a city of 400,000 on the Northern coast (Jeju city) and a smaller resort city, Seogwipo, to the South. But take away those names and those numbers and you have a heap of volcanic rock with successions of horizon on either side. Over those unlabeled hills generations of people wrote stories of a goddess who used a mountain as her washbasin, or passed down stories about visitors from beyond the end of the world. With mainland Korea, Japan, and Taiwan all invisible beyond the horizon, there was no concept of an existence beyond the rocky coast. Take away the map, and the world ends at the surfline.
I had two goals for my first week on Jeju Island: to make a good impression at the elementary school of 2,500 students where I will be teaching 4th and 6th grade English, and to get lost. I started on the second goal at the end of my first day of school. I had heard of a market that came to Jeju city every five days, and I came prepared with a hazy idea of how to get there.
Instantly I was enveloped in the Korean streets. Everything was incomprehensible—the storefront signs, the traffic rules, the quiet conversations all around me. It was strangely comforting, like that moment when you hover in water so still and warm that you can’t remember where your body ends and where it begins. Later, when someone mentioned how refreshing they felt it to be beyond the reach of any advertisements, I realized that there lay the appeal of my temporary illiteracy—I was detached, brilliantly conspicuous and yet unreachable. The streets were to me a mosaic of colors and sounds without any meaning. The market itself blurred together every imaginable good, from quilts and parakeets to dried squid and cucumbers, all written in a language of haggling that I felt no need to decipher.
It wasn’t for another five days that I went out again to get lost. This time, I got off of work and stepped onto a bus that with a number I didn’t recognize. The city passed slowly by beyond my window—high-rise apartments, narrow alleys, gleaming office buildings. To the north the planes continued their endless routine of landings and takeoffs. After a while I heard the stop “City Hall,” a place I recognized from conversations, and so I stepped off the bus and into the part of the city known as Old Jeju. The streets narrowed here, condensing into passages not much wider than my apartment but which rose into layers of restaurants and bars. I wandered aimlessly, taking in the flurry of colors and activity. Again and again the streets folded and splintered, and I walked until I had completely lost my sense of direction, then continued to walk until I found myself back on the main road.
The next day was Saturday, and so a friend and I took a bus to meet someone on one of the Southern Beaches. Miraculously, we found the right beach and the right friend in a neighborhood called Jungnum just west of Seogwipo. A part of me melted with joy when we walked onto the sand and saw the water, that beautiful Pacific water, stirred by a typhoon that had just passed several miles east of the island. I looked out past the horizon whose far side I had watched just a few weeks before, then dove beneath the shorebreak and into the water. The current was warm but strong, so I stayed for only a few minutes before heading back to the beach to watch the waves breaking on volcanic sand.
After the sunset we walked back toward town, which at night showed the full extent of its touristy aims. We passed Chocolate Land, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and the Teddy Bear museum. After taking a wrong turn, we bought lattes from a Dunkin Donut where, across the street, horse-and-carriages waited bathed in neon lights. We found our way to a restaurant and ate a meal of seafood soup, then waited at the bus stop for the bus we were pretty sure we had missed.
A bus came, and we asked the bus driver for the name of our stop. He nodded, so we got on. The driver let us off several miles past the Museum of Sex and Health, then let out an “oooooh” when we asked to verify the name of the stop. He said a word that sounded almost identical to the name of our stop. We looked at our map—we were almost to the western side of the island, the far end of our world.
We got off anyway. After an hour or so we realized no more buses were coming, so we did the obvious thing— bought some beer and choco-pies from a convenience store and started to walk in the approximate direction of the beach. Our plan involved some hazy notion of killing the next seven hours until the buses started again at 6:00. It was a great plan, we thought, until our friend from Jungnum called. It was raining, she said. The bad weather was coming from the typhoon, she said.
So kept walking in the only direction we could, only now we walked not toward the beach but toward the lights. The evening was beautiful—just a bit below balmy, with the moon staining the high tropical clouds. To the south stood the outlines of two mountains, one an isolated dome of stone, one a low sloped point. Bullfrogs introduced themselves from either side of the road. Around us was open land that in daytime would no doubt be soft and green, but which in nighttime lay cloaked in mystery. I made a mental note to come back here in the daytime, to see this place in a different light.
Finally we found a convenience store and asked them to order a taxi. The taxi came, and we told the driver the name of our stop. He nodded as though he had expected the answer. “Waygook,” he said. Foreigner. He was so very right.