The drunk Westerner in Garak-Dong

The drunk Westerner in Garak-Dong

We all encounter those moments where we realize that the world is much smaller than it ever used to be. Air travel, wireless communications, E-Mail and the Internet all contribute to bringing everyone closer together and providing instant information, sometimes even before we realize we need it.

I’ve experienced those in the past as well. A guy I met at a previous workplace going to the same high school I did; meeting a distant cousin as a camp counsellor as a child; running into an ex-girlfriend at the Ottawa airport. We’ve all had those moments which brought back some old memory and a sense of nostalgia.

Rarely; however, does one ever become aware of how small the world is when going through old photos with a loved one, as I did yesterday. What followed is truly the stuff of movies.

I was going through all of the files from my hard drive and my iMac yesterday, in preparation for eventually selling the device. Now that I have a MacBook, there’s no reason for me to hang on an iMac that is eight years old. I was transferring files from the hard drive over to cloud storage, and the majority of the space is occupied by old photos.

Going through the photos brought back some fond memories, particularly of my time in South Korea, in 2004-05 and again from 2008-10. Remembering old friends and faces of people I’ve long lost contact with and the adventures they took me on throughout the country: a Christmas time visit to Busan; a search for snake soju in Jeolla Province; climbing Seorak Mountain; a USO tour of the Korean demilitarized zone and taking a few steps inside North Korea being just a few of the stories I ought to tell at some point in the future.

Going through each photo one-by-one was a tedious task, but one that needed to be done. I had so many duplicates scattered across different files and backups and the redundancy was going to eat up unnecessary space in the limited storage I had. The task required one afternoon of diligence and focus.

The only time I lost focus was when I heard Julianne, who was studying for her finance final at the kitchen table behind me, asked a curious question.

Why do you have a photo of my old neighbourhood in Korea?

I corrected her, telling her that this was photo taken from my loft in the Garak neighbourhood of Seoul in 2009, a few months before I left the country for home. I remember that October evening well as it was my last day of working. The rain was falling unlike anything I’d ever seen outside of a Florida hurricane I’d experienced as a child. I was coming home from a binge at the Mexican chicken restaurant across the street.

I had only lived in that loft for a few months, but my workplace was in the building next door, taking up the upper four floors in the IT Venture Tower, the landmark office building of the neighbourhood at the time. Anyone who wanted to come visit me would either take the subway to the Garak Market station or tell a cab driver to take them either to the IT Venture Tower or to the National Police Hospital, which happened to be across the street.

It would be near impossible that Julianne and I could have come across one another back then in Seoul, a city of almost ten million inhabitants. This knowledge made the revelation that she also lived in that neighbourhood with her brother between 2007 and 2010 — in the same building, in fact, all the more remarkable.

We engaged in a discussion of neighbourhood hot spots: the Dunkin Donuts at the end of the street, the small coffee shop with the coffee grinder and the Mexican chicken restaurant across the street (both establishments of which I befriended the owners), the walnut snack shop where I would buy treats for all of my coworkers, the Tom N Toms restaurant with the smoking section, where I first discovered my passion for writing; the restaurant whose claim to fame was having the best blood sausage soup, where I ate breakfast almost every morning.

And then there was the Family Mart, Korea’s equivalent to Seven Eleven, which was at the intersection right in front of the building’s entrance.

When I met Julianne in December, it was a time in my life where I had moderated my enthusiasm for drinking, soju in particular. She has never known me to get drunk the way I had done before, and would likely be horrified if I ever came home as drunk as I was accustomed to being while I lived in Seoul.

I liked living in Garak, but I didn’t really go out very much. I went to the Family Mart all the time, for snacks and coffee. There used to be this Western guy who would sit at the table alone in the evenings, a few times per week, drinking his soju and eating ramen.

She didn’t need to explain the significance of what drinking alone in Korean culture means; I knew all-too-well. She recalled seeing him the first time and thought he was a loser, which is typical Korean thinking when seeing someone drinking alone. After a few other instances of the man enjoying the company of soju and spicy noodles, she began to think that he was going through some sort of homesickness.

“Yeah, I remember that guy. I was that guy.”

I had only lived in this building a few months, but much of my time was spent in this neighbourhood by virtue of me working here. Even when I lived in the Bundang district, which is technically located in suburban Seongnam, south of Seoul, I was a regular at many of the establishments in Garak.

It’s interesting what the passing of time does on our individual perceptions of negative behaviour. Julianne seemed unfazed when I told her that I was that “loser”, even pointing out that the table and chairs visible in the picture (circled in the bottom right) was my drinking hole. She was more amazed than inquisitive, which took me by surprise.

The idea of going back to Korea had appealed to me for some time. I had lived in Cheongju, in the geographic centre of the country for a year back in 2004-05 and worked as an English instructor. Though I wasn’t much interested in going back to teach, an opportunity arose to work in Seoul for an online game development company. The offer had been facilitated by a friend who was the secretary to the company’s CEO.

In the first few weeks back in Korea, it became clear to me that my role there was less strategic than symbolic. I had a great relationship with the leadership of the company, but my popularity within the company lie with the group of relatively young men and women who did the real work: the designers, the programmers, the game managers and the overseas business people. When I first arrived, the demands on my time were greater than the time allocated to me in a day. Invites to offsite team outings, weekend workshops and the many, many weddings were routine, and many of them were invitations I could not decline without my CEO lamenting my absence.

In the first few months, it was great. I’d love going to different functions and events with them. I was too enthralled with this sense of popularity to notice that I had been spending all of my waking hours in the presence of other people. It became clear a few months into my sojourn, after a friend back home had suddenly succumbed to his addiction to oxycontin, that I needed to have some time alone to wallow in my own thoughts. This was something I had done prior to my arrival in Korea and something I had not engaged in since arriving.

The Family Mart became the spot of choice when I wanted to reflect over some soju. I’m not sure why I ended up choosing that spot other than it was close to the office. I could have chosen something closer to home in Bundang, but that also would have meant going home, something I had an aversion to doing while I was there. That aluminum table and plastic chair just outside of the convenience store was more home to me than home was.

Years removed from a terrible habit to engage in nightly, Julianne was more understanding of my need for privacy than critical of my binging on Korean alcohol.

The Garak-dong neighbourhood of Seoul, perhaps not one of the better known for Westerners living and working in South Korea’s capital, is a rather special place. It’s doesn’t have the clubs one would expect from Hongdae or the shops that are staples of Itaewon, but it’s got it’s own uniquely Korean charm. The people I met, the things I’ve experienced (whether I remember them or am told of them) and the times I spent in quiet reflection thinking about the direction of my life represents a time in my life that has come to define who I am today. It is now even more memorable, knowing that I have, at one point in the past, crossed paths with the very person who has come to define my present-day world.

Related Reading

What’s In A Name: The origins of my alcohol-themed Korean name (Redirect to Medium)

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