Back when I was leaving campus at lunchtime (before I knew it was against the rules) for a smoke, I would sometimes walk across the street where there was a smaller scale commercial district. This area is a kind of mini Soho – comprised mostly of interior design and home decorating businesses, with little restaurants and convenience stores, etc., sandwiched in between. I liked to go there simply because the scale was human and if I only focused on my immediate surroundings, I might be able to forget being dwarfed by rows upon rows of concrete housing monstrosities 18-24 stories high.
I’ve gone there to spend my won a couple of times, as there is a little stationary/gift shop where all the cute Asian school supplies can be had. Yesterday after dinner at the school I went there and purchased a white board so I could practice hanguel ad nauseum and not kill trees. As I was leaving, I noticed outdoor stalls running along one side the length of one short block, and was pleased to find a sort of mini outdoor market. It wasn’t much, but it made my heart sing to see something so, um, entrepreneurial and rustic in amongst all this middle-class blandness. Well, maybe rustic isn’t the word – as all the stalls were sturdily designed specifically for stall use and made out of tarp material. (and there was a Dunkin Donuts stall too…so yeah, not very rustic) I went back to teach the class carrying my whiteboard and hoping to hit the market the next day.
That would be today, and there was no market there when I checked after school. Couldn’t find it. Think I passed where it had been. Seeing businesses ahead and thinking I could still keep my bearings in relation to my home destination, I decided to check out Anyang a little more by foot.
The businesses ahead turned out to be businesses and restaurants on the bottom floors of 2-4 storey walk-up apartments, which gave way to more of the same at the base of 6-8 storey buildings, and soon I found myself facing a street wall of these buildings. I was actually in the middle of about six FULL big city blocks, comprised almost exclusively from the 2nd floor to the top floor of hagwons.
I walked the length of it – the street running down the middle of this commercial education nightmare is called Hagwon-a Way, and where Pyeongchon (?) Street crosses it, it is called Hagwon-a Jct. To make matters even worse, the businesses all along the ground floor were the likes of McDonald’s, KFC, Baskin Robbins, Belgian Waffles, and various other similar Korean brands of empty calories, sugar bombs, and future heart attacks. I walked and walked and walked in a daze as I looked up and down the street wall of English schools and math and science schools. There must have been about – and this might be an understatement – 150 of these schools in this area. School stacked upon school stacked upon school stacked upon school stacked upon school next to more schools stacked upon schols stacked upon schools stacked upon….next to more schools stacked…
My chest just tightened. I could barely breathe. I just felt so much pain as I watched some of my high school students heading towards some of these places, as I watched the private buses loaded with little children dropping them off, as I watched parents dropping off their tiny ones…as I watched them stopping to load up on crap before heading to more classes.
I looked up and, towering behind this canyon of education cancer, were cliffs of officetels, obscuring and nearly obliterating the outline of the mountains beyond. And it seemed as if Anyang is an imaginary city/nightmare that education built. That there really is no Anyang. There is only this drive and this push to forever expand. That survival is dependent on expansion. It is akin to ant colonies and bee swarming. It is almost mindless. I feel like I am in amongst the Borgs, part of a monstrous machine that has lost its soul.