| "Turn the Street into School": Graffito on T'aep'yongno photographed on 30 June 2008 (Photo by J. Scott Burgeson,|
(NOTE: The following essay, complete and unabridged, appears in Korean in my 2009 book "더 발칙한 한국학" or "More
Nasty Korean Studies" [Eunhaeng Namu]. Due to length, it has been broken up and posted on four successive pages here, all
connected by links at the bottom of each section. There are hundreds of Korean terms and names in the original version, and
while I've converted most of them back to English, I've left a few key words, phrases, names and sentences in Korean, which
are explained at the end of each relevant page.)
"A Stranger in Chongno"
by J. Scott Burgeson
After having lived in Chongno for more than ten years, I must admit that I have a rather bad habit: I tend to think of it as my
home, or as Koreans like to say, "우리 동네." When I first came to Korea in September 1996, I lived in Naesu-dong for almost
a year, right behind Sejong Center for the Performing Arts; at the time, the neighborhood there was still mostly full of lovely
han'oks and low-rise villas, but those are all long gone and now there are giant "officetel" towers there as far as the eye can see.
I next spent several years in Chongno 1-ga, first in Ch'ongjin-dong where I lived right on P'imat-gil, and later in Susong-dong,
directly in front of Chogye Temple on the south side. In 2002, I was forced to move because the building I was living in was
under threat of being sold and torn down for redevelopment, and I decided to spend some time in Nakwon-dong for a change
of pace. But after a year-and-a-half or so in Nakwon-dong, I had to move again because the building I was living in there was
sold, so I returned to Susong-dong, and after the building I was living in there was also sold and torn down, I found myself
living in Ch'ongjin-dong once again.
Yes, I've moved around a lot since 1996, but I’ve always felt quite comfortable here in Chongno. Recently, my American
friend Gary offered to let me stay in his apartment near Seoul World Cup Stadium in Sang'am-dong for free while he traveled
to Mexico and the U.S. for a few months, and while I could have saved a lot of money if I'd accepted his offer, I decided to
stay in Chongno just because I've always liked it here much more.
I have many memories and many friends here in Chongno. My German friend Oliver, who I first met in 1997, and his girlfriend
Zi-young live nearby in Naesu-dong (in one of those officetel towers mentioned above), and they are especially fond of enjoying
회 and soju in some of the neighborhood's seafood restaurants. Zi-young is a Web designer and designed my Web site for me,
which I like a lot; whenever I have a question or problems with it, it is very easy for me to just drop by their apartment because it
is so close by. My photographer friend Ahn Young-sang has also lived in Chongno for many, many years. I first met him in Insa-
dong in 1997 when I was selling my magazine "Bug" there in the street; he had a wonderful 4th-floor office and apartment right
on Insadong Street at the time where he often invited me up for 녹차, although he had to move a few years later when his building
was sold and torn down, and now he lives in a 100-year-old han'ok in Nuha-dong, just west of Kyongbok Palace. My Australian
friend Kevin, who I interviewed for this book, has also lived in Bukch'on for many years, along with his sweet wife Eun-kyung
and their beautiful son Myron; I’ve enjoyed watching Myron grow up over the years, as well as sampling all the great sundubu
restaurants in the area with Kevin whenever we have a chance. Since he's a vegetarian, he's something of a "순두부 박사," and
he knows all the best places.
I also know many of the shopkeepers and merchants in Chongno, like Lee Nam-ju Halmoni, who's originally from Chonju and
has been running the same newspaper kiosk on Chongno 1-ga for the past 30 years; every day at lunchtime when I stop by to pick
up a copy of the International Herald Tribune, she's very friendly and always calls out to me in a gruff but warm voice, "어서
오십시오!" Pharmacist Yoon Young-mi has been working at the 40-year-old Susong Pharmacy for the past 20 years, and has
saved me more than once when I had an urgent medical need and required expert consultation, and always keeps me supplied with
low-priced bottles of high-energy Wonbi-D when I'm on a writing deadline and need an extra boost. Right across the street from
Susong Pharmacy is Sannaedul, which serves excellent 돼지 고추장 불고기 식사 for just W5,000 (the 보리밥 순두부 is also
quite tasty); the owner, Kim Ae-kyung, is always very cheerful and even a little flirty with me, and often teases me, "Why didn't
you eat all of your rice?" ("Because I'm getting fat!" I reply). I'm also a big fan of Chongga-jip Ch'uo-t'ang, which is in a funky
old han'ok on Ch'ongjindong Street, and since noodles are enough for me when I have ch'uo-t'ang and I generally skip the rice
altogether, the owner, Kim Hyung-myung, likes to give me extra side dishes as a replacement, be it 버섯 부각, 단무지 볶음 and
sometimes even 무화과 with 물엿 for dessert. And I can’t forget to mention Park Gun-hong, who's been running the Subway on
Chongno 2-ga since long before I first went there back in the late '90s, and likes to give me free cookies or tortilla chips every
now and then as "service"; if I don't come in at least once a week, he always seems hurt and jokes, "It's been a long time! Where
have you been?"
Finally, there are all the street merchants and street people in Chongno I've come to know over the years, like Mr. Noh, the disco-
bbongjjak-blasting taffy seller by Chonggak Station who stood up for me several times when I sold "Bug" there and newcomers
tried to encroach on my territory, and Son Halmoni from Gurye in South Cholla Province, who's been selling dried fish and
seaweed on a busy sidewalk near Chogye Temple for the past 20 years, and who always spares me a warm smile and friendly
greeting whenever I pass by; I especially like a very gentle, curbside Insa-dong antique seller named Mr. Kim, whom I often see
praying in front of Chogye Temple late at night after he’s done with work, and who gave me a tiny gold statue of the thousand-
armed Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara for good luck the last time I went to Japan for an extended stay. Then there are the nuttier folks
who tend to hang around the streets in the area, like another Mr. Kim in his forties who's a perennial homeless alcoholic, and who
always calls out loudly to me with a kind of formal, almost military bearing, "Had dinner?" "Going home now?" and other such
expressions of polite concern for my well-being. He's usually stretched out on the sidewalk with his drinking buddies, and what
I respect about him is that he always speaks normally to me in everyday Korean, without ever assuming that I don’t understand
him as many Koreans do when addressing non-Koreans they don't know in public. It's so nice to feel normal and accepted in a
country that often makes non-Koreans feel like they're unacceptably strange.
Recently, however, I've been forced to realize that in a fundamental sense, I've been fooling myself all these years. I've been
telling myself a story that simply doesn't match up with reality. For how can Chongno be my home, when so many people keep
telling me and making me feel that I'm nothing but a stranger here?
1. "우리 동네" = literally "our neighborhood," but implying "my neighborhood"
2. "회" = raw fish or sashimi
3. "녹차" = "green tea"
4. "순두부 박사" = sundubu expert or "doctor"
5. "어서 오십시오!" = "Welcome!"
6. "돼지 고추장 불고기 식사" = sliced grilled pork seasoned with fermented red-pepper paste
7. "보리밥 순두부" = boiled barley and rice with soft tofu stew
8. "버섯 부각" = fried mushroom kelp
9. "단무지 볶음" = pan-broiled picked radish
10. "무화과 with 물엿" = figs with starch syrup