The title of “Biggest Little City” belongs to Reno, Nevada (by what authority I do not know). To be fair, Namak has no large casinos (that I am aware of). However, the way this town merges urban, suburban, and rural living melts my mental models of what a city should be.
Growing up in the Sacramento Valley, I am accustomed to distinct demarcations between cities, suburbs, and the countryside. Urban areas have abundant public transit, tall buildings, small living spaces, and large swaths of people. Suburbs have cookie-cutter houses, strip malls, and a sprawl that necessitates driving. The countryside contains sparsely populated farms and ranches. People live on many acres apiece. Driving is pivotal if one wants to reach the general store in less than one day’s time. Driving a truck is preferable for practical and political reasons.
Before I left California for Korea, I knew I was moving across the world. I knew I would be teaching English in a public school. I knew I would be living in Jeollanamdo. That was it.
The desert-like “South Jeolla Province” Wikipedia page provides little imaginational fodder except for, “it’s a province in the Southwest of South Korea.” The three largest cities have populations of 290,000 (Yeosu), 280,000 (Suncheon), and 240,000 (Mokpo). It is known for seafood, agriculture, and hiking trails. With very little information or experience to draw from, Anxiety-Brain had miles of latitude to concoct asinine living scenarios.
“What if you live in a village where the closest market is a two-mile walk and closes at 6:00 P.M.? You’re gonna starve, bro.”
“I mean of other people in the village find ways to eat,” I countered, “so will I.”
“You’re going to be so bored.”
“I’ll find stuff to do.”
“There won’t be another fluent English speaker for a hundred miles.”
“Then I’ll learn Korean faster.”
This went on for weeks. Despite my apprehensions, I knew I would find ways to adapt regardless of where I went. That’s how life works. You explore the situation you’re in, you accept it, and you find new ways to survive and thrive.
Finally, I knew where I would be – Namak. A quick search on my phone revealed it was a suburb just east of Mokpo, the third-largest city in the province. Another conversation revealed it is an up-and-coming upper-middle-class town.
“15 years ago,” a Korean man explained to me, gesturing to the buildings around us, “this was all farms.”
In a span of four city blocks, I see a small field of corn, a convenience store with apartments stacked on top, a bustling city block including (but not limited to) a McDonald’s and Starbucks, and apartment towers reaching for the sky. My short attention span relishes in this hybrid village-town-cityscape. My assumptions are thrown to the fire on each passing street.
Hour by hour, Anxiety-Brain’s absurd lamentations collapse like Jenga blocks. A butcher shop and two grocery stores stand right by my apartment. A hardware store and a mom-and-pop version of Walgreen’s sit across the street.
Walking four more blocks, I count four bars (two of which have English names), four empty lots populated by vegetable gardens, and four city buses ferrying people to and from Mokpo. This blend of urban and rural blows my mind.
I discovered the reason behind this rapid city planning. The Jeollanamdo Office of Education and other provincial government offices line a thoroughfare a block away from my apartment. Like a panel of project managers, the office buildings preside over Namak. They solemnly watch new developments spring out of the ground like magic beanstalks.
In 2005, Gwangju became an independent municipality. Jeollanamdo needed to relocate its provincial government offices. That new home became Namak, a farming village outside of Mokpo. A flurry of economic growth and urban development ensued.
As I walk another kilometer, I reach the Lotte Outlet mall. It’s so new, it doesn’t appear on Google Maps. I cannot rely on navigation applications to find local businesses. The apps just cannot keep up with Namak’s nascent urban growth.
Sometimes this whole “city” feels too new. A movie theater is set to begin construction soon – right next to the outlets. I plan on seeing a show there this summer (I’m kidding…but I can dream).
Everything changes so fast. I struggle to keep up. It is futile to take a snapshot of how things are. Whatever impression I form in one moment quickly expires. As a result, life here is both exhilarating and nerve-racking. While I love the excitement of change, I worry that one day I will yearn for the solace of stability.
Regardless, as I told myself for months, I will continuously explore my situation, accept it, find new solutions, and thrive.
Photo Corner – Selfie Edition
One of many Mokpo nights. I assume my usual position in the back of group photos.
We get a bit crazy on lazy Sundays. I move to the front to employ my go-go-gadget-extendo-arms.
Another trio of satisfied customers. You grill your own meat here. It’s all you can eat. It’s like self-Mongolian barbecue but better. 10/10 – would recommend.
I represent my school in Gwangju!
Coming soon: I embarrass my newfound friend group with the power if internet storytelling.