Place as character

Place has always been an important component of my writing. I don’t mean simple descriptions of locations. I mean the places always seem to have an impact on the plot or narrative development of an essay or story. My professor not long ago put this into words for me, when he remarked about a chapter I had turned in that it was the first piece of my book he’d seen in which Korea, the place/country/location, was a character.

And he was right. For me, place is a character that needs developing as much as any other. In my thesis, Korea is a character, one that both challenges and engages the other characters in the story, especially me. The country was a character that I had to get to know, just like any person I met there. And knowing the place longer changed my impressions of it, just as when knowing someone for a short time you might come away with a different feeling than you might when you get to know that person better.

I’m thinking about all of this because I am reworking a chapter – actually two chapters – in which the town I lived in in Korea features prominently. In reading through what I have written I realized that the focus of the two chapters (which I am desperately trying to weave together into one) should be more on the place. That I needed to treat it as a character, and that the personality of that character needs to be the central focus of the the chapter.

The place I lived in Korea, or I should say, the place I blindly chose to live in Korea, was a “new city” called Bundang. When I picked it from a list of names of towns and cities, I knew nothing about it. I didn’t know it was a “new city.” My students told me this later. They also called Bundang a “bedroom city,” meaning that everyone who lived there spent most of their time working in Seoul. Bundang was just a place to sleep.

This was pre-Internet, or in any case, before the Internet had really taken off, and I couldn’t just do a Google search on the place to learn something about it. As I began shopping for books and maps about my new home, I discovered there were not many available. Bookstores devoted entire shelves to guides on Japan and China, but they tucked in only one or two books about Korea at the end of a row on Tokyo like an afterthought. (Even now, ten years later, not much has changed.) It was difficult to find English maps of the Korean peninsula, too, save for topographical maps made for the U.S. military. I visited quite a few bookstores and travel shops before locating a civilian map in English. When I did, I found that the city of Bundang did not seem to exist. It just wasn’t on the map. And it wasn’t in either of the guidebooks I’d bought. But I’d already purchased my ticket and packed my bags. I had a job and a visa, and so I took the word of the broker who’d hired me: that Bundang sat just southeast of Seoul.
As it turned out, there was at least one reason Bundang wasn’t on the map: It was under construction.

I cannot accurately describe the sensation of knowing you have arrived somewhere that is not on a map. You are looking at the evidence that the place exists, in the form of buildings and roads and schools, but on a map, you see nothing. It was surreal for me. But that was not the only thing about Bundang that was surreal. When I caught my first glimpse of the valley that Bundang sits in I felt disoriented. I had not flown around the world, I thought, but to a colony in outer space. Bundang was a city out of science fiction. Hundreds of densely packed pastel-colored apartment towers shot into a polluted Korean sky. Enormous cranes angled into the apartment blocks, nested on mounds of ochre-colored earth. The space colony stretched along a line of piney mountains on the edge of the valley. As the car I was in descended into the flatter land of the valley floor, it passed rice paddies, a scattering of one-story cement-block homes and a few greenhouses — the scenery I had been expecting to find in my new home. They blinked by in an instant. Instead, the mass of foreign-looking highrises grew taller in front of me.

When I was settled into the 18th-story apartment where I was to live for the next year, the view was no less strange. The back side of the apartment opened out onto a full balcony, as did every apartment in the building, and, as I saw when I looked out, so did all of the apartments in the towers around us. Our apartment was in the newest section of Bundang, and the cluster of buildings we lived in was not yet complete. From the front and back balconies we could understand the scope of the construction projects going on around our building. Vast sections of land had been bulldozed and each plot housed an apartment tower in varying stages of construction. I don’t know what I hoped to see when I looked out —just something familiar, I guess. But instead, the exposed earth met the rise of mountains on the back side of our building and the busy highway that split the valley floor on the front. Though I could see denser clusters of finished towers in the older part of Bundang, our apartment building, standing with the two or three others completed nearby, seemed isolated. Looking down on the cement and steel skeletons rising below, I wondered how the place where I found myself could possibly be Korea. I felt I had been abandoned in a surreal sprouting of towers. For all of the recognizable scenery I might as well have landed in another time.

There were few stores in the section of Bundang I first lived in. I had to walk through construction debris to get to the subway, which had been completed before the city itself. Now, of course, Bundang is finished, and apparently much more developed. I get the impression it is no longer a “bedroom city.” There was even a reference to it in the drama Winter Sonata.

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