Goodbye, Siheung (sort of). (Korea diaries #2)


On my last night in 시흥 (Siheung), I went to the water. It was a long walk from the 시흥캠퍼스 연수원, the building where I was living at the time. The humidity was unsympathetic; its thickness was intense and palpable. The sun was no kinder, and I melted under its harsh gaze. Sweat dripped down every inch of my body (I could see physical droplets on my shins. My shins! I didn’t even know that shins could sweat). Still, I continued walking. During my first week in Korea, the water had become one of my closest confidants. When I felt overwhelmed, I sought refuge in the strength of its waves and the comfort of its consistency. I couldn’t leave Siheung without saying goodbye.



In my first three weeks of living in Korea, the 배곧생명공원 (Baegot Life Park) quickly became my favorite place in Siheung. It is one of several small green spaces in the city, but its connections to other nearby parks and its unparalleled view of the Yellow Sea make it feel large.

I discovered the park sort of by accident. The day before, at a meal with some of my coworkers, one of them mentioned that the construction on the campus where we work, which is scheduled to finish in 2025, was obscuring the seascape. On the following day, in a moment when I felt like I needed a break from the world, I decided to go looking for it. I figured that if I kept walking in one direction with the construction on my left side, I would eventually run into the water. After maybe a half-hour of walking, I discovered that I was right.

On weekend nights, the park is busy. Couples compete for the handful of swing benches that surround the water, and families struggle to reign in young children that run on the rocks. Sometimes, you’ll find a musician playing live music– usually romantic ballads, for some reason– and an 어묵 (Korean fish cake on a skewer) food truck that stations itself in view of the performer’s audience. On these evenings, I loved looking for small windows into strangers’ stories. I can recall, for instance, wondering about the three 30ish-year-olds in jerseys who laughed and posed with a basketball in front of ordinary road signs; about the two schoolboys who stood on the rocks, their legs covered past their knees in mud; and about the girlfriends who walked by the sea in heels while shamelessly singing along to K-pop music that they played aloud from a speaker.

There are fewer visitors on the weekdays, and on these nights you can be greedier with the time you spend on the rocks that ornament the water. Not infrequently, I would park myself on the rocks with some takeout 꼬마김밥 (small-size kimbab) after work to read a book or just enjoy the beauty of the sea.

The best way to get to the back end of the park, where you can really see the water, is by walking uphill to a white bridge that stretches over the main road. The road below has a crosswalk for pedestrians, but the relentless streams of cars make it nearly impossible to cross safely. (Trust me: the one time I tried, I got stuck halfway into the street, where I realized that the oncoming traffic was not going to stop for me and there was no way I was going to cross that road with my life. I had to run back to the side of the road that I had just come from.)

Maybe because of my unfamiliarity with my new environment, or the newness of living completely on my own for the first time, or maybe some combination of both, going to the park alone always made me feel a little bit fearless.

A budding city

Initially, I thought I would have a choice between living in Siheung or Seoul for the remainder of my time in Korea. I think that I surprised many of my coworkers when I expressed that I wanted to stay in Siheung. Unexpected circumstances later forced my move to Seoul, where I am living now. Still, although I only lived there for about three weeks, Siheung has my heart. It’s a new city, and much of it even beyond my place of work is gated off under construction. But I love that I get to see Siheung in its budding, live here while it still has as many greens and browns and blues as city grays. I get to meet locals that are making livings with small restaurants where it is customary to seat yourself and yell what you want to eat into the kitchen in the same place where I can walk six minutes through tall apartment complexes into carefully curated theme cafes and 비빔밥 (bibimbap) fast-food chains and bakeries with French names. Give it five years, and Siheung might be just as 복잡한 (crowded) as the satellite cities that surround Seoul. I can see it growing: its powerful combination of bustle and nature will attract many.

What the city gave me

Siheung was the perfect place to introduce me to South Korea. Less packed than the nearby capital city, its slower pace allowed me to ease into learning how to cultivate a new gentleness with myself. At the beginning of my journey here, I was scared out of my mind to be living alone in a place where I did not speak the language. The last time I came close to even a somewhat similar experience was living without a roommate in a college dorm for about a year when my intended roommate did not return to campus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this instance, I became incredibly structured, outlining my daily schedule in timed intervals to maximize my productivity at school and work. At first, I tried to imitate this same rigidity in Korea, but I realized that my health and happiness instead required me to practice listening to myself as I adjusted to jet lag and learned to navigate my new surroundings. In Siheung, I started to find new confidence in forgiving myself for flawed Korean interactions, in allowing myself to enjoy sweet coffees and strawberry yogurt smoothies, and ultimately in being okay with letting myself simply be.

Siheung's easy tempo enabled me to become more comfortable with using Korea’s public transportation
, a seemingly small success that significantly expanded my possibilities for travel. You can get almost anywhere in Korea by bus or train, but all of the maps and stops being in Korean initially deterred me from planning solo trips. I swear that I visibly smiled when I finally realized that “다음 정류장은” means “the next stop is”. The first couple times that I took the bus, even if I was going to the last stop on the route or my destination was an hour away, I would watch the road and the screen above the driver intently because I was terrified of getting lost. To now be able to listen to music, read, and generally not pay attention to the route on public transportation is a victory that I am reminded of almost every day during my work commute from Seoul to Siheung. Moreover, realizing that I could now navigate by myself and enjoy my own company gave me the confidence to pursue more solo adventures around the country.

Most importantly, the generosity of people in Siheung because of and despite my inability to communicate with them in fluent language made me feel like I was beginning to develop roots in Korea.
Meals and interactions with my colleagues introduced me to my new place of work and made me feel like I was a part of their community, although I am many years younger than them. On my second day at the institute, one of my coworkers, who learned that I am an undergraduate student, treated me to dinner and went out of his way to offer me help and show me places in the city where I could eat, exercise, and do laundry. Another coworker, whom I share an office with, printed out full-color images of food and Google maps directions for me when she found out that I was living alone and looking for places to eat. 

To my surprise, my roots in Siheung stretched beyond my place of work. At the building where I lived, I began to recognize a girl who worked at the front desk as a familiar face. We never learned each other’s names, but we often exchanged head nods and sheepish smiles in passing. More than a few times, I got stuck in front of the door of the building because I could not activate the motion sensor that opened it, and she would leave her desk to wave her arms at the sensor until I could get in. Every time I saw her, she was dressed in a fitted black blazer, and she wore her hair in a long, slick ponytail. She was always professional, but her face betrayed her youth; I can’t imagine that she was much older than me.

At a few local restaurants, my appearances made me a recognizable 단골 (loyal customer/familiar face in the restaurant), and I enjoyed exchanges with some of the cooks and owners. There are a few places where I’ve struck up conversations, but 배곧곰탕 (Baegot Gomtang) might be the most notable. After a work excursion there introduced me to 소고기국밥, a delicious spicy beef soup served with rice, I returned there for occasional lunches. During my second visit, the owner inquired where I was from. Now, whenever I see the 아저씨 (older Korean male, “mister”) on the street, we exchange bows and hellos, and sometimes he stops me for a brief conversation.

The most unexpected relationship that I developed was with a man who runs the 24-hour coin laundry and CU convenience store across the street from where I work. In conversation, I call him the CU 아저씨. During my first week in Korea, he helped me secure a taxi to a hospital to get a COVID-19 test. I appreciated his kindness, but I didn’t expect that I would see him again.

Little did I know that the building where I would be staying would not have any laundry machines, so I would actually be frequenting his business quite often. From conversations with others who had interacted with me and some brief interactions between the two of us, he knew that I was an American student who did not speak Korean affiliated with the institution across the street. The first few times that I visited his CU, I sat outside the building alone to wait for my laundry. Whenever he saw me sitting outside by myself, he would ask me, and even once yelled at me, “친구 있어?” (Do you have friends?)

At first, I felt slightly embarrassed by these inquiries, but our later interactions made me realize that they emerged from a place of care. One hot afternoon sticks out to me. Seeing me again alone while waiting for my laundry, he asked me if I was doing okay and offered me a cigarette. I declined, and he insisted that I come inside his CU to escape the heat. He gave me a free iced coffee, shared his 새우깡 (shrimp chips) with me, helped me with my laundry, and asked me about my family. He refused to accept money for the food. Moved by his kindness but unable to communicate my gratitude for his help in words, I brought him a basket of desserts that I decorated and filled with sweet bread from a local bakery.

A (sort of) goodbye

I am not truly leaving Siheung just yet. I still commute to the new city two or three times a week from Seoul to go to work (and will maybe be commuting there more often just to use the Internet in my work building, since I do not have wifi where I am living now). Still, I can’t help but be a little sentimental about moving. I will miss the water. I won’t need to do my laundry at CU anymore.

In part because of the language barrier and in part because I still want to try to visit them at least once a week, I haven’t told the local business owners that I moved to Seoul.

On my first day of commuting to work in Siheung from Seoul, I went to the CU to recharge my transportation card. I could have gone to any nearby metro station or convenience store in Seoul, but I was looking for a reason to visit the CU 아저씨. When I walked in, he put his hand on my arm, thanked me for the bread, and gave me an iced coffee.


  1. What lovely stories. You certainly have talent as a writer. And these experiences are described lucidly. We under-estimate the importance of little events, like those you relay. Such experiences give us a sense of where we are.

  2. It's funny how the water can have that effect on us sometimes! Thank you for sharing these vignettes of your life there right now. I've never been to Korea but I often watch walking tours by this Youtuber- I feel like I get such a sense of seoul and other locations from his videos...

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I love reading them. I'm glad you're feeling welcomed despite the language barrier.

  4. I loved this, and I'm so glad you're settling in. I lived outside of Seoul in the late 70s and some of your photos are bringing back memories. Enjoy your time there.

  5. Loved getting your impressions of Siheung and adapting to your new home. Thanks, Claire!

    Sophia @ Caffeinated Reviewer

  6. I loved reading about all your experiences. Thank you for sharing, and the pictures are wonderful (especially the food)

  7. I'm fascinated by the contrast between roads you can't even cross because of the traffic and quiet places where people take their time to know and even help you. I'm glad you found so many who went out of their way to make you comfortable. And I can relate to your public transportation story...I would be afraid to get lost in my own country LOL.

  8. I loved reading about your time in Siheung. Sounds like a wonderful place. I really enjoyed your pictures too. :)

  9. I am not sure when you moved to South Korea, or from where, but I can certainly identify with moving to a new country. We lived in Kenya, Singapore, and Greece over the span of 10 years (and my husband spent a year in Iraq), we have moved from NC and it was a LOT getting used to new places, making new friends etc. Thank you for sharing with us and for stopping by my blog.

  10. Wonderfully written. That's great you can still regularly visit Siheung, and it sounds like the perfect place for you to start your journey in Korea. Thank you for sharing.

    Lauren @

  11. So beautiful and lovely! I can see how the slower pace of Siheung was so wonderful. I am in love with your writing and your images are stunning. Thanks for sharing this! :)

  12. Siheung looks so beautiful. I'm glad you still get to visit often.

  13. Wow, great photos and story. I'd be too scared to live alone in a place where I didn't speak the language. You're braver than me!

  14. Reading this gave me the same feeling as sitting curled up in a blanket and reading a book while it rains outside. Your writing is so expressive and beautiful. You are one of the best writers I've ever taught, and your writing continues to strengthen and flow in a natural and contemplative way.