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A Day in the Life of An Expat in Suwon, Korea

by Michelle Schusterman Nov 4, 2009
8 am

Shouts, giggles, and the rhythmic thud of a ball kicked against the wall grow louder while I fight to remain asleep. After a hollered conversation with their mother, followed by much slamming of doors, the kids next door leave for school. Adi watches their silhouettes dart across our fogged window. Her tail thumps a few times before she lowers her head.

9 am

“Good mor–ning…dum dum dum…”

I shut off my cell phone before the alarm can reach the chorus of “It’s a beautiful day!” Through the window I can hear the woman next to us cleaning dishes.

Our own breakfast is cooked millet with apples and bananas. I stand at the stove while Josh and Adi head out for a short walk. Breakfast is followed by a discussion about how we shouldn’t go out for coffee.

10 am

We go out for coffee.

Our neighborhood is small, old, and very traditional. Gardens are crammed in between apartment buildings, filled with greens and kimchi urns awaiting burial. Older women peeling garlic lean against the brick walls surrounded by piles of dirt-caked roots.

There aren’t many cafes here. But the subway station is a fifteen minute walk away, in another neighborhood that looks as if someone cut a tiny slice of Seoul out and plopped it down here like a piece of decadent gâteau on a plate of rice. There are dozens of cafes, nearly half of them open and all but empty.

Even on a late weekday morning, the shops draw a large crowd of eager shoppers, but coffee drinking is more of an afternoon social activity than a morning necessity.

Sometimes we sit and watch the crowds pass, other times we bring our laptops and get started on the emails that were sent from the other side of the world while we slept. If we sit outside, we might see a still-drunk ajuma stumble by, ranting or laughing, sometimes both.


Back in our neighborhood, I head out to pick up ingredients for lunch. A few blocks away, our street morphs into a long, crowded market, lined with grains, produce, and a wide variety of pickled things. The man who sells the millet chats with me, interpreting my occasional “neh” and “kam-sa-ham-ni-da” as fluency. The woman at my produce booth says nothing, just watches and smiles as I point out garlic, zucchini, and carrots to add to my sack.

12 pm

I prepare lunch, which is nearly always sticky rice or soba noodles topped with stir-fried veggies and tofu, soy sauce or red pepper paste, and the ubiquitous fried egg. Or we walk to our favorite kimbap restaurant, where I typically get dolsot bibimbap; similar to what I make at home, but masterfully prepared.

Lunch is followed by a quick round of floor cleaning that is vital when one shares a tiny apartment with a labrador that sheds in defiance of seasonal rules.

1 pm – 3 pm

I set up my steel drum and practice. Sometimes it’s in preparation for upcoming gigs, sometimes I work on the type of nitty-gritty things that I learned in college, forgot, and now miss desperately. No matter what I play, I’ve got back-up. Adi sits on the bed with perfect choral posture, head back, mouth round in song.

When I take the headphones off she stops immediately, but I can hear the near and distant howls of her friends passing on the word. Music truly is the universal language, even with dogs.

4 pm – 6 pm

I write. Usually I pack up my laptop and head to a cafe, or sometimes I head to the PC Bang if it isn’t crawling with kids. I try to split my time between my articles and fiction, although some days one dominates the other.

6 pm

Adi and I head out for our afternoon walk. Not far from the train station is a beautiful park surrounding a lake, with walking trails all the way around. We pass the recreation area filled with tai chi classes and ellipticals and join the clusters of people, mostly older, out for their late afternoon stroll around the water.

7 pm

More writing. Admittedly, this time it’s accompanied by a bit of blog browsing, forum chatting, and other wonderful means of procrastination the Internet offers.

8 pm

More practice. Adi is still too spent from the walk to join the chorus, and I play as quietly as possible. Through the window, I can hear the woman back in the kitchen preparing dinner. We both know by the sounds of a tinny melody that her children have abandoned their homework for hand phone games.

9 pm

Dinner is take-out from the kimbap restaurant, or from the lady selling dumplings down the street if she’s open. Whatever we have, it’s followed by fruit (strawberries, if we’re lucky) and yogurt. If they’re in season I might juice a few pears; perfectly round, brown, and roughly the size of a baby’s head, these are nothing like the pears I grew up eating. Juiced with a bit of ginger, they make an amazing drink.

10 pm

One more stroll, this time sans dog. We walk all the way down our street to the market, which is closed and empty. There are no lights, and water drips from the enormous black canopy that hangs overhead, even if it hasn’t rained in days. We step around puddles of water and pickle juice.

I think about how in any other place I’ve ever lived, a walk at this time on an alley that looks like this would be daring, if not outright stupid. But the shadows of this dark, wet street hide nothing more sinister than a cat looking for scraps.

11 pm

One last email check as most everyone we know wakes up and starts the day we’ve finished. We are completely surrounded by apartments, and although it is never noisy, the light shuffling noises and creaking doors remind me of sleeping in a house crowded with family for the holidays.

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