Lovers' Bridge, at least I think that's the name, beautiful colors at night,

Lonely in Korea (Yes, the Southern One)

By Kruschef Sanchez

Entering a new country without speaking the language on any level would be a powerful hindrance to setting up a social life for anyone. I was prepared to face many hours alone while studying, perfecting my accent, and staring at screens before I could comfortably join a conversation at my local watering hole. Unfortunately, I was not as prepared as I thought. I want this experience to be about growth overall. I think more than anything I want to look back on this time in ten or 20 years with some level of fondness. Having wasted a whole year in another country without being able to speak to other people is already sad enough, I don’t need to live with regret for the rest of my life from a year of stagnation.

In an effort to become familiar with my new home of Daejeon and to reconnect with photography, which I had almost all but abandoned, I decided to wander around my
city and nearby towns with my film camera on hand. I bought an Olympus Pen D from a refurbisher in Tokyo and returned to the world of film. I added an Olympus SP to the collection and set out into unfamiliar territory.

Outta the city using the greatest gift to humanity: High speed trains
Walking around the city of Daejeon, it doesn’t take a long time to notice the quiet on every street. This isn’t a small city by any measure either. With 1.6 million people in its boundaries, Daejeon barely pulls ahead of Philadelphia or Barcelona in terms of size. The people go about their day without too much fuss. The loudest sounds come from the cars as they pass by. This still comes as a surprise to me because we would only need one New Yorker or Bostonian in Daejeon to provoke a call to the police for a noise complaint.

My conversations with most people echo the quietude of the city. Soft spoken people not wanting to bother others, talking to other soft spoken folk who don’t want to
bother others are the norm in this city. I’ve been walking around each day to learn all the

Remaining strangers in a famous park near my home in Daejeon

little secrets my city has to offer. On each of these walks I’ve taken one of my Olympus systems. I usually leave work and take the long way home to explore my surroundings. I’ve ended up in dark empty alleyways, food bazaars, and plenty of dead ends. But one thing had been niggling me on each of my walks. There were always people walking about but nothing more than a glance and they were off. I would get the occasional stare, seeing as a foreigner in an alleyway is probably a startling discovery for anybody going about their day.

In just about every country I have been to, there is someone who would attempt a conversation, or at the absolute minimum ask a basic question concerning my origins. No one is obligated to bother me or take an interest, but it has created a space where I feel isolated without any easy way into the culture. I don’t think this applies to just me either. A large portion of Korea reports feeling lonely and plenty are experiencing lonely deaths in this rapidly graying country. So it’s not only me going about yearning for more connection as I slowly gain more skill in the language. I’ve talked to my co-workers about the issues and while they agree to the existence of the issues, they are often put off by the seriousness of the topic to discuss it any further than necessary. I asked one of my co-teachers about the negative birth rate in South Korea and she informed me that our school used to have five 1st grade elementary classes consistently when she first started teaching about two decades ago. This past year, the number of 1st graders barely filled one classroom, a reminder of the rapid graying of this nation.

Elders are everywhere and happy to make prolonged eye contact with me

I’ve witnessed firsthand the number of elderly people roaming about. Taking a closer look and aligning it with my own experiences in the US, it’s hard not to notice after a few minutes. They are much less likely to approach a stranger and strike up a conversation. This hasn’t stopped them from treating me with absolute kindness
though. Despite the language barrier, many of them have gone out of their way to make sure I’ve understood directions or the menus I’m ordering from. It’s small, but it’s a firm reminder that kindness is a common language. It’s helped make this place feel warmer despite the barriers. I usually walk around my local park to snap some pictures.

A local bread festival brought people into the park on one of the last warm days before fall came in full swing. Plenty of people were waiting in line while I walked about

Almost missed this shot, must have looked like my neck snapped with how quickly I turned

looking for something interesting instead of enjoying the obviously amazing yeast-birthed food. I walked toward some benches and was rewarded with a perfect frame of a couple sitting in a heart separated by a tree from another lonesome soul. It was one of the last frames I got that day, and I nearly missed the opportunity because of
the swells of people surrounding the park. I’ve sat on that same bench plenty of times without realizing some other person could have just as easily taken the same kind of photo of me. I didn’t stay long enough to see if the older woman had any friends coming by.

I was invited by other teachers in the area to visit the surrounding towns and recreation areas. I stopped by a date festival where Ecuadorians were performing their native dances to an entranced crowd. It was a fantastic moment where I was able to speak Spanish to another person which I had not been able to do for two months. And then it was over. Introduced to a wonderful opportunity to connect with other people and it was quickly dashed because I had to catch a bus; they of course had to perform. It was a harsh reminder that it would be so easy to connect in any English or Spanish speaking country. I miss being able to ride the bus and strike a light conversation with my seat partner about anything and everything or complaining meaninglessly about the weather to whichever person was standing next to me in line at the grocery store.

Strangers in my way made it difficult to see the wonderful performance, but I got the gist

Solitude feels like a choice whereas isolation is more a product of circumstance. I don’t think I’m in the minority when I say that I don’t like my choice being taken from
me. Sure the days without meaningful human interaction get to me, but I’ve realized it is not as bleak as I previously thought. Sure, maybe it’s hard to make meaningful connections right now without the proper skills, but it is still up to me to search for and build meaningful connections in this new city if I am to be here long term. To a certain extent, my loneliness is a choice. I’ve not learned Korean as quickly as I would have liked, I should have started learning earlier, and communication without words is definitely possible.

I’ve decided to exert more influence over this. I’ve joined a boxing gym to meet people. I’ve met mostly middle schoolers ‘cause we all get out of school at roughly the same time, but at least they enjoy practicing with me. Every time I order food and someone asks me about my origins, which occasionally makes me feel more important than I am, I hold the conversation for as long as I can before the vastness of my ignorance takes over for me. Of course, there is also a massive network of English
speakers here for a variety of reasons which I’ve jacked myself into like the Matrix. It is tiresome just about every time because introducing yourself can become a real hassle after the 10th or 50th time. But, I’ve decided to tackle this issue head on and will continue trying to remember the person’s name I’m talking to at the time. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, nothing changes unless we do and we can all learn to force ourselves out of our comfort zone if we see that what’s on the other side is absolutely worthwhile.

Some chance for the next generation, a rare sight as time rolls on

If you want to keep up with my misadventures, give me a follow,

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About The Author

By Kruschef Sanchez
Hi, I’m Kruschef! I’m a street and travel photographer based in South Korea. I’ve been traveling with my motorcycle and my film cameras for the past 4 years. My passion for teaching and learning languages has enabled me to connect with people from all over the world. I’m an Olympus fanboy with a love of taking the long way round and finding myself in places I shouldn’t be. Join my travels on my Instagram!
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murray leshner on Lonely in Korea (Yes, the Southern One)

Comment posted: 21/03/2024

Hundreds of years ago when the unitary Korea wanted to exclude immigrants including missionaries, it sealed its border for about four centuries and was known in the west as the Hermit Kingdom.

That's all I know about the historic isolation period. Not much about the why.

Japan had a roughly two century isolation during the Shogun era, ended by a 1850's invasion by the Perry & the USN ships.

There was some influence in the Korea's and Japan from Chinese Confucion philosophy, even if later, acts of war and political hostility made people more different and less alike.

It seems like there are still ancient cultural common elements still, along the lines of the good of the whole being more important than the rights of the individual, and 'the tack that sticks up gets hammered back into place'.

I know someone who went to S. Korea from USA as a high school exchange student, improved her Korean language skills, and returned as an English teacher there for a few years. She is back in the US and is engaged. I don't know how she developed the language skills, as those languages have a steeper learning curve.

Your persistence & perception will help you.

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Scott Gitlin on Lonely in Korea (Yes, the Southern One)

Comment posted: 21/03/2024

Nice presentation - your pictures match your commentary and both convey the atmosphere.

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Geoff Chaplin on Lonely in Korea (Yes, the Southern One)

Comment posted: 22/03/2024

How very interesting - completely different from the impression of Korea I had from my Japanese wife (who has never been there - possibly based on Korean dramas aired in Japan). The image I had was Koreans were highly emotional and loud (and they certainly were loud on an airplane when I was coincidentally with a group traveling to the same destination). Many thanks for this, and the images work perfectly with the article.

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Yuze Chen on Lonely in Korea (Yes, the Southern One)

Comment posted: 22/03/2024

Beautiful write up and it resonates with me. Hope everything works out for you.

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