The things you choose to see say as much about you as they say about the place you’re looking at. Outside of the Itaewon metro station in Seoul, South Korea a white man in his mid-20s stands in knee-high bushes. Clad in loose jeans and a dark-blue hooded sweatshirt, he limply holds a cigarette in one hand and a plastic liter bottle of Hite beer in the other. Past him, under a store awning, a Japanese woman with dyed-brown hair, in Caterpillar construction boots, jean shorts, black leggings and a pink sweater, spits on the sidewalk. “They all act like it’s Southeast Asia around here,” she is saying to a black man in an Oakland A’s hat. There are other things to look at, but these are the notes I take with my phone.
I am in the district where the largest amount of foreigners live. International shops, restaurants, and bars line the main street — the side streets are filled with more of the same. On any given day men and women in shawls, robes, turbans, burkas, jeans, baseball caps, skirts, boots, or neckties walk the sidewalks. During the day the restaurants smell of cumin and cayenne and cinnamon—at night the curtain is pulled back and the inner workings are revealed. The tourist guise removed, the streets fill with teachers, soldiers, and travelers on their way to get drunk, dance, and fight.
The swarm starts at dark and goes well past the dawn. By morning the streets are covered in trash with last night’s fliers, food wrappers, beer bottles and cans, men passed out drunk on the stairs, and red-orange splatters of vomit on the sidewalks. There are different worlds to witness depending on you. Depending on where you go, what you’re into, how far you want to take it.
Now it’s nighttime and the tall-boot girls pop out of the dark doorways like it’s a shooting range—except they aren’t cardboard cutouts and I don’t have a gun — as I go up Hooker Hill. They go “woo, woo! Hey!” Just last week a U.S. soldier was arrested for trying to burn down one of the brothels when the deal went bad.
I walk through them until I get to Polly’s Kettle — the long-running late night bar known for fights, trouble, and general ugliness. Bartenders ladle punch into plastic liter bottles with the tops cut off. There are GIs, there are prostitutes, there are a lot of sketchy dudes — it’s hideous, but not unbearable. The air smells of cigarettes and booze and piss, the kind of aroma you only get in a place with no windows. The big screen TVs play Eminem’s entire video oeuvre.
Wallflowering, Mr. Jones-ing it, is far more spy-like and creepy than getting involved. It’s really hard for me to be a detached observer and I’m sure I would get plenty of short-story material if I mixed in and played along—but the idea of this piece was to give the reader a broader sense of this district. So I stick to a glass of draft beer. The beer isn’t any good, but the weight of the thick glass mug in my hand a comfort. Then the Eminem turns to ACDC and Def Leppard, the list for the pool table is too long, and a Korean girl not older than 19 is falling off her bar stool while her friend tries to get her to go home. I see what I want, take my notes, and then I decide to leave.
The adjacent Hill has as an equally colorful name — “Homo” — and it’s just as integral to the nightlife scene. Queen, the major gay club in Korea, is too crowded to venture into — when you walk through a packed, raucous gay club it can get grope-y. It can be like every second guy is an airport security guard and the wand just detected something metal in your pants. Forgoing Queen, I go across the street and sit down at the bar of Eat Me. The bar is busy and loud and I figure I can sit against the wall and make a few observations. In less than three minutes, as the bartender sets my first glass of whiskey on the bar, a smiling Korean man takes the stool next to me and introduces himself. He speaks perfect English and is charming enough. I try to interject that I am straight as soon as I can, but that doesn’t keep his two other friends from approaching me from the other side. The interaction becomes awkward — a single straight man should never walk into a gay bar alone. It’s just too confusing. I finish my drink and apologize and head out. The story is going in its own direction by now.
After wandering for a while through the English teachers and soldiers, I find a bar called the Grand Ole Opery playing Carrie Underwood and the Zach Brown Band on the radio. Inside, real cowboys line dance on a raised, wooden platform. I order a Miller Lite because it makes sense here. Most of the guys are wearing hats and plaid, short-sleeve shirts. One of them walks by and gives me a boob made out of rubber to hold. There aren’t any prostitutes or skeezy dudes gone weird from too much time abroad — it’s small town America in one of the biggest, ultra-modern cities in the world. There’s a guy in a camouflage, seed-company hat, thin, good looking, leading the line dancing. He knows all the dances and four of the girls are learning the moves from him.
I watch for a while, but eventually the kids gather to leave and I don’t want to be left alone, so I go out into the night and see a few soldiers screaming at taxis for being full. I still haven’t seen anything depraved.
Earlier in the night, when I went out to start the reporting for this story, I walked around Haebangcheon, the district just next to Itaewon, where a lot of the teachers live. I walked around aimlessly, trying to get lost. I ended up walking down a lot of side streets that looked like scenes from the excellent Korean film “The Chaser.” When it began to rain I ducked into a little bar with signs in the window advertising the rarely found (in this country, at least) craft beer.
I walked in and met the owner, a woman named Carmen whose name was also on the sign outside. She invited me to sit down and listen to her friends, a group of foreigners, play some songs. They started in as I sipped my pale ale — a guy on acoustic guitar, another on an electric guitar, a violinist, and a cute Korean girl singing backup. They played strong, rootsy, folk-based rock. I’d call it Americana, but I don’t know where they were from.
When I was going over my notes, I almost didn’t include this part in the story because it didn’t fit with what I had set out to observe and report. I thought I was going to write a story that condemned the foreigner district as sketchy, ugly, and debaucherous. But this was good. The beer. The music. The woman taking care of me. I was having a good time. Too good. Nothing really bad was going to happen. I could feel it. That’s when I went to Itaewon and found out my instinct was right.
It is my fourth year in Asia and I have the feeling that the failing big economies have driven a lot of good, talented people out. I see them more and more now. Yet I shouldn’t be surprised. In my experience the good ones are the brave ones, and the brave ones are usually strong enough to leave a situation when things go bad. There isn’t a lot of sense in staying behind while your country goes to hell around you. I welcome the newcomers to this life. Living in a place that is getting better all the time is good for everyone that lives here.
Back in Itaewon, after the screaming soldiers get a taxi, I end up going home without seeing any real lechery, or violence, or any other forms of barbarous behavior. But maybe that’s all right. Sometimes that’s not the story you get to tell. Sometimes you just have to let the trouble rest.