Archive for the ‘Living in Korea’ Category

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Jaded

October 12, 2012

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O wake up, my love, my lover, wake up
 – Nick Cave, ” Where Do We Go Now, But Nowhere?”There are a handful of us who have offices in the Humanities Building. We are all accomplished teachers, long-term expats who have married into the culture, or been here long enough to have worked our way up from  academies, national schools  and university-based language centers. We are a collection of about 12 really talented, really good teachers, consistently scoring on the high end of student evaluations. We are off by ourselves – the other two buildings which house the rest of our department – the Institute for Technology and the Second Engineering Building  – have large groups of teachers in communal offices. We are the old guard – in small, dingy rooftop offices of two or three people.  We know each other very well; we have both a coffee and a whiskey fund. Some of my dearest friends that ever I will make in this lifetime work in my building. We love to bitch and gossip, we love to share amazing lesson ideas, we love to give more when it is asked of us, and we love to share a shot at the end of a mid-term Friday evening. Above all, we love to teach..most of the time.

There has been an ennui that has spread through our rooftop corridor, sticky like melted candy on fingertips, the kind that doesn’t come off no matter how much you wash, the kind you are forced to live with for hours. We are all still very solid performers, yet we all seem tired, nowhere near the turned-on, fully engaged teachers we have all been in the past.

When I am on the train home,  I close my eyes. I put my earphones in my ears, filling my head with my music, shutting  my eyelids against the people standing in front of me, the landscape flying past my window, crossing my arms against my heart, and turning my focus inward. I numb myself, until a particularly hot pepper, or a particularly kind smile wakes me up.

I am a jaded foreigner. I have an understanding with the other foreigners I meet. We love the country. Yet we have been here long enough that we have earned our right to complain. Motorcycles driving on the sidewalks, people pushing, two-faced culture, chemical-laden alcohol, sooty skies, empty music, crazy drivers, grade-obsessed students, laws and customs that cause you to shake your head and curl your lip…. we long-term foreigners sing this like a chorus of a hymn. We are part of and yet we are apart. We are strange….everywhere. We respond with boredom and disdain. How can we not?

I always thought this particularly strange experience made me special. The internet proves me wrong. It seems we, collectively, are bored and disdainful. We’ve seen it all, We’ve earned our right to complain, to deride. Life? Nothing compared to the immediate irritation of waiting in line more than one minute. Falling in love? Can’t compete with the glee I find in judgement of the fashion choices I find watching the latest Housewives Of Wherever.

Rewind to 1995. I was cleaning hotel rooms to pay the bills my acting work couldn’t pay. I had just accepted a job to teach at ECC Nam-Pundang ( pre-romanization change for those of you who have lived in Korea forever). I had no idea that Nam meant South. As the hotel maintenance man asked me where I was going, I pronounced Pundang like a slur, sure and happy that I was headed for a cultural and literal jungle. “Korea”, my friend V said. ” I don’t know much, except that everytime they’ve poked their head out of the sand, it has been kicked back down.” Dr. Greenlee, my history professor, stoppped me in the concourse of the Valley Mall and said, ” Korea? There’s going to be another war there. I don’t know when, but it will happen. Be careful.”

Still, I came. I landed with my best friend, Didi, and we navigated our way through seedy motels, yoghurt bottles we thought were shampoo, Gotham City-like rows of apartment buildings, beer halls where you couldn’t just order beer, bullet taxis with tires that left the ground when they hit the riverside road, coffee sold in hot cans and hot, buttered squid peddled  in movie theaters. We lived in a building where our neighbors informed our boss of our every move and the children followed us through the streets like we were the circus come to town.

Yes, I went low – I had my moments, preserved in frantically written diaries, where I questioned my sanity, longed for my family and Mary Brown’s Fried Chicken in alternating bouts of intensity. I also took a concealed tape recorder with me as I went through my day, so that I could record the little bits of Korean the corner “supa” – supermarket owners spoke to me, the way that the Mandu shop owner called me “Miss Canada”, the sound of the drycleaner as he walked the corridors at 7 am to collect laundry,  the classical music rip-off that the academy bus used as it backed up… I made a tape and sent it off to my one of my dearest friends, G, so that he could share in this amazing, other-worldly, teeth-on-edge, ears-pricked-up, skin-tingling experience that I was having.

These days, when I meet a new American  or Canadian, our commonality is complaint. I go home to Newfoundland, have a drink in a bar and my commonality with the bartender is how much life pisses us off, how we have so many better things to do than to be there, together in a room, listening to music, telling our favorite stories, meeting someone new.

What human had ever earned the right to be bored by the smell of a changing season? What traveller has ever been so far gone that they should close eyelids against a people so similar in spirit and yet with such differently-shaped faces, different-smelling skins? When did this stop being amazing to me? When did I stop counting myself among the lucky? When did you?

I’m waking up. The curve of a cat’s tail because I feed it…. that’s enough. That’s enough to make me happy to open my eyes in the morning. Not much more is needed. It holds everything… something to learn, love, and understand. The same is true of every tiny thing that happens in my day. The big things hold more pleasure, fear, danger and beauty. How dare I even begin to close my eyes and tune these things out?

Last Thursday, I sat in the back of my classroom, watching my Introduction to Acting students as they presented forum theatre pieces dealing with what they condsider to be big issues: the plight of working moms, age discrimination, lookism and mandatory military service. The pieces were funny and focused. I hadn’t slept well the night before, was coasting on coffee, and waiting to share a bottle of wine with another teacher to mark the end of the teaching week.The students were full of adrenaline and passion, given a voice and using it. They were pushing beyond a very strict set of Korean lines, to say something about the meaning of their lives, to look for alternatives, solutions. I woke up. I connected, again….the first time this whole semester. How dare I think I’ve seen all I have to see in this country? In life? What gives me the right to take a few very limited experiences and turn them into an all-encompassing world view?

Yes, I know what I know.

What I know is nothing.

Oh, wake up, my loves. My lovers, wake up.

 

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Getting Clean

July 13, 2012

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The bathing suit was not so racy. It was a black tank suit, but I liked it because it had rainbow stripes around the neckline, and at 13 years old, I loved rainbows.  I was exiting the low end of our town’s swimming pool, pulling myself up the ladder while the weight of the water pulled the top of my suit down, just low enough to expose what should have been a woman’s cleavage. At 13, I was already a very full B cup. As I exited the water, an older boy I didn’t know – maybe 16 years old – stood at the pool’s edge and watched my chest. When I had both feet on the cement he breathed at my chest, “Holy Fuck.”

Years later, “Yes, you were Shelley Collins, the girl with the big tits.”  – a revelation that had come from a guy from my high school with whom I became very close friends after graduation. In high school, I believed I was known as a “brain” – someone who always got too high grades to be cool.  I was also a really great public speaker, bad at sports, a bookworm, good with English and languages, and hopeless at Math. I was overwhelmingly optimistic, a hardcore Duran Duran fan, a “goodie goodie” , a bit of a weirdo and a loner, except for a small group of girls who straddled the line between the really cool girls and the losers, and who counted me as one of them. I was all that and more, and yet, none of the guys knew any of that. My identity began and ended with my breasts. I remember looking at my friend over my rum and coke that summer night, and thinking that the fact that I could be summed up in one sentence was both liberating and overwhelmingly frustrating.

When I had spent many years in Korea, a country where I have been groped more than any other (mostly by old women, curious and praising my ability to nurse babies), I had thought I had made peace with the  message my body sent out. I had been through the older men I had trusted who had assumed that a D cup meant I was horny, I had been through alternately embracing and reviling the sexual persona that seemed to precede every room I walked into, my breasts the first part of me to round any corner. I had been through being called a slut, because I looked that way. I also had been through men who had really, really loved me, who saw me as a whole, incredible being. I had been through and beyond the small town ideas about what defines a woman, what defines me. I had taught children who called me “camel teacher”, and mimed running up to me and bouncing back, and yet who would run to me with hurt elbows and feelings because a hug from me meant softness and warmth.  I had made peace with my body, I thought.

My first university teaching job, I was one of a very small handful of women. One night a staff party had extended beyond the usual barbecue meal and we continued on to a bar.   A male teacher from Australia and I were drinking Tanqueray together at the bar while the other guys played darts. AD and I had been good friends, and we had a little bit of an innocent office flirtation.  At the time, the TV show, Survivor, was really popular and we had an office pool going on who would win. Ad looked at me, drunk.

“ Shel, do you think you could play Survivor?”, he asked.

“ No way in hell. I like my comfort too much.”

“ If you were going to play, what would you wear?”

“ A tankini, I guess.”, I answered, not sure where the conversation was going.

“ Yeah, but, do you think you could run?”

“ What do you mean? Because of the tankini?”, I asked.

“ No, because of…… you know.”, he slurred and gestured to my now double D breasts.

“ Fuck off, AD, You’re drunk,” I shot back with a grin, slammed back my gin and walked out of the bar without saying goodbye to any of the guys, sat down on the sidewalk and cried like the 13 year old I still, deeply, was.

First they had been sexual, then maternal. Now they were a disability – a joke. I was deeply shamed.

Now, I’m a big woman, in a body that isn’t meant to be. I have one of the hardest bra sizes to fit – 36 DDD which means I have small bones. Most women of my cup size have much larger ribcages. I’ve managed to make my hips and belly proportionate, to my breasts and have an exaggerated hourglass figure.  I’ve eaten my way to the point where my breasts are not the first thing you notice about me.

 I am far too bright to think it is all as simple as that. I’ve read so many books, had so many conversations and breakthroughs, so many theories about why I am overweight.  There are layers there I’ll probably never get to in this lifetime. And yet, I believe the relationship of doing harm to myself, my own body, started right there, with a rainbow v-neckline and a hormonal 16-year old boy. How do you begin to forgive yourself for sending out a message you didn’t even recognize?

Recently, I had lunch with two female friends who are lovely and wise and have each dealt with body issues. It was supposed to be coffee and flea-market treasure hunting. It turned into multiple glasses of wine and girl-talk that took us far past the time we needed to make the flea market.

“Let’s take Shelley to the bathhouse”, said SS, knowing that in my 16 years in country, I had never been.

I am the ultimate bath-lover and until I moved, had spent the last 3 or 4 years in an apartment without a bathtub.  Yet, I never went to a bathhouse. In a country of mostly svelte women, I was sure that I would be stared at, talked about and perhaps even poked and prodded. In my clothes, with the right bra and a generous amount of black, I could look a little smaller than I really was.  Naked, I needed to be seen through loving eyes. As strong as my desire for hot, hot water was, I could never bring myself to strip down in front of strangers.

But that day, I was drunk, and buoyed by the confidence of my large-hearted, beautiful girlfriends. Plus, honestly, I have a bit of a 40-plus hormonal kick that makes me feel like a goddess in spite of it all and makes me not give such a damn.

Off we went, three drunk, white-skinned, wet women. SK taught me the rituals – how important it was to get really, really clean before getting in the pools. She pointed to the scrubbing area. The Korean women there were all shapes- some bigger than me. Yet, they were lovingly, carefully cleaning their bodies, spending long minutes on an inner knee or a patch of belly. The scrubbing was luxurious, slow. They gossiped and chatted and scrubbed each others’ backs.  I tried not to stare, but was taken by the simple beauty of getting clean – with no judgment, no shame, no stigma.

After dipping in the first pool, I forgot myself, and happily followed SK from pool to pool each one a different temperature. I was completely naked and particularly enjoying the transition from hot to cold and back again. I was taking care of my body in a way and a tradition that was so much older than me and my hang-ups.

Exiting each pool, I had to climb over a tile barrier to get into the next one. The water weighed my breasts down. Nobody looked. Nobody cared. I felt free.

I felt clean.

Note: For a better idea of what the Korean bathhouse experience is like, I suggest you read my talented friend Grace Smith’s blog post about her first time here.

and here.

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Because My Heart Is Island-Shaped

May 8, 2012

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As a Newfoundlander, I am a bit of a fraud. Living abroad, I tell long and rocky tales of the island that hangs off the East Coast of Canada. I talk of people riding snowmobiles to work, accents made up of English more olde than new, outport night skies like ink, moose as plentiful as the blackflies, and air so fresh, the smell of bedsheets taken in off the line could break your heart.

Those things are all true of my home. Newfoundland is an exotic, peculiar place. People do flatten their vowels and add fat, round “h” sounds where none are meant to be. You can wake up to moose in your back yard and bears in your cabin. The kitchen party is the heart of the culture where a set of musical spoons or a recitation is just as easily pulled out as a bottle of beer. There are places you can stand where the wind can make you fly, cliffs that are blacker and more treacherous than a sleeveen’s tongue.

And see? There I go again. So many years away have made me focus on the salty air and the half-Irish turns of phrase. I am fiercely proud of my identity as a Newfoundlander. I pull it out like a dare when I meet someone new.  The truth? If asked to ‘do” an accent, I need a fair amount of alcohol and concentration to even begin to get it right. I never had one. My mother grew up in a small community, and my dad has retired to one, but I grew up in a small city. I don’t know how to do a jig or snare a rabbit, there were people in my town I didn’t know, and I never had to snowshoe to class. The pulp and paper mill, the lifeblood of my hometown, made the air stinky and grey. We watched American cable imported from Bangor, Maine. Still, there were woods near enough by when you wanted to disappear and cry your way through a teenage heartache, there were plates of thinly sliced moosemeat fried in butter on birthdays and there was a gorgeous-in-the-sunset bay running right through the belly of it all that could set you to dreaming.

My fiction and poetry of late is full of the Newfoundland outport. Those are places I’ve visited, as exotic and novel to me as the black sand beaches on Bali or the frenetic streets of Ho Chi Min. I claim those tiny, colorful communities as my heritage, but they have never truly been part of me.

At least, I didn’t think so. The last couple of weeks have been a revelation.

I know now that our hearts are informed by the landscape on which they come into being. We are walking maps of where we come from, the topography is in our palms like lines of fate. You can travel as far as you like, redraw your boundaries a million times, but if you are born with a Newfoundland heart and try to force yourself to live in a block of concrete filled to busting with people, damage will be done.

My husband and I moved two weeks ago to a small town outside of Seoul. I take the train for over an hour to go to work and the nearest convenience store is a 30 minute walk away. We live in a house with a garden and trees. Yes, the garden is unmistakably Korean. The trees are low to the ground and there are little stone fertility symbols tucked under shrubs. It doesn’t matter. My heart needed trees. I didn’t realize how much I have denied the Newfoundlander in me by living in Seoul for so long. I feel suddenly full of breath. My God. For how long, had I been holding it?

I am writing this on the upstairs deck of the house. The sun is setting over a squat, lush mountain. I hear only the sound of the odd happy dog, the birds and the Cocteau Twins -the  noise I choose. And of course, the cows. Did I mention there are cows?

I sit here, the only white woman for miles, and I feel more at home here than in the middle of the expat neighborhood in Seoul. I am a Newfoundlander, see, every inch of me. I have ocean in my veins, and wildness in the soles of my feet. It is my birthright. Space and quiet are my natural way and I have never stopped looking for bears in the backyard. You can’t grow up in the middle of such a myth, and then expect to roll it up in your backpack as you board a plane, thinking it will fit. Make no wonder it has been coming out in my poetry and my barroom stories.

I’ve been leaking Newfoundland all over Asia for the past 15 years. That doesn’t mean I need to go back. I do need to respect my inner landscape, find more ways to feel my hair tangled by wind and my fingers soaked with water. I need a kitchen that will fit a party.  I need stars, not satellites. And I need to face the truth. I’m more of a Newfoundlander than I ever knew.

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A Barefoot Kind Of Love

April 28, 2012

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Eight years ago today, I married Bong Jun. The photo above was taken at our traditional wedding ceremony a little more than a year after our wedding day. That wedding was breathtakingly beautiful, set in an outdoor courtyard at a traditional Korean house, with live traditonal music and everyone, including my family who travelled to Korea for the event, in colorful Hanbok.

Still, Bong and I choose not to celebrate that day as our anniversary, but the stripped down, bare bones day we legally became husband and wife. It’s the most unromantic of stories and yet the retelling of it washes my heart in a fresh coat of love for him, and for our life together.

When I called home to tell my parents that we were getting married, the first question was, “How did he propose?” There were no grand gestures, no ring  or bended knees. There wasn’t even a question. There was coffee in bed, a statement and 15 minutes of expletive-filled protests and incredulity on my part. We had been living together for several years when the university department where I worked decided to close my program, leaving me suddenly out of a job. As my visa was tied to my job, I had only one choice: leave Korea, and come back on a tourist visa to look for a new job. The morning after my last day of work, Bong and I began our usual day-off morning routine of Joni Mitchell and coffee. I was talking about going to Japan for a couple of days for my visa, and would he like to come? Bong looked at me and said, ” I guess we’d better get married.” My response? “No, we can’t, can we? That’s crazy.No F%$%^ing way! You’re kidding, right. You’re F%^$#*ing kidding.Are you kidding? No, We can’t. Can we? Are you serious?”  I never said yes. I ploughed through three more cups of coffee and 20 more minutes of curse-riddled shock before what he was saying began to make sense. If I married him, I wouldn’t have to leave the country, and would have all the time in the world to look for a new job. So, we got out of bed, and decided to talk to our parents. If they didn’t object, we would get started on the paperwork.

 

On April 28th, 2004, we woke early and got dressed. Bong wore jeans with a dark blue blazer, and I wore my best denim skirt with a similar blazer. We looked like exactly who we were: all business and tradition up top, and hippie rebel free spirits from the waist down. We went off to the district office, having made arrangements with Kyung-Deok and Tara, two of our dearest friends, to come and be our witnesses. We took a number from the machine and waited to stand in front of the sour-faced clerk who had no patience for our excitement and nervous laughter. He looked at my friend, Tara, who had done her best to approximate a bridesmaid by wearing a pretty pink blouse, and informed us that she couldn’t be my witness because she was a foreigner. So, we asked a random stranger sitting in the waiting area to be my witness – a Korean man who kindly and baffledly signed a paper saying he knew me, and to the best of his knowledge, I was free and clear to marry. We had hoped for at least a word of congratulations from the clerk upon signing. Bong and I were still standing at his wicket smiling at each other, like we were waiting for someone to say, “You may now kiss the bride,” when he rang the bell for the next customer.

Starving, the four of us decided to go to the nearest restaurant which was….a Burger King. We toasted our new marriage with paper cups of cola. After lunch, Bong and I continued to the Canadian embassy to register our marriage. I had hoped for at least a little more of a festive mood at the embassy wicket as I said to the clerk, ” We just got married!”  and took Bong’s photo next to the Canadian flag. “That’ll be 40,000 won”, the clerk replied.

Undaunted, we got in our car and drove, intent on some kind of honeymoon. I put a bottle of champagne in the trunk, and we picked a direction and drove with no destination in mind. We came across no place that really appealed to us, and when it started to get dark, we pulled over in the first little town and got a room – the  suite in a love motel shaped like a castle – the kind with curtains over the garage to hide the cars of people cheating on thier spouses.

We found the nearest kalbi restaurant, complete with blaring tv and flourescent lights, and got drunk over multiple bottles of soju and barbecued beef. Mostly, we talked of how unreal everything felt, and how we kept waiting for the big realization to kick in. We were really married, weren’t we? Maybe another bottle of soju would make it seem true.

Walking ( well, weaving ) back up the highway to our motel, we laughed each time a transport truck passed us and we’d have to run down into the ditch to avoid getting hit. Everything seemed hilarious at that point. By the time we made it to the room, we were in tears from laughing so hard. And then we saw the room.

The bed was round, and the ceiling was mirrored. Next to the bed was the strangest looking contraption covered in red pleather. It had a nice laminated instruction sign next to it, with illustrations of an ecstatic looking couple who were apparently boneless. Yes, it was  the often-heard-of but rarely-sighted love motel sex chair, with flipping panels and adjustable headrests, and a rotating seat. Bong and I stared at it in drunken wonder, suddenly heavy with the expectation of acrobatic sex when we were so incredibly tired. Bong looked at me. “Quickie?” , I asked, and headed for the bed, which, without warning, began to vibrate upon contact,  We ended our wedding day, giggling and shaken to sleep, having forgotten to open the champagne.

The next morning, we took pictures of ourselves ( fully clothed ) on the sex chair. Those pictures have long since been lost, just waiting to surface on the internet someday on a website of world’s most embarrassing photos. My “honeymoon” photos are either hidden in the sock  drawer  of some sweaty-palmed loner with a fetish for simulated interracial sex, or are rotting in some garbage heap. It seems fitting.

So, why is this the day we celebrate? In spite of every thinkable bad omen, we’ve made it – well, this far, anyway. We are a truly odd couple. Cultural differences and a seven year age gap were only the most obvious hurdles. I have a need to control. He hates to be fenced in. I get moody if I don’t get enough alone time. He has a restless spirit. We’ve had exactly the same fight about exactly the same thing for the 12 or so years we’ve been together. There were times when I wasn’t sure we’d make it. But we did. There’s still no one I’d rather talk to, no one I’d rather get drunk and laugh with.When I ache, only he can comfort me. If we weren’t together, we’d be alone. No one else could live with either of us. That makes us perfect for each other.

Sometimes, I think the glamour and fanfare of weddings puts too much expectation on a marriage. White dresses and first dances don’t prepare you for the hard work of digging your way through the most emotionally demanding task most of us will ever face. Bong and I learned from the very first day that nothing about being married would be easy.

 Except the laughter. Except the love. And for whatever problem we may face, somewhere in some seedy,dark room in Korea, there is a shiny red chair that makes even the impossible seem effortless and sexy. Mostly.

Happy Anniversary to us.

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Note: For those wondering what’s happening with SoundScribbles: I did my first interview with the lovely and talented DJ Free, only to find that my recording app didn’t catch any of it. Since then, I have been busy with our move to a new house in Yangpyeong ( blog post about that to come soon ) . DJ Free has very kindly agreed to redo the interview as soon as I’m settled, so we should be back in business in a couple of weeks.

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The Purification of Itaewon and Why I Miss the Foreigner Ghetto

August 16, 2011


” Itaewon – it means child from a motherless womb.” Though I later found my friend Craig’s words were untrue, my early experience of Itaewon lived up to its urban legend definition. In the mid-nineties, as part of a small group of 20-something English teachers living in the satellite city of Bundang, we would take the bus into Seoul almost every Saturday, headed for the area that had sprung up next to the American military base, Yongsan Garrison. The appeal? It was a place that looked and sounded like a version of home, where we could have a break from constantly being foreign.

With its proximity to the huge American base, Itaewon quickly developed into an area of shops, bars and restaurants that catered to the American soldiers. Kitschy tourist souvenirs and western-sized clothing could be cheaply bought, and real hamburgers could be ordered in English while listening to Country music. With the ease of conducting business in English, the area had appeal to many different kinds of foreign residents, and the main street soon became very colorful, with one exception – there weren’t many Koreans.

Most of the Koreans I talked to in those days were scared of Itaewon, a fear that was stoked by some isolated violent incidents and the Korean media. They seemed to believe that it was a cesspool of Nigerian sex predators, drug-crazed English teachers and drunk, violent G.I.s itching for a fight. They were partially right.

For me, a typical night out in Itaewon would start off by grabbing a burger at Nashville – a basement Country bar that had the reputation of having the best burgers in Seoul. From there, we would cross the street to Hollywood, the most popular bar in the ‘twon at the time, where we would drink and dance with all the other English teachers. Around midnight, we would venture up past the fire station, past a bar that had a huge pink door shaped like a vagina, complete with a few decorative hairs, past the Bald Eagle, the only metal club in Seoul at the time and turn onto hooker hill. Hooker hill was home to dozens of juicy bars, where Korean prostitutes openly hung out the doors, trying to tempt lonely foreign men to buy them drinks. Regular Korean prostitutes usually refuse to service foreign men, so women who worked on hooker hill were mostly those who had run out of other options. At the top of hooker hill, we’d find a bar called Polly’s Soju Kettle, which would just be starting to get crazy at around 2 am. You could buy a “kettle” – which was a sawed off 2 litre coke bottle filled with soju mixed with with kool aid – a cheap and potent concoction that made all of hooker hill come alive, with the party spilling out onto the street. After we had our fill, we would sometimes venture down another hill, lovingly called “homo hill” – where all the gay and transgender bars were located, to dance off the soju kettles. Finally we would wind our way up a back alley to find some fried dumplings at 4 am, before all piling into a taxi. Itaewon was like a frat party at triple speed, with foreign subtitles – a lot of fun, but quickly tiring.

Still, word spread that almost anything you wanted could be found there. Craving Kraft Dinner? There’s a small unmarked black market shop that, if you can find it, will sell it to you for six dollars a box. Need to send money out of the country without reporting it? There’s a lingerie shop that will sell you travellers’ cheques without stamping your passport, which you can then mail to yourself. Are you a plus-sized lovely? Only in Itaewon can you find clothes that will fit you. Smoke Marlboros? The smoke shop in the Hamilton Hotel is your new best friend.

This is not to say that Itaewon didn’t have its true dangers. Everyone knew about the guy who had been murdered in the Burger King bathroom, about the homeless guy who had gotten a knife out of the garbage can and stabbed a visiting doctor. It was true that there were men of some nationalities with whom a woman couldn’t make eye contact for fear of being aggressively followed in and out of shops. Drug busts were common.

Korean criticism of this locale, however, was definitely hypocritical. The sex trade, at the time, was very healthy in other areas of Seoul. Sexual assault happened among Koreans though often went unreported due to the face-saving culture. There was use of speed and other pills among certain Koreans, and public drunkness was not only acceptable, it was encouraged. Still, Itaewon was the easy target because it was different. It was the area where foreigners brought all their dirty habits from home. These were not Korean problems. It was, after all, a foreigner ghetto.

Over the years, something has changed. With talks of the US forces scaling back prescence in Korea, the government, afraid that the Itaewon business district would die, pumped funding into its beautification and development. Everything on the main street has been given a facelift, and now multi-lingual tourist guides roam the streets offering help. Many of the little shops have given way to large brands like Nike and Calvin Klein. Itaewon has truly become a foodie heaven. There is every kind of international cuisine to be had in upscale, designer-decorated cafes and bistros. On Monday, I took the bus there to pick up some grocery items at the newest gourmet shop. I bought real rye bread, sharp cheddar cheese and sliced deli meats – something I had never dreamed I could do under one roof in Seoul, and at a reasonable price – not jacked-up import prices or through-the-roof black market prices. As I waited for the bus back home, I looked around and saw a new late-night tapas bar, a new brazilian buffet and a very swanky steakhouse, all which hadn’t been there on my last trip through.

I rode the bus back down the main street of Itaewon, and looked at all the progress that had been made in a very short time. Itaewon has become trendy. Then I noticed something else. In almost all the restaurants and coffee shops I passed, almost all the clientele were Korean. They had taken the best of us, our exotic foods and cultures, cleaned them up and repackaged them, and made them cool. Certainly, I thought, as I went home with my parcel of familiar- looking groceries, I am reaping the benefit of the purification of Itaewon. And of course, the seediness is still there – just not so blatantly.

Still, I felt sad on that bus ride home. Itaewon, with all its faults, had been a place to escape when expat life got to be too much. The area had been a kind of twisted nest that was at once exciting and comforting. It’s great that it has been cleaned up, but with the purification has also gone its character, making it nicer to look at, and much less interesting to experience.

It was a quiet, reflective bus ride home, followed by an amazing pastrami on rye sandwich.

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Bookish ( not quite part two )

August 6, 2011

“When you have a dream, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. If you wake up, the dream is gone. You can’t see the sequel. But I can do that, because I am a writer.” – Haruki Murakami

Early in my relationship with my husband, he gave me this book to read by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Since then, I have spent most of my time in Korea reading something by him. In many ways, it is a parallel for being a caucasian who has permanently expatriated to a country like Korea.

Though Murakami’s novels and stories all have different plots, many elements are repeated throughout his work. There is almost always a jazz bar, a talking cat, a beautiful woman more ghost than human who disappears. Most importantly, Murakami’s main characters are ordinary men who find themselves slipping in and out of reality and the fantasy that lies so closely beneath.

That is my Korea, sometimes. The sophistication of Seoul blankets the strangeness most of the time. This is a very old country, though, full of ghosts, stubborn traditions, messy explosions of color and a special kind of logic. At least once a day, I slip down underneath the normalcy and experience that other dimension.

It’s actually kind of pleasant. If anyone were going to write my life, I would, without hesitation, pick Murakami.

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Characters

August 1, 2011

Because my friend and first guest-poster, John, is leaving soon, there have been a few farewell parties over the past couple of months. Inevitibly, John and I end up in a half-joking conversation about writing a book, and which of our coworkers would “take up a whole chapter”. Over time, “He’s a chapter in my book”, became a perfect, summative, polite way of saying that Korea attracts some very unusual people.

If I wrote literal interpretations of some of the people I’ve met here, they would probably be dismissed as too far-fetched to be believable. They are caricatures if written in words, yet underneath the otherworldly exteriors they are deeply human and vulnerable. Korea is a haven for those who don’t fit in elsewhere. Here, just being foreign makes you a freak and becomes a bigger cloak under which all your personal eccentricities are hidden.

At the end of any night at the Wa Bar near the university where I work, after sharing gossip and Grolsch with my coworkers, I eventually find myself alone on the subway home, the lone white person in the car, and I make the transition from judge to judged. I am the one that doesn’t belong. Always, underneath the bright subway lights, two questions fill my head:

Does Korea attract weirdos or does Korea itself make people weird?

Am I a chapter in somebody’s book?