Posts Tagged ‘The Bad Old Days’

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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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“Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl…”

August 7, 2011

Have you ever been watching TV or a movie and realized the scene playing out in front of you mirrored your life a little too closely? I was recently watching an old rerun of Sex and the City, when a particular scene played out like my diary entry circa 1995. In the episode for which this blog post is named, Carrie is on a date with her new boyfriend. They have the “conversation ” – which most couples have when things start to get serious – in which they tell each other about their most recent romances. As Sean lists his three most recent affairs, he starts with two girls’ names and ends with a guy’s. The episode goes on to explore bisexuality culminating in a game of spin-the-bottle where Carrie makes out with Alanis Morisette, decides she tastes like chicken, and then goes out for cigarettes never to come back.

So, what part of my life was reflected in this episode? I certainly never made out with Alanis, and as a non-smoker, I cannot use “going out to get cigarettes” as my excuse to ditch someone. My last game of spin-the-bottle was, regrettably, played in grade 6.

It was ’94 or ’95. I was at the Great Taste coffee shop in Halifax on my second date with a professional clown (yes, you read that right), who I”ll call Robin. We were having the conversation. I told him all about the great heartbreak that led me to come to Halifax, and the few guys I had dated since I had come. He told me about his most recent ex, a woman with whom he had been kind of serious. Then he said, “And before her was Lisa, and before Lisa was Paul.” I paused, trying to look cool, before I asked, ” Sooo, are you bisexual, then?” Robin replied,” I don’t really know. I just know that if I like someone, I’m interested in touching them.” I was a little in awe of that answer. Could it really be that simple? Can I be honest and say that Robin’s openess and sexual sophistication made him more attractive to me? He had figured something out, I thought. Plus, he was an amazing kisser. His sort-of-serious ex came back into the picture before we could move beyond kissing, though, and while I didn’t mind sharing Robin with a past male lover, I was not open-minded enough to share him with another woman.

A dear friend of mine who is gay, has said bisexuality is just a stepping stone on the way to gay – that there is no real thing as the true bisexual. I have no idea if this is true or not, but I don’t agree with being forced to identify with anything that is not real for you in any given moment.

I read with interest some recent drama which played out in my hometown of Corner Brook. A pride parade had been cancelled, with the organizers citing discrimination and lack of support. As the story unfolded , it became obvious that the small group of organizers had perhaps reacted too quickly, and the pride parade happened on a last-minute basis, organized by the university students and a local website, cornerbrooker.com . I was proud that my hometown believed “Pride” was too important to ignore. My hometown had such a strong artistic scene, that it was surprisingly tolerant, if not friendly, to alternative lifestyles. However, on the local websites, many people said that they were ok with “gay” people, but that sexuality was a private thing. After all, straight people didn’t march through the streets proclaiming their sexuality. These commenters didn’t seem to realize that every marginalized group of people has had to make large gestures just to make the mainstream recognize them, let alone accept them. Newfoundlanders themselves, such a demonstratively proud people, often unfairly criticized and ridiculed, should be the most understanding of this.

I know from watching several gay and bisexual people in my life that it is the greatest act of bravery to to tell the truth about yourself.I am so proud of those in my family and among my friends who are open about the way they love. I am proud of all three of my parents, who may have struggled a little with the moral makeup of their generations, but still pushed through to accept the truth of those people who loved differently than they did.

I still think about what Robin said to me that day, am still impressed by its beautiful truth. I have been tempted to google him, to see which “side” he ended up taking. I stop myself, though, because that would play into the inflexible lines society often draws for us. I prefer to think of him, and all of us, living a life that is true, lovely and free – without labels.

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Bookish ( Part One )

August 3, 2011

The writing prompt for today over at NaBloPoMo asks ” Have you ever wanted to enter a book?” My easy answer? I’ve entered books, many many times. Not only does a really great author make me feel as if the world on the page is within my fingertips, they also color my soul with shades of mood and atmosphere that tend to bleed onto my reality. Over the years, my life has lined up, fantastically, with certain books I have read at certain times. Here are some that stand out: ( Second part to come later this month ).

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume

Every girl of my generation can lay claim to this book as her very own guide to growing up. I devoured this one secretly, hidden in the halls of my Catholic elementary school at lunchtime. After school, I would go to play with my best friend, Irene, and she and I invented a secret handwriting code, did breast-building exercises ( Those who know me will say I did them too well!) and wondered about the mysterious bleeding that was soon to happen to us, all inspired by this book. I read everything Judy Blume wrote, and she told young girls the truth. She was our “Google”, and knew how to package the information in an amazing storyline.

Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood and Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates.

In my late high school years, I discovered this Margaret Atwood book at the library. This set off a binge of reading everything by her that I could find rooting around on the shelves. In my freshman year at university, a prof suggested that if I loved Atwood, I would also like Joyce Carol Oates, and I was introduced to this collection of stories. Through these years, where I thought of myself as a woman, but was still very much a girl, I felt so connected to the Atwood and Oates female characters as I read book after book. These women were oddly beautiful, quirky, brave and tragically foolish. They were all usually at a point of crisis, a point of collossal change. I was a young woman in love with a life that hadn’t really started yet, but I knew was coming, and I treated these novels as a preview.

Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins is a joyful master with words, and reading any book of his has always been a consuming experience. This book was my introduction to him, and I read it in my graduating year of university, right before I launched myself headlong into a disastrous, crazy, heart-ripping love affair with a man who didn’t really love me. I followed him to St. John’s after graduation, partly because I didn’t know what to do next, but mostly because I couldn’t bear to be away from him more than a day. While I was caught up in the game of push and pull that we loved to play, I reread this book to try to remember something that was getting lost. I gave him a copy of this book, too. An aspiring writer himself, he loved the writing, but didn’t get the message.

The Mists Of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

After getting my heart pummeled, I decided to leave and moved to Halifax in Nova Scotia. My soon-to-become dearest friend, Didi, was in a similar situation and we decided to take on the “big city” together. I don’t usually go for fantasy books, but Didi had gotten absolutely lost in this novel, and lent it to me to read. This book is a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the point of view of the female characters. It was grand, sweeping and filled my life from the moment I picked it up. It was the perfect book to read while I was getting over the ex-boyfriend, as I could not only escape into fantasy, but could also revel in the theme of female power. In the book, Morgan Le Fay, a tiny wisp of a woman, can put on her “glamour” to make herself irresistable and commanding. Didi and I used to joke about “putting on our glamour” before a night out at the bars. When we believed it, it worked. There were girls that were prettier, taller, thinner, more girlish, yet when we put on our glamour – that attitude of specialness – we could do no wrong.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Oh, this book. I blame this book for most of my life after 26. This is the true story of Marguerite Duras’ affair with a wealthy Chinese man when she was a high school girl living in Indochina. The writing in this book is so exquisitely stark and sensual, it created an outline of a lover that I felt compelled to fill. I read this book towards the end of my time in Halifax, watched the movie which is also one of my favorites, and very shortly after I met a Korean guy who was studying English. Until then, all my boyfriends had been caucasian, mostly Newfoundlanders, and I saw “Jino” as a friend, only. One night very shortly after we met, he came over to my apartment where he confessed that he wanted more. I lowered the lights and kissed him, mostly out of curiousity. His skin was velvet, and as I watched the moonlight play with the strange angles of his face, a new possibility was understood. Jino and I remained friends after a very short romance, and Didi and I spent time with the Korean contingent in Halifax, where we quickly got the idea to come teach in Korea. Marguerite Duras, an unexpected kiss, and the resulting attraction to the exoticness and mystery of Asian men paved a direct path to my life here and my marriage.

Imagine if I weren’t a reader?

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Class Dismissed

April 8, 2011

Sometimes, when you’ve removed yourself from everything that has come before, it is almost like you have died. The people, places and events of your past become frozen in that moment when you airlifted yourself out of everything you knew, and everytime you come home to visit, you are shocked to find that things have changed.

In many ways, the people and circumstances of my life in the early nineties, the years before I came to Korea, have become a personal mythology. Today, I lost a god.

My expat friends here in Korea will all understand how strange the experience of news of a death at home can be. You get the phone call, or email. The landscape turns upside down for a moment. But, there is no one to go visit, no funeral to attend. Friends and family here in Korea – the ones that you will turn to for hugs and cups of tea – have never met the person that you have lost. So, you take your moment, you tuck it away in your pocket, and it never becomes real.

For me, this morning – it was a post on Facebook. My beloved Acting teacher, Arif Hasnain, has passed away.

I could tell you how he terrorized us the first time he ever conducted a cast meeting, how he got blitz-faced drunk and went after us one by one, tearing down our walls.

I could tell you that he could scream as well as he could purr, and that the phrase “hopping mad” was coined especially for him.

that he turned our small Theatre department inside out, and made us question everything we had learned.

that he should have been fired, many times over.

that he needed to work himself up to a razor-sharp edge, often with alcohol, in order to cut through all the bullshit we believed about ourselves.

But, I won’t.

I will tell you that he taught me all about the truth.

that a smile of approval from him was worth the world.

that he was one of the softest, sweetest men I have ever known.

I will tell you that the closest I ever came to being a really good actor were the moments I spent in his class- that these moments are an important part of who I believe I am, moments where I disappeared completely and yet was fully myself.

Today, I wish I could be with my old classmates. We were a small class – just 4 guys and 5 girls. We were an incestuous, complex little group, working our issues out all over each other. We were everything- sisters, brothers, lovers, friends, compatriots, teachers and students. We are all, also, artists. For that, I know we owe a big debt to one another.

We owe Arif even more.
He is forever in my pocket.