It is in the Goldfish Bar near Hooker Hill that I meet reclusive American friend Henry for drinks on Monday night. The distinct lack of shouting ajummas is the first sign that I have returned to my spiritual home, if only temporarily. Itaewon is generally a miserable place and if there were a place like Itaewon in your hometown, you probably wouldn’t hang out there. Part of the draw for me is not what Itaewon has to offer, but what Itaewon distinctly lacks. Noisy gaggles of housewives and screaming Korean children are for the most part absent from Seoul’s last expat enclave, which is more than enough reason for me to put myself outside of a beer in the Goldfish bar on any day of the week.
As I sit down, the H-man looks tired and drained. He is essentially a beast of burden to his Korean family. He is a source of cash, and nothing more. His Korean wife seems to have taught his children to despise him, while at the same time managing to drain him of every penny that he earns. The natural endgame to this situation would usually be divorce, suicide, adultery or substance abuse. Henry has chosen substance abuse, probably because divorce and adultery are too expensive, and by nature he is not prone to suicidal thoughts.
Being under the constant squeeze for money from his Korean wife, Henry’s newfound frugality has become somewhat of a legend in expat circles. Rumor has it that he was able to negotiate a letter of credit at one of Itaewon’s oldest expat dives. Further illustrating his thrift, he refuses to part ways with his 2G flip phone, which is probably the same model that I had in high school. Come to think of it, when I was in high school, Henry was already in Korea.
As we settle in on the ‘terrace’, I note a Korean woman in a micro skirt is hunched over the gutter in front of 7-11, spitting into the grated opening. If the time and place are any indication, my guess would be that she is coughing and retching up the seeds of life from a successful transaction in one of the Hill’s blowjob bars. Henry has a beer and a bottle of Jack Daniels (which he brought with him to the bar). He drained the beer and set into the Jack about an hour before I arrived. He is in the early stages of drunkenness. He tells me “You know what I miss, man? I miss the smiles.” Henry reckons that at some point in time, in some place in the far distant past, people used to smile at him. This, of course, would have happened prior to his arrival in Korea. I question the clarity of his memory. “No really man, people used to smile at me. I’d be walking down the street, and my neighbors would smile at me for no reason. We’d wave. Just being friendly, you know?”
Henry grew up in a suburban east coast town where people probably played tennis and polo on the weekends. I explain to him that in LA, the people are too busy trying to cut each others throats, so they have no time for smiling. When you think about it, it’s kind of like Korea. If someone smiles at you, it is either because they are crazy, or because they want something from you. There is no such thing as a free smile. If you want free smiles, you need to go to South East Asia, or the Midwest of America. He continues “It’s the smiles man, that’s what is missing from this place. The smiles.” I think of big cities like LA and Seoul as prisons. Nobody smiles, because a smile is a sign of weakness. One smile, and the predators start circling. Best to keep a straight face, or a frown, or more popularly among the elderly, a scowl.
The previous Sunday, I’d been in Itaewon in the morning. At around 11am, I see this foreigner standing in the middle of the road. He’s standing at the intersection near the Itaewon fire station. Drunk or high out of his mind, he is just standing there in the middle of the street, staring at the ground and drooling all over himself. He literally has saliva dribbling out of his mouth and onto his shirt. I watch as a cars whiz past him. He slowly stumbles forward and then backwards again as taxis (fxxx taxis) and other cars shoot past him.
A crowd of bystanders is also watching this scene with great anticipation, cell phones ready to snap pictures should our foreigner friend be smashed by a car. Of course, nobody is stepping into the street to help him, because that would be too human. He very slowly stumbles around the intersection as drivers avoid him. He gets near the curb, and a young Korean guy grabs his shirt and pulls him off of the street. Tons of other foreigners standing around, and the only person to take the initiative is a young Korean guy who looks like he is in university. I read somewhere that in Korea, 9 times out of 10, when a person falls into the subway tracks, it is a male in this specific age group (20-24) that rescues them. Perhaps something about the military service, and soul crushing post-graduation office life stamp out whatever civic spirit people had back when they were in university.
The drunk seemingly has no clue that he has been removed from the street, or that anything has happened to him at all. He just stands there, drooling all over himself before stepping back out into traffic. Upon reaching this extreme level of intoxication, Koreans for the most part, tend to find a flat place to lie down, kick off their shoes and pass out. Actually, Korea is rather famous for its public-sleeping drunks, who manage to sleep in various positions under all manner of circumstances, all while not being robbed. This is something that western people cannot wrap their heads around. If you pass out on the street in Los Angeles or London, the best thing that could happen would be the police arresting you and removing you from the street immediately, before the predators/gangbangers/skinheads/frat boys/other human scum see you. One of the things that East Asia has going for it, is that the victimization of other human beings is largely something that happens behind closed doors. Passing out on the streets of Seoul or Tokyo, one will more often than not wake up with all of their possessions intact.
Living in Korea is like doing a PhD in behavioral public drunkenness. I have seen drunks of every size and shape but I’ve never seen someone so wasted manage to remain vertical. It is a sight to behold. The drunk is completely non-responsive to those around him. As I stand there and watch the scene unfold, two ajummas and a young girl come up to me with broad smiles painted across their faces. They invite me to learn about their lord and savior Jesus Christ, and try to hand me some Jehovah ’s Witness pamphlets. I wave them away. It’s like I said before; there are no free smiles in Seoul.
Back at the Goldfish Bar, I drain my beer. The hooker who was spitting into the gutter in front of 7-11 crosses the street back towards us. I cannot tell if she is a man or a woman, though generally the bars on the Goldfish side are transgender bars, with the exception of one or two. Henry starts up again “I have this theory about why Korean men go whoring. Most of them aren’t actually in it for the sex. They go whoring because they miss the smiles. They get out of the military service, and suddenly the carefree smiles from women are gone. Instead, they are being sized up financially as future potential supporters. After years of grueling hours in the office, and being treated like a human ATM machine by their families, they have to go out and pay women to be kind to them, to smile, to treat them like human beings. This is what they are actually paying for. Kindness from women is now a commodity. They are paying to be treated like a human again.” I’m not sure that I agree entirely, but I think he may have a point in there somewhere.
Every once in a while I pop in to Dave’s ESL café to reacquaint myself with the trials and tribulations of Korea’s EFL population. A recent visit reveals the pressing concerns affecting Korea’s humble, light skinned immigrant class:
It’s interesting to see how many posts on ESL café revolve around food, and how to prepare food, and how to import food, and where to buy food. One can also bet that any thread longer than 3 pages will inevitably veer completely off topic and devolve into a shouting match between someone who spends too much time on the internet, and someone who likes to argue with people who spend too much time on the internet.
One of my associates recently raised the question of how long a mentally disturbed foreigner could live in Korea before the Korean people around them picked up on it. The general consensus was that a foreigner could quite possibly live in Korea indefinitely without the people around them realizing that they were nuts. I’ve seen/heard/met foreigners who are married with kids, whose wives seem to have no clue that they are suffering from serious mental issues. I also worked with a guy who was quite possibly a psychopath.
He constantly demanded attention and broke down when he didn’t get it. When you think about it, a classroom is a perfect place for people who constantly demand attention. The guy would be acting normal all day long, and then after work, he would send text messages and emails to coworkers saying insane things like “I want to punch you in the face!” or “When I meet people like you, I want to go on a shooting spree.” The guy spent the better part of 8 months trying to get our co-worker fired because he refused to accept his friend invitation on Facebook. He called my female co-worker out of the blue once, screaming that he was going to go to her apartment and strangle her. When she complained to our boss, the guy apologized, saying “Oh, sorry, I drank too much coffee that day.” After I finished my contract, I heard the Koreans promoted the guy to manager, which being Korea, one can’t actually be too surprised at.
It is a well established fact that serious long term alcoholic teachers can survive and even thrive in Korea. In a sense, they only risk getting fired when their drinking gets so bad that they start missing classes. Koreans aren’t so good at picking up subtle and even not-so-subtle clues exhibited by foreigners who may be suffering from untreated mental illnesses. Of course to pre-screen for this, the Koreans would actually have to employ western doctors, which we know will never happen.