Walking down the street in the ‘new’ Itaewon this afternoon. I observe how the place itself, and the demographic have undergone a near total shift. The streets are crowded with swarms of local women, who arrive in flocks to stand in line outside of restaurants hawking faux-foreign cuisine. When they get inside, they will no doubt order a ‘famous’ dish from the menu, that is to say, whichever dish has been recommended to them by whichever Naver blogger happens to be in the spot light on this particular day. They will then spend 5 minutes photographing the food, and then posing for a ‘selfie’ while the food sits there and gets cold. The pictures will later be uploaded to Instagram with comments reading something pretentious like “Just another typical lunch in Itaewon, yawn.” Itaewon, August 2015, what’s not to love?
I once got into a debate with a friend about why so many women seem obsessed with photographing food. My colleague ventured a guess that since Koreans were deprived of food during their struggle for independence, food holds some kind of mystical and magical appeal to them. In fact, “Did you eat?” was long a popular Korean greeting, something akin to how we Western people might say “Good afternoon.” I, on the other hand feel that people who photograph average looking cuisine in average restaurants have decided that being an interesting person in real life has been replaced by being an indefinable character on social media platforms.
If you can’t be interesting as a person, you have to appear as though you are at least doing something interesting. If you aren’t doing something interesting, then you have to at least be hanging out some place interesting. When all of that fails, you fall back on posting as many food pictures as you can on social media, and hoping that someone, somewhere will recognize and admire what you had for lunch, and what you will later dispel into a toilet bowl. Regardless, whenever I eat at a restaurant in Itaewon, all I hear is the click click click of smartphone cameras firing off, documenting what Ju-hee and Hyun-jin and So-hee ate for lunch today, no doubt adding another notch in the belt of some rubbish food-centric Naver blog.
The new Itaewon crowd is precisely this: People who want to dip their feet into the shallow end of the foreign experience while wearing a life vest and a full-body swim suit. They don’t want the entire foreign experience; they want something safe and measured and predictable, like a foreign-style hamburger, cooked by Koreans, in a Korean-owned restaurant. Or ‘fusion’ kimchi tacos. Something they can identify, with little sprinkles of foreign exoticism mixed in -but in a totally contrived, controlled, safe environment. They aren’t ready to jump into the deep end or remove their life vests yet, and they never venture out alone; they move in flocks. People who move in flocks; or ‘flockers’. People who worship trends; or ‘trendsters’. Itaewon is completely inundated with flockers and trendsters. Photographing a Turkish khebab in Itaewon is the Western equivalent of taking a selfie inside of a Taco Bell in Seattle. Subsequently uploading the photos to Instagram is the Western equivalent of bragging about graduating from high school.
I’m headed towards Hooker Hill, and one of the last expat refugee containment centers; the Goldfish Bar. A bearded waegook walking in front of me is talking to his husky, flip-flop clad Korean girlfriend as they waddle side by side. “An expat is a person who leaves their country to go and live long term in another country.” His explanation was obviously prompted by a question from her. He’s setting her straight on the difference between an expat, and someone who is simply in a suspended state of disbelief, dodging student loans while drinking cheap beer and chasing snatch halfway around the world. Wait a minute, I know people who have been here for 12 years and are still doing that. Wait a minute, that’s everyone I know.
I approach Hooker Hill, the sidewalk is a catwalk, and summer time clothing in Korea leaves little to the imagination. I pick my tongue up from the sidewalk and stroll into the Fish where Lehman-Brothers-flunkey-cum-ESL teacher Henry is already waiting for me. The crowd is a bit rough around the edges at one of Seoul’s last expat watering holes. A dark-skinned American man in a black leather vest is talking to his Filipina companion; “I used to be a cop, but then I got mixed up in some shit and had to fuck off real quick” he says. The pear-shaped former bargirl ooooos and ahhhhs at his tale of bravado. At another table, a dodgy looking Kiwi man explains to his equally shifty looking friend, “Yeah mate, so my university made me sign this written agreement saying that I wouldn’t have any further contact with any of my female students….” I love the Goldfish Bar.
Henry looks haggard and has already drained half a pitcher of beer. I sit down and wait for the story. I know there is a story because Henry is wearing the same clothes that he was wearing yesterday evening when I saw him at the Seoul Pub. “Ji-young is super angry at me, but I can’t even figure out why!” he exclaims. “Last night, when I tried to go home, she locked the door using the bolt from inside. I called her and I could hear the phone ringing inside the apartment, but she wouldn’t pick up!”
I ask Henry what time he went home. “Well, actually, it was more like this morning, like you know, maybe 6:30am?” I can’t imagine why the mother of his two children would be angry. “I’m as puzzled as you are..” I tell him as I order a beer for myself.
Turns out Henry had a long night, beginning at the illustrious Seoul Pub. After perhaps one drink too many, he was approached by a flirtatious middle aged Korean woman who invited him to the King Club for more drinks. “I thought ‘what the hell’ man, why not? So we get to the King Club, and the whole placed has changed into a juicy bar!” I myself was unaware of the shift in business models at the King Club until fairly recently. At this point, I can guess how the story ends, but I humor him anyway. “Really? The King Club? How could such a previously well-regarded entertainment establishment fall down the slippery slope so quickly?”
“Yeah man, so I get inside and the place is empty. This woman leads me to a table, and asks me to buy her a drink. Before I knew it, all of her barracuda friends are swarming my table asking for drinks, and my credit card just kind of disappeared.” Like many men who have had their testicles removed, Henry’s finances are controlled tightly by his wife Ji-young. There is a rumor among expat circles that Henry subsides on a mere 10,000won per day, but even I can’t believe this, though he is drinking Korean beer today so the story is at least somewhat believable. “And so Ji-young’s phone starts blowing up with automatic text messages from the bank each time these barracudas swipe my credit card. She starts freaking out and calling me, but my phone battery is dead.” I ask him what the damage was. “The tab hit like $700 before Ji-young called the bank and turned my card off.”
So this explains why Henry looks so glum. I figure a ‘lady drink’ cost somewhere near $39 which means that Henry bought somewhere around 17 ‘lady drinks’. “You were a financial analyst, so you know all about how wealth redistribution works. Last night you basically redistributed $700 of your capital to several members of a lower socioeconomic class. Did you at least get something to drink out of it?” Henry explains that as the night progressed, he had a ‘lapse’ and found himself on a sticky vinyl covered folding sofa in the back room of an Itaewon flop house, in the company of a woman old enough to be his aunt. I guess it wasn’t 17 lady drinks that brought the bill to $700 after all. If situations like these don’t incentivize you to change your station in life, nothing will.
“So like, now she won’t answer my calls. I totally don’t know what she’s flipping out over.”
I’m truly as mystified as my good friend. He changes the subject, “My 11 year old made a Korean war diorama for history class.” “Big deal” I say, “11 year olds in China are making Samsung flat screen televisions”. We pay the bill and depart in our separate directions. A drunken Henry, much like a stream, moves in only one direction. Down, down into the mean streets of Itaewon and into whatever self-destructive, marriage sabotaging mischief he can get into with his remaining 2000won. The sun begins to set through the haze of factory smog and another day turns to night in East Asia’s hub of dynamism.