Jake on the Town

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average looking cuisine in average restaurants have decided that being an interesting person in real life has been replaced by being an indefinable character on social media platforms.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.

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26 Responses to Jake on the Town

  1. amy woo says:

    That was a great read. Thanks for posting. I hope Henry sorts things out with his wife. Worst doghouse story l’ve ever read~ 700,000won, eh?@.@

  2. Edward says:

    “I once got into a debate with a friend about why Korean women seem obsessed with photographing food.”

    Dude, you’ve been away from home too long. Kids do this in ‘Murica too.

  3. Edward says:

    “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. ”

    That’s called a hipster venturing into Chinatown or Koreatown here in the States.

  4. Edward says:

    “11 year olds in China are making Samsung flat screen televisions”.

    They’re making iPhones too.

  5. nick says:

    What a great article.
    In my humble opinion, Korean people take pictures of plates of food here because they work such long hours and get such little time off that that rarely get the opportunity to travel anywhere or do anything interesting other than eating and drinking. Anybody that does leave the country generally has to quit their job or be a student on a gap year or be lucky enough to go on a business trip.

    You’d have noticed its not just smart cameras but people invest in high end SLR camera gear only to take photos of a churro, a slice of pizza and a pint of craft beer.
    The narcissism on display in Itaewon but especially Kyunglidan and Haeboncheon is vomit inducing.

    On another note, I find it particularly sad how there is so much aspiration here for a kind of quaint, flappish european style here. Whether that be Gelto parlors, cute coffee shops with only two or three tables and Patesseries that are style over substance, blokes wearing leather shoes, no socks and the trousers with the leg length too shorts like their in 1940’s Roma, mopeds and mini’s with faux European licence plate stickers. Worst of all is Korean’s morbid obsession with Paris – the city paved with dog shit, tourist haters and clouded by racial tension. I remember when Paris Baguette first opened 20 years ago, It was the only place you could go and buy bread that didn’t have sweetcorn in it. Now you can get croissants and pan-au-chocolat however, they still sell the bread with sweetcorn in it. Like your article says ‘ dip their feet into the shallow end of the foreign experience while wearing a life vest and a full-body swim suit.
    Kimchi Tacos? Bulgogi Burgers with Kimchi fries anyone? Don’t forget to take a picture and share it on Facebook, Instagram and Kakoa Story

  6. DongDuChoke says:

    “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.”

    Pure gold.

  7. concerned says:

    king bar is getting people for a lot more than that! my friend was 6,900,000 won in the whole for 1 night. and they’ve scammed other people i know. worst of all, the korean banks know them by name as they’re doing it to everyone. it’s mobbed up, don’t go there!

    • The Expat says:

      Christ! That place is on its last legs. There’s an entertaining story floating around about one of the girls who works there, and one of Seoul’s expat lawyers.

  8. Stevie B says:

    I think the whole food photography thing comes from the expectation that eating out is more about the social experience rather than the eating experience. The photograph of the food is more an index of a social occasion rather than a representation of the food in itself. This is generally the case with Korean social eating – it’s more about the experience of being with others and being part of a group, and much less about the food itself. This is because Korean food is fucking awful.

  9. . says:

    Hey Jake, looks like your secret swimming pool has been overrun by the Koreans. Where will you go now?


  10. SteveM says:

    Welcome back. Now let’s plan your escape

  11. Cereal says:

    I gotta find the Gold Fish Bar. I am going out of my mind here on this island. it’s nice for about 6 weeks a year. The winters are horrifying, as they are everywhere in Korea, the summers are sweltering hot but there are several awesome beaches very close by. The downside is that even if they are very crowded, 25 Koreans make as much noise as 2500 Canucks.

    Why do a group of 6 Klown uni boys need to scream like 6 Klown uni girls the absolute second the fucking banana boat starts to move? Well before that little yellow bastard (the boat? the Klown? your pick) has pushed 10 cm of water aside they are all screeching like banshees. It ruins my beach day and makes me want to commit Klownicide en masse.

    Leaving the island today with Missy. Spending the night in Seoul and heading to Itaewan for a beer with The Baron and OneMoreRepIzzy. Then home to Laos tomorrow for two glorious weeks of absolutely fuck all.

    I wonder where the Fish place is?

  12. Cereal says:

    We’re catching the bus at 1:00 pm so we should arrive at Nambu terminal around 5:30. We always stay at the same hotel right there cuz it’s easy to catch the Airport Bus.

    So All things being equal, we should be able to be in Itaewan by 7:00 pm for sure. Probably earlier because I will likely grab a taxi because I won’t want to fuck around on the subway at rush hour on Friday.

    My fave place is The Rocky Mountain Tavern. I’ll suggest we meet there, it’s central and has Bloody Caesars and Poutines!

    Will we see you?

  13. Cereal says:

    I understand, I just finished 2 weeks teaching Kindergarten Camp. I feel like I’ve been flogged.

  14. Via Korea says:

    Fun read, Jake.

    As I type the lifeguards are pulling everyone out of the water and onto the beach despite no waves and one extremely low tide. I’m the only person not wearing a life vest, lifeguards included. Korean lifeguards, half of whom I can probably outswim, are now policing the water’s edge vigilantly to make sure nobody has any fun; meanwhile the roads I drove to get here go almost entirely unpoliced.

    Half the people here are sweating balls digging dinner out of the sand while I look on in mild disgust. The few people who have been taking swimming lessons are diligently plodding across the top of the water to show everyone what they learned in swimming hagwon. They seem to be ignoring the guards’ whistles. Good for them. Two Koreans and two waxed waegs in their twenties are playing soccer dangerously close to me and squealing 하지마! at each other in homoerotic cadences. Good times.

  15. Johnny Drama says:

    About fucking time you started writing again. -YEESH-

    • The Expat says:

      I’m glad to serve as the only non-pornographic source of entertainment for everyone around me.

      • Steffen says:

        Finally the days of digging in the Internet Archive are over. So are the disappointing visits to your site. It’s really great to see your new articles. You could have announced the comeback to your faithful twitter followers. Over time I nearly converted to eyk (JUST KIDDING!)

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