Just Say No
Tuesday afternoon, and I’m inside of Itaewon Starbucks reading the latest issue of Forbes magazine. Since I paid exactly double the cover price for this magazine, I feel compelled to read it from cover to cover. This week’s issue of Forbes lists America’s top colleges (boring), talks about the formula for super-market profitability (mildly interesting), lists the most valuable sports teams in the USA (boring), and interviews Cisco’s John Chambers (fuck off, boring). The most interesting section of this week’s Forbes is probably on page 14, where the editors provide financial statements for 15 fictional characters. Unsurprisingly, Scrooge McDuck (worth $65.4 billion) leads the list as the richest fictional character. His hobbies include swan-diving into piles of money like a porpoise, and burrowing through mounds of gold coins like a gopher. Bruce Wayne comes in at number six ($9.2 billion), and Jay Gatsby concludes the list at number fifteen ($1 billion). I’m guessing that Bruce Wayne outpaced Jay Gatsby because the former is a certified bachelor who spends his spare change on Lamborghinis, while the later blows through piles of cash in pursuit of poorest investment known to mankind (chasing a woman).
I usually avoid Starbucks. I’ve found that among all coffee chains in Korea, Starbucks seems to be the chain where I am most likely to be approached by a stranger seeking free English tuition. I know that I’m not the only one who experiences this. For example, the previous week I was sitting in this same exact Starbucks when I felt a tap on my shoulder. A middle aged woman who looked like a church spinster greeted me, “Are you a native speaker?” And I’m thinking is this woman serious? She goes on, “I have an English question, can you help me?” And I’m thinking do I look like a fucking human dictionary? Really? I’m obviously (pretending to be) in the middle of a riveting magazine article. I have the magazine held up in front of my face, and this woman’s English emergency warrants her interrupting me. She wants me to stop what I’m doing, and devote all of my attention to her. I am now her personal English teacher because I have white skin, and blue eyes, and I’m sitting in a café in Itaewon reading a magazine.
I humor the woman, probably because I am high on prescription medication and the thought of giving incorrect English advice provides me with some kind of momentary thrill. I’m thinking that whatever question this woman asks me, I am going to purposely, intentionally, knowingly give this woman the exact opposite of the explanation I know to be correct. This is what I usually do when random people solicit me for English advice in public spaces. So anyway, the woman returns to her seat to get something, and I turn back to my magazine for a moment. Two minutes later, the woman is back. She has brought her entire study group with her. There are six people in total. They all drop their bags at the table that I am sitting at. They set down their laptop computers. They open up their English study books and notebooks. The woman who bothered me, and whom I assume to be the defacto leader of this group then hands me a two page printout of a newspaper article.
She says, “Ok, can you please look at the words and phrases that I’ve highlighted, and explain to us exactly what they mean?” I look at the printout blankly and then stare at the woman. I hand the printout back to her, pick up my magazine, and leave. When you are sitting in a café, and a random Korean person turns their head towards you and opens their mouth like they are about to speak to you, the best policy is to just say ‘no’ before they even finish their sentence. Preempt whatever favor they are about to ask from you, by just saying ‘no’. No, no, no, NO. “Whatever you are about to ask me, the answer is NO” No, I don’t want to help you with your English studies. No, I don’t want to be interviewed and photographed. No, I don’t want to speak with you about Jesus Christ. No, no, no, no. The answer is always ‘no’. And don’t sit there pretending like I’m being rude by saying “no”. You know damn well that if you were sitting at a cafe in Vancouver, or Christchurch, or Sydney, or San Francisco, that you would not approach a random Asian person, ask them if they were Chinese, and then ask them to help you with your Chinese homework. No, you definitely wouldn’t do that, so don’t pretend like I’m being an asshole when I say ‘no’ to free English tuition to strangers in public places.
I need to get some shirts printed up with this slogan:
“No free English lessons”
The slogan will be printed on the front and back of the shirt, in large, bold letters. I figure that wearing this shirt would solve 98% of my “free English” encounters. I figure that this shirt would be perfect for any foreigner who frequents cafes in Korea, or rides the bus or subway, or shows their face in public during the day time. I figure that 98% of your “free English” encounters will fall into one of the above categories, and that by pointing at the shirt, you could dissuade people from talking to you without actually opening your mouth or acknowledging them directly. I figure that instead of selling the same old, lame t-shirts, that Itaewon’s deaf/mute sidewalk hawkers would making a killing selling the t-shirts that I have described above.
Anyhow, today at Starbucks, I am at least spared the inconvenience of being bothered for free English lessons. Instead, a homeless man decides to sit down at my table and stare at me. I block him out by raising my magazine in front of my face. He stays for about 10 minutes without ordering anything, and when he finally gets bored, he gets up and leaves. Almost immediately, two elderly ajummas snatch up the recently vacated seat. They buy absolutely nothing, and then proceed to make use of the seating and air-conditioning. They have a conversation at full volume, which after a point, becomes impossible to endure. They are from the generation of folks who make hoiking and throat-clearing sounds when they speak. I get nauseous and suddenly feel like I have to get up and leave. The fact that I cannot explain to my friends why I live here is beginning to bother me.
Life has no meaning, and there is no God. We are inconsequential carbon-based life forms inhabiting a feckless piece of rock hurtling through space towards an immaterial future. We leave no mark, we leave no memory, we hold on to no love, and we have no actual value. Life is nothing more than a long cold train ride through a dark tunnel carrying no baggage. That is why a late afternoon stroll through the streets of Itaewon is the perfect antidote. The hookers, tourists, trannies, deaf/mute trinket sellers, jaded foreigners and packs of voguish Korean girls part to either side of me and I feel for a moment like a trout swimming upstream. These people are a mystery to me, each and every one of them. In any other place, the hookers would be too old and unskilled to hook. They are not sexy, not good at make-up, not flirtatious or fun. They are overweight and incompetent, but somehow they earn a living in Itaewon. It’s a MYSTERY. Why don’t foreigners demand the same quality and prices that the locals do? The tourists look lost, and probably are lost. You know you have a food/cultural marketing crisis when busloads of tourists flock to clusters of international restaurants for the express purpose of avoiding the local cuisine.
The trannies are some of the least attractive and most hostile in Asia. There are countless tranny bars in Itaewon, but I’ve never seen anyone going in or out of one of these places, have you? So, how then do Itaewon’s transgendered prostitutes earn money? It’s an Itaewon MYSTERY. The deaf/mute trinket sellers cluttering up Itaewon’s sidewalks are also a mystery. Hundreds and hundreds of people must pass by these shops every day and yet I’ve hardly ever seen anyone buy anything. One lady has been selling the same raunchy t-shirts since the Japanese occupation. Shirts with slogans like “Fuck you fucking fuck!” and “Shit happens”. And you know that these old women probably have no clue what the shirts say, or why nobody ever buys them. Instead of doing a bit of research, and getting some merchandise that people might actually buy, these women continue selling the same t-shirts they were selling back when none of the streets were paved and their only customers were pimple-faced American soldiers fresh out of small town America. Do they sell enough trinkets to pay their bills? MYSTERY.
The groups of voguish Korean girls are actually no mystery at all. They are here because they’ve read about Itaewon on the internet. They are here to try exotic faux-international cuisine. They are here to take pictures of every food item and every fruity cocktail drink they order. To document it, to share it, to let everyone know that they braved the mean streets of Itaewon to photograph and eat overpriced foreign food. This gains them some type of social currency on Cyworld or Facebook or Instagram. They aren’t here for quality, and they aren’t here for cultural exchanges or interactions. They don’t give a fuck about those things. They are just here to take pictures of food, which when you think about it, is pretty sad. Who takes pictures of basic food fare, and for what reason? We’re not talking about the Michelin starred sushi restaurant that you had to wait 6 months to get a reservation for. We’re talking basic, run of the mill, average “foreign style” food. And yet this subject matter is so exotic, so alluring, so unfamiliar that it actually warrants the taking of several photos and the uploading of said photos to the internet. MYSTERY.
Seeing people in Itaewon snapping photos of basic food fare reminds me of seeing people who have just been released after a long stint in prison; everything is so new, so exotic, so fascinating that their knee jerk reaction is to take a photo of it or otherwise try to capture it to memory, lest it disappear before their very eyes or turn out to be some sort of twisted dream that they will wake up from right before they go back to eating seaweed soup, pickled jellyfish, and fermented cabbage. To them, Itaewon is an escape from their everyday reality. To the foreigner, it’s a vague, almost surreal rendering of a place they may have left behind, but although the food bears some resemblance to what they ate back home, the actual taste of the food and the atmosphere in which it is served are like cracks in a crystal chandelier – telltale signs that something is not quite right.
And me? Hey man, I’ll level with you: I just come here to escape my own reality out in the distant suburbs of Seoul. The listless, dull weeknights that consist of crushed beer cans and dirty ashtrays filled with losing lottery tickets. The drunken stumblers, and taxi morons honking their horns until 4 in the morning. As I walk down the streets of Itaewon, the sun beats down on my shoulders and I can feel the ground under my feet and the breeze in my face. I can smell the chlorine and sunscreen from the pool at the Hamilton hotel. My situational awareness is suddenly razor sharp. Philosophy and thinking are left behind. I have temporarily checked out of reality. Nothing else matters. My head is clear, my stomach flat, and my pupils dilated. I put one foot in front of the other and make my way down the street. I’m temporarily seduced. Maybe life does have value after all, and maybe there is a happy future. I’ll give it some serious thought at the Goldfish Bar.
Watering Holes in the Serengeti
The Gold Bar, not to be confused with the Goldfish Bar, is a place that I enter out of morbid curiosity from time to time. It is busy and cheap and dirty, and most of the women inside are smoking. The crowd is mixed, but consists mostly of foreign males and a mixture of foreign and local females. Along the wall stand a cluster of West African men who look as though they are waiting for something. Near the bar stands a group of short, pudgy, pear-shaped Korean girls, heavily made-up and clad in tight tops and short skirts. They are drinking ‘Hpnotiq’. They too, look as if they are waiting for something to happen. The scene reminds me of a watering hole in the Serengeti of northern Tanzania. All living things gather round the watering hole for a single solitary purpose, but they are uneasy, eyes darting from side to side. A lingering sense of anticipation is in the air; something is about to happen. But nobody knows what, or where it will come from. The music is an eclectic mix of Rap and Hip-hop, with the occasional Lady Gaga thrown in. The end of each song sparks a glimmer of impatience among the pear-shaped Korean girls and their West African suitors. They are definitely waiting for something.
Suddenly the song “How Low” by Ludacris comes on and almost immediately the gaggle of short, chubby Korean girls erupts into a fit of elation. This is it. This is what everyone has been waiting for. Everyone is awake now and paying attention. The girls break apart and start ‘twerking’ – sweet Jesus, they are twerking. Holy suffering Christ on the cross, they are actually twerking. They are putting all of their effort, and focus, and energy into twerking. No wait, they are trying to twerk, but it looks all wrong because these girls are 152cm tall, with pear-shaped bodies and flat asses. The twerking isn’t working. They can’t actually shake their asses, because their asses are merely an extension of their backs, and just as flat. Watching a short, chubby Korean girl try to “twerk” is like watching an almost-dead fish twitching its last twitch in the bottom of a fisherman’s boat. But it’s the effort that counts and these girls are putting forth an astounding amount of effort considering what they’ve been given to work with.
The West African gentlemen seem to agree, and like honey bears to a bee hive, they surround the group of short Korean girls, cheering them on, encouraging their twerking. At this particular watering hole as with any, one cannot be too certain who is the predator and who is the prey. You might say it’s an uneven contest. Men can never win. Men aren’t supposed to win. It’s evolution. For evolution to stumble forward, women must always win. And they always do. Doesn’t matter if they are liars, cheats, princesses, good girls or gold diggers; they always win in the end. But what’s the alternative? If you think you’ve seen everything there is to see in Korea, I suggest visiting the Gold Bar, ordering a beer, and then waiting for the song “How Low” to come on. You my friend, have not seen everything there is to see. Not yet, anyway.