welcome to itaewan. this is where i spent 24 hours celebrating my 24th birthday.
it’s like san francisco’s korea town only the other way around- it’s in korea and it’s for foreigners. it is a haven for foreigners who sometimes find themselves singled out and estranged in the homogeneous korean culture. here, they have all the benefits of being in korea, minus the gawking and plus the convenience of familiar food chains.
they come from all over the globe to settle in itaewan among the crooked, narrow side streets and old, teetering apartment buildings buckling with time and character. people come to teach and then wind up staying put, opening a restaurant or a bag drink bar.
as a result, you can eat french food, vietnamese food, thai food, italian food, ethiopian food, indian food, mexican food, food from the endless variety of american chains like subway, quiznos, and taco bell. they go out drinking at irish pubs or throbbing dance clubs and then stuff themselves senseless with kebab, which is always within easy reach.
they find shoes in size 9 and pay double the price for them because this is itaewan- the only place in korea where the shop owners have even heard of feet so big.
before coming to seoul, i had heard about itaewan and sensed the infamy of its late night foreign drinking crowd and consequential high crime rates.
i didn’t stick around long enough to see the negative parts of itaewan. i was surprised by how amazing the place was during the day. it was a comfort to hear so many different languages and accents. just walking out into the streets from the subway, i felt a sense of freedom and excitement that i haven’t felt in korea before. this is what diversity does to places, i realize. it loosens things up. it relaxes. it opens and invites.
being in california, i took it for granted that there were always people from around the globe hanging out in the same coffee shop or just walking down the street. even among the sacramento-natives, many people had had the privilege to travel to different places in the world and when they came home they brought a new wisdom and culture back with them. this made for a constantly evolving social melting pot. there was always a potpourri of different opinions and characters and styles. there was a sense of freedom that bred new ideas ad nauseam. everyone is taking part in the ironic quest for individuality.
in itaewan, i had that same sense i get in san francisco- that sense that tells you to wake the hell up and go live your life. that good-old-fashioned sense of adventure and possibility.
coincidentally, i read this quote in my book last night that described it perfectly.
“…you have already been a warrior, a king, and a serf, and from the looks of it, you aren’t through yet. Thus, you have learned the secret of the new direction. that is: a man can be many things. Maybe anything.”- Jitterbug Perfume, pg. 42.
in any event, i loved it.
the shop keepers were making jokes, the pedestrians were laughing and learning korean numbers from the street vendors. the taxis had covered their entire car interiors with laminated post cards of past kpop stars. the kebab vendors were warm and boisterous. not to mention, most all shop keepers are fluent in konglish, which made me feel like a super star with my tiny bit of korean.
after surfacing into this bustling culture, the world continued to build rapid momentum and i spent the next 24 hours in constant go mode.
so i meet my life twin gina at the train station and we hit it off before we go to quiznos to reminisce over real turkey sandwiches, and my buddy chris from back in davis meets up with us and i’m high on his positive energy and the disbelief of seeing a familiar face in such unfamiliar settings when we give each other a big lassie-came-home hug and then we go speeding through the vendor-lined streets and i’m given a very quick and thorough explanation of the area’s geography. i’m taught where to go if i get lost and like a kindergarten field trip we choose a meeting place- the towering hamilton hotel in the center of the main drag. we go up a steep and winding hill towards chris’ house and he points out the spot where a big truck drove into a thick cinder block wall at the bottom of the hill, busting it open and nearly crashing into the busy street below.
we go up more narrow, steep streets…
…and then find ourselves at a landing and then walk down a little narrow street to get to a pink rot iron gate. two flights of stairs and then we’re there at the top of the world on chris’ front porch- overlooking all of the city for miles.
across the way we can see namsan tower and on the left is the heavy wall surrounding the u.s. military base and all around is a blanket of rooftops. apartment rooftops and traditional hanock house rooftops as far as the pollution allows you to see. today is a beautiful day full of clear, warm sunshine, so we can see pretty far out to where the cables stretch and the wires cross. it’s chaos and i love it. every sign of the modern mixed with the traditional. clothes hanging out to dry in the sunshine of the rooftops, broken pots with roots escaping through the bottom and crawling along the asphalt. the cars, the five-way intersections, the quiet buddhist temple hidden beneath some trees at the top of a hill, surrounded by a shadow. cracks in the uneven sidewalk filled with grime older than my home town.
we throw our heavy packs on the couch and then take off. we browse the thrift shops, the cafes. we take the metro to hongdae and shop our brains out among the super narrow, super tall, triple-decker shops. i grab a couple souvenirs and a few dresses for the spring and a pair of shoes in my size for going out at night.
we see people munching potato tornadoes, like spiraled potato chips on a stick. we push past the crowds, we eat cheesecake for my birthday, gina takes me out to galbi where we munch on marinated meat with vegetables and cheese-filled dukboki.
we talk endlessly of our matching lives and while she seems immune to the shock and awe of our similarities, i’m still wide-eyed about everything. we have boyfriends with the same name who look similar, whom we met right before coming to korea. we grew up in similar situations, our families split apart in similar ways. the list goes on and on. so we’re trying to talk among the constant flow of the city but things just keep pushing us to keep going, to keep walking and shopping and running for the subway and hailing a cab and hiking the winding roads at night back to chris’ place where we sit around lazily for a minute to catch our breath, change into our new outfits, down a few b vitamins, and meet up with chris and his friends at an irish pub down the street where the place is packed with jolly foreigners waving around their pints like a “cheers” episode. turns out chris has a friend who is also celebrating a birthday.
the crowd wants to move to hongdae so we wait and then it’s taking too long so we chug a beer and a whiskey ginger and then we’re in a cab and then we’re in crazy hongdae and we walk down a busy road, turn onto a deserted road, and chris opens a door that looks like it leads to an old office building and then he opens another door that looks like a janitor’s closet but then we’re in a basement where the carpets are velvet red and there’s a large pond in the middle filled with flowers and colored glass lamps and two trickling fountains. the place is smoke filled and candle lit and couples sit in grottoes along the perimeter puffing on hookah and snacking on nachos. we forgo the hookah but order three hot toddies and some nachos, which we devour in an elevated nook in the corner.
we lounge for a while and then head to 500 (o beck) where there is a cave and a light show and a dj playing dubstep and more grottoes with couples and a few people dancing wildly and freely to the music among the thick incense and barking rasta calls. i’m in culture shock because i can’t decide where i am – davis or korea? i try to explain dubstep to gina who has never heard it before but it’s a difficult thing to explain. you have to just be in it at the right moment, and then you understand.
then it’s norebang by 3 a.m. and we sing ace of base and the eagles and billy idol and all the classics before it’s nearly 5 a.m. and i’m tricked into buying a kebab which is delicious anyways and we make the adventure back home, up the crazy hills, in the unlocked gate, and i pass out on the floor next to the couch tucked inside a giant green fluffy blanket. amazingly enough, i sleep well and wake up feeling great.
chris makes smoothies sometime around 1:30 and then i spend an hour with a bloody nose from hell before finally it stops and we pack our bags and head out for lunch. gina is smart and goes back to quiznos. i go for the trendy looking noodle in a box, where i fearlessly order the extra spicy thai chili noodles only to find that the cook was serious about it being extra spicy and i am still a white girl from massachusetts who can’t handle the heat. i’m crying and sweating from the spice but i keep going. i eat in slow, small bites between gulps of water because it’s like a challenge now and i’m hungry enough to meet it.
back to the metro where gina and i part ways with promises to do it all again before she leaves in a month. back to towering seoul station where i look over the edge of the cement steps out into the city and feel that contented mix of sadness and satisfaction. i feel affection for the city and it’s energy. i stop worrying about people gawking at me and find that, in return, nobody is gawking. a part of me doesn’t want to go home but the other part of me is just happy to have been able to connect with this part of korea.
i took the mugunghwa train back home. it’s half the price of ktx and takes twice as long, so i was nestled in for a four hour trip back to daegu. i listened to music, ate kimbap. i chatted for a minute with my seat mate, who happened to be german and he spoke perfect english. the odds of two foreigners seated next to each other in assigned seating on a train is pretty slim and i could probably have talked the entire four hours but i get the feeling after a little bit that he’s hungover and just wants to text whoever he’s rapid-fire texting. he gives me the name of the hostel where he stays when he comes to seoul and he says “see you there maybe,” and it’s funny how this is- this passing of people and the willingness to just embrace the mystery of the movement of life. au revoir. see you later, though probably not. either way, have a nice life.
i put on my headphones and watch the sun set over the han river.
i watch farms go by, small towns, neon signs. it goes dark and i read a book. i write chris an email. i get off a few stops early and then it’s back on the red line and then back on the greenline, off in sinmae and i’m home before i know it where i shower, clean, and eat ramen.