by Fred Colton
Tourists, travel bloggers, K-Pop enthusiasts and all you lovely people of the Internet: This is Fred Colton, intrepid armchair anthropologist, reporting live from the main drag of Seoul’s famed Itaewon district at 11:45 on a Saturday night.
I’m en route to tonight’s hotspot of choice (more on that in a moment), making a casual traverse along a low, curving canyon of bars with names such as Geckos and SinBin and clubs with names like Cake Shop and Pet Sounds. This region is bracketed from the west by both a mosque and the notorious Hooker Hill, while a US Army Garrison rests down the slope to the east. Some off-duty soldiers hustle past me in a tight pack, trying to get back on base before curfew. Hmm, now wait a tick. These gentlemen don’t look like Muslims leaving prayer time. I’d give you two guesses as to where they just left, but you’re only gonna need one.
This is Itaewon. A paradox, an urban anomaly nestled in the shadow of Seoul’s Namsan Mountain. I use the word “paradox” because the nearby HBC (Haebangchon) neighborhood features tony villas leased by Russian expats, situated directly next to rows of scummy flats that you can pay cash to rent if you’re on the lam. I use the word “paradox” because the joint I’m passing on the right is a high-roller establishment with uniformed staff and velvet ropes fit for a behind-closed-doors mafia powwow, and it’s situated directly next to a grubby little dive that looks like where Han shot Greedo.
Ah, Itaewon. Den of vice, foreigner’s shopping mecca, international hub. Itaewon is the wreckage you get when you throw a dozen different cultures on converging tracks and ram them all into each other at high speed. So this neon-lit scene is thick with expats, hailing from every country you’ve ever heard of and all the ones you haven’t. Globetrotters who aren’t so keen on kimchi and mandoo and therefore treat Itaewon as their cafeteria, wandering the steep cobblestone alleys in search of shawarma, braai barbeque, or copious amounts of Guinness on tap.
The sidewalk is jammed with carts manned by Itaewon’s resident platoon of entrepreneurial ajummas, hawking panda socks and boxer shorts with Korean money printed on them. It’s a congested setting fit for a frantic, shaky-cam Bond movie foot chase. Somewhere beneath my feet, hundreds of twentysomething Koreans are awkwardly bopping to EDM in subterranean nightclubs. But that’s not where I’m heading tonight, no sir. Tonight, I’m turning it up a notch. Tonight, I’m heading to the best show in town.
Up ahead, there’s a massive sculpture of a dog head on the rooftop of a Thai massage place, sticking its tongue out at me. I enter a 7-11 and purchase a tall boy of OB Lager, Korea’s rough equivalent of Miller Lite. Then I move outside and post up in of the plastic chairs on the sidewalk. No, this isn’t the pregame. This is the game. I’ve arrived at the hotspot.
I crack open the OB and rub my hands together. Time to watch the parade. The parade in question is, of course, the Archetype Parade.
* * *
You’ve never done people watching like I’m about to do it. Itaewon is a microcosm of the planet’s misfits. You can see all makes and models of homo sapiens here. Drifters and rejects from every corner of the globe, finding comfort in this anonymous chaos. This variety makes Itaewon as close to a futuristic spaceport as we currently have on this planet. And in the future, when it actually is a spaceport, I don’t expect it to change all that much.
-May I have your attention please, ladies and gents, he’s here! Please welcome our first archetype of the night: the NMK (New Money Korean). As Korea’s economy booms along nicely and the won strengthens against the dollar, the NMKs are spawning quickly. This NMK is easily identified by his calf skin man purse (with the price tag still on it) and the popped collar on his multi-colored Gucci polo. Those already accustomed to premium polos know not to do this, but this guy just can’t help it. He’s so new to money, in fact, he doesn’t even know where to flash it yet. I know this because he’s trying to party here, in Itaewon, rather than Gangnam, the baller capital of the capital, the epicenter of conspicuous consumption.
He was just the opening act. Itaewon is just warming up. I take a pull of OB and continue to speculate on the backstories of the passersby.
-Ah, here’s a common sight. Two SCOINs (Shady Characters of Indiscriminate Nationality) stalking by with their hoods up. I’ll bet you 10,000 won these fellows are laying low in Itaewon because there’s an outstanding warrant out for them in their homeland.
-Next up, a gang of KCMs (Korean Christian Missionaries) wearing sandwich boards and shouting into megaphones. Hm, they’re mobile tonight, going fishing. Are there conversion quotas at their church? Normally they just clump over on the sidewalk by exit 4 of the subway. As they draw closer I slump in my chair and affect the blacked-out pose of a soju addict.
Then I pull out a bingo card I that designed, printed, and laminated during office hours at my school (don’t you get bored, too?) and check off my spottings so far. I’m waiting here for some friends and—call me retro, old-fashioned, grandpa, whatever—but I don’t need a smartphone to pass the time. Like I said: this is the best show in town. The archetypes keep on coming, dispersed almost equally, as if being nudged down a catwalk by a stage hand.
-It must be quitting time for the ajeossi who sells tailored suits by the nearby the What the Book? store. He floats by, wrapped in a cloud of cigarette smoke so thick I can’t tell what color his jacket is.
-Ah, here we are, folks. My personal favorite. The power couple, the dynamic duo. We have a JQE (Mr. John Q. Expat) who is 56 years of age and weighs in at 220 pounds, and is living the Asian Dream. He’s gliding along, arm-in-arm with a KYK (Ms. Kim Y. Korean) who is 28 and, thanks to genetics and daily yoga, will never in her life weigh even an ounce over 110.
See, John is bald and he sweats a lot. He took a beating in the divorce, so he sold his Camry and bought a one-way ticket to Korea and it was the best move he ever made. I’m happy for them both. I never judge when I see a JQE out and about. This is because I like living abroad, maybe too much, and unless I hightail it home tonight and kiss enough derriere to get an underpaid position at CubicleWorld, morphing into a John Q. Expat is my eventual destiny. Good to see that there’s hope. I take another sip of OB and grimace slightly as I realize that if the typical JQE pattern holds true for me, my future spouse won’t even be born for another two years. Maybe those are her parents over there, the…
-HKCS (Horny Korean College Students) holding hands, suppressing their giggling and trying to act like they’re not scouting for a love motel.
Whoa, hold up, now. Oh God, this is too good. Just when I thought it could get no better, Itaewon pulled out the big guns…
-At this juncture we are treated to three GEPs (Ghosts of Expats Past). Americans guys, in tank tops and visors. Fresh-off-the-boat bros, recent university graduates who suffered a hard crash landing after tumbling down from the boozy heights of the fratmosphere. Finding Reality to be about as much fun as inserting a catheter, they Googled TEACH ENGLISH ABROAD!!! (in all caps) in a last-ditch attempt to keep the party going. They’re still ecstatic to be here; the enthusiasm in their eyes has yet to be snuffed out by the crushing monotony waiting for them within the walls of a hagwon. By the way, you’re walking the wrong way, guys. Hooker Hill is behind you.
-And lastly but not leastly, two women who need neither an introduction nor an acronym. Two trollops, clip-clopping past, precariously perched atop the Mt. Everest of high heels, figures contained by cocktail dresses the size of hand towels. Let’s stop beating around the bush and just call it how we see it: they’re ladies of the night, making the commute over to Hooker Hill. But here’s the real question: are they 100% honest-to-goodness, all-natural hookers, or are they actually ladyboys? I’m not an expert. I don’t know the answer to that. But I advise you not to go all-in with your bets when you guess. Itaewon is nothing if not full of surprises.
The clock strikes twelve. My OB is drained and I tuck the archetype bingo card in my pocket. That was fun. I think I’ll start selling these cards soon (specifically tailored for any city in the world—yes, I take requests) and make my millions that way.
I rise to meet my confederates, who have just arrived on the last train into the city.
* * *
Addendum: Inner monologue of an aspiring Korean writer who lives in HBC (translated for your convenience):
“I’m walking along Itaewon-ro with a bottle of soju in my hand, taking mental notes of the characters I see as I search for inspiration.
Up first: a young Western expat drinking cheap beer in front of the 7-11, leering at two prostitutes walking by. He stands up a moment after they pass and then heads in same direction as them. So typical of these droves of young, unemployable foreigners, who can’t find good girls to marry in their home countries.
Oh, look. A text from my wife. She’s wondering where I am, so late on a Saturday. Sigh, I think she wants to have sex tonight. I’m over it, though. By now it’s clear she just married me so she could procreate. That much is clear. I keep telling her, now is not a good time for a child. My book sales are slow. I say let’s wait two years, when my finances are set, and have a child then. She wants a girl. I think a girl would be nice.”