Expat Culture

Expat, Immigrant, or None of the Above?

What do you call someone who moves abroad for “a year or two” and never goes home?

By John Bocskay


 

An anonymous wag once observed that a farmer who has sex with a sheep is a pervert, but an aristocrat who does the same thing is an “eccentric”. I’ve always loved this joke for the humorous (if slightly crass) way it bares a fundamental truth: social class and privilege profoundly affect our perceptions of people, and these biases are reflected in the language we use to describe them.

A case in point is the recent flurry of pieces discussing whether we who live overseas are more appropriately labeled immigrants, expats, or something else.

Some have argued that factors like social class, economic status, and country of origin are the more relevant determinants of who gets to be an “expat” and who gets saddled with a less glamorous label. Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, editor of SiliconAfrica.com, has argued that the words ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ are primarily racial distinctions. Writing for The Guardian, Mr. Koutonin notes that “expat” is an example of a “hierarchical” word “created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else.”

Hemingway in his Paris apartment

Hemingway in his Paris apartment

When it first appeared in English as a noun in the early 19th century, expatriate referred to a person who has been banished from his country (it comes to us via the French verb expatrier, meaning “to banish”). In its current usage, it more often refers to people who have chosen to live abroad, but it still carries the old sense of exile, whether voluntary and romantic (think Hemingway)  or involuntary and sad. Expatriate still has negative connotations among stateside Americans (some of whom mistakenly parse it as “ex-patriot” and draw the inevitable conclusion) because as any avid reader of American bumper stickers well knows, you can “love it or leave it” but apparently can’t do both.

While a word derived from Latin “ex” (outside) and “patria” (fatherland) should ostensibly apply to anyone who resides abroad, Koutonin claims that “that is not the case in reality; expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.”

I can’t speak to the truth of this in Europe, though I think right away of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, celebrated African-American writers whose “expatriate” label has never been challenged. Whatever the case, it doesn’t completely square

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

with the situation here in Korea, where “expat” is the general term that white-collar professionals use to describe themselves, regardless of color.

This is not to say that people of color don’t experience discrimination in Korea – they do, and it’s unfortunately not very hard to find recent examples of that – but merely to suggest that the “expat or immigrant” question, at least in Korea, is moot. Foreigners here are free to call themselves whatever they please, but the Korean language lumps us all under the term waegukin (literally, “outside country people”), which, as far as Korea is concerned, is the most salient fact about us: we’re all from somewhere else.

Koutonin’s call to deconstruct these terms is well-taken, but it’s hard to get on board with his remedy. Rather than extend the “expat” label to anyone residing overseas regardless of race, color, or class – a suggestion which would have the virtue of being both egalitarian and linguistically precise – he encourages readers to “deny [white expats] these privileges” and to “call them immigrants like everyone else.”

It’s not clear exactly what type of ‘expats’ he’s referring to but it’s important to recall that immigrant means (from Merriam Webster) “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.” Expats then are a free-wheeling, mobile bunch, while the immigrant plants his stake and settles in for the long haul.

“Immigrant” also raises the question of intention. I’ve talked to a lot of Western expats over the years about why they came to Korea, and I have yet to meet even one who has said, Yeah, you know, I figured I’d go to Korea and spend the next forty years there. I mean, why not?

I have however met many expats who have no plans to return to their home country, and to be fair to Mr. Koutonin, a lot of us do end up not going back. One more year leads to one more year until you reach a point where you understand that the effort required to pick up start over far exceeds the effort required to stay where you are. For better or worse, this has become your life.

A substitute teacher lives the dream

A substitute teacher lives the dream

Many expats will say that they remain open to the hypothetical cushy job that could lure them back (but which never comes looking for them); others give repatriation a go and come scurrying back when they get tired of substitute teaching or suburban monotony; still others stick it out in Asia and resign themselves to being blown in the winds of a global economy that requires more of us to migrate to where the jobs are and doesn’t always enable us to end up back where we started. To the extent that it is predicated on choice, calling oneself an “expat” may turn out to be a privilege after all, and the uncomfortable truth is that after so many years abroad the path leading back to the West for some of us is radically narrowed or effectively closed.

Does this then make me an immigrant, if only with the benefit of hindsight? Or can I claim to be an expat as long as I occasionally entertain idle thoughts of moving on? Other phrases like ‘international migrant’ and ‘global nomad’ strive to capture both this uncertainty and the willingness (or necessity) to flee to more promising shores.

As I quietly figure out where my life is headed or not headed, I find myself not concerned with labeling that experience. I realize that this stance may itself be another form of privilege – that of not caring – but it’s also part attitude, which may best be summed up by paraphrasing another old joke:

Call me an expat or call me an immigrant; just don’t call me late for dinner.

 

* Are you an expat? An immigrant? Late for dinner? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

**This piece originally appeared in Haps Magazine

Innovation or Aberration? – Unpeeling the Costco Onion Salad

By John Bocskay

Any American or Canadian who has been to a Costco in Korea has witnessed what Koreans do with the onions. In the U.S. you turn the crank on the dispenser and catch the tumbling onions on the hot dog, the whole hot dog, and nothing but the hot dog, but that’s not how the Koreans roll. Most of them pile the onions on a dish or a patch of foil, dump globs of ketchup and mustard over them, mix it all into a lumpy orangey mash, and tuck straight into it with fork and spoon as an improvised side dish to their pizza, clam chowder, or Caesar salad.

Expat critics react with a mix of condescension, bemusement, derision, and disgust. Didn’t Koreans get salad_downloadthe memo? Onions are supposed to go on the hot dogs! And look how many onions they’re piling on! Have they no shame?

Among the many unfair and uncharitable assessments of this practice, perhaps the most ironic and ridiculous is the notion that Korean shoppers are taking advantage of the generosity of Costco, a fantasy that would have us imagine Costco to be a defenseless multinational corporation which is either unaware that their staff are refilling the onion dispensers 30 times a day on weekends (I asked) or are somehow powerless to stop this hemorrhaging of onions; a fantasy which depends for its dramatic tension on the belief that despite giving away samples of ribeye steak, shrimp, wine, pork cutlets, sausage, noodles, cookies and dozens of other items every day at stations all over the store, the thing that’s going to finally bust them and ruin the party for everyone is the unfortunate habit of doling out a few sacks of one of the cheapest vegetables on the planet.

The onion guy fills it up for Nth time.

The onion guy fills it up for Nth time.

If that argument sounds lame, you may find yourself suspecting, as I do, that what’s more likely happening is that Costco Korea has lucked into an inadvertent but tolerable solution to their lack of side dishes in a country that everywhere expects them, and that management has decided to run with it as long as it doesn’t lose too much money.

A recent e-mail exchange with Edward Yoon Kim, the General Merchandise Manager for Costco Korea confirmed my hunch. Noting that the company believes that “real success comes from real member satisfaction,” Mr. Kim explained that as long as Costco can make a “reasonable profit” while making customers happy they would continue offering free onions, and that if it was no longer profitable to do so they would consider stopping it. Since the onion salad buffet has been going strong for several years, it seems safe to call it something other than abuse.


There’s a lot about these criticisms that has always struck me as strange. The first thing you might notice at Costco is that there is nothing posted on the onion dispenser itself to indicate that the onions are supposed to go on hot dogs or that they are not intended as a side dish. In other words, there was no ‘memo’ that Korean customers are not getting, and the habit that our worldly Western critic imagines to be a self-evident universal truth turns out to be nothing more than his own narrow cultural conditioning.

Nor is there anything intrinsic to the onion dispenser to suggest that the culturally-conditioned way that Americans use it – cranking steadily with one hand while catching an uneven flow of onions atop a narrow moving target with the other hand – is even the best way to use it. In the 20 minutes that I observed people serving 2014-11-08 14.39.55themselves onions on a recent Saturday afternoon, the only people who dropped onions onto the counter – apart from the one little kid who cranked it for fun until his mom told him to cut the shit – were the ones who used it the “right” way. Not surprisingly, nobody who used a dish to catch onions managed to miss any.

Ditto for the ketchup and mustard, which is actually harder to dispense directly onto a hot dog than the onions are, for the same reasons (uneven flow, occasional spurts, moving target, etc.), but with the added challenge of the changing distance of the hot dog to the spigot as it is pumped downward. Catching the condiments on a dish and mixing them later makes it easy and actually gives you a shot at recreating the model hot dog in the promotional photo above the food court, or failing that, just not making a total mess.

I also watched people eat for a while, and I noted that a quarter of the people (7 out of 28) who took onions were actually using them in the intended way: as a topping for hot dogs.  I realized then that mixing the onions with the condiments beforehand and spreading them on as a sticky mixture made them less likely to tumble out when you bite into the dog. I also observed another 7 people put the onions on bulgogi bakes, which I mentally noted as something I definitely had to try later.

The rest treated the onions exactly the same way Koreans treat them everywhere else: as a side dish, and in order to understand that, you need posit nothing stranger or more terrible than a small cluster of reasonable assumptions based on long-standing cultural practice.


The more I think about the Costco onion salad, the tougher question for me to answer is not why Koreans do it or why Costco allows it, but why Westerners almost never see it as innovation or a clever adaptation and instead tend to paint it as a failed attempt at cultural appropriation. And it’s a very selective tendency. Chop up a hot dog into pieces so that the family can share it and you have a charming example of Korean togetherness; but eat onions from a dish with mustard and you’re a culturally-confounded freeloader. Bump into someone in a traditional market and it’s an instantly forgettable part of the rough-and-tumble charm of the old Asia, but nudge someone with a shopping cart at an American supermarket chain and you’re destined to be the clueless antagonist in an upcoming facebook rant or K-blog screed.

I’ve long suspected that the reason we think like this (I confess to it as well) is that when you go to a place like Costco you feel you are stepping into a piece of America, so you consciously or unconsciously feel that the same norms apply. When they don’t, it’s more jarring than if the setting had been radically different and had carried no such expectations. This may be why it often seems that the hardest things for Western expats to accept are ironically not the things that are most different from our home countries but the things that are most similar. We enjoy the mad rush of a tuk-tuk ride through Bangkok’s shifty alleys yet curse the Korean driver who fails to indicate a lane change on Seoul’s modern roads. Being nudged at a street food cart is a minor annoyance, but cutting the line at a Busan Burger King inspires an aggrieved lecture. Shoot soju on a raised wooden platform in front of a bodega and you channel old-world insouciance; do the same thing on a new sidewalk and you’re an obstacle. A savage. An idiot.

79-make-blts

Re-purposing familiar devices is often considered clever.

It’s fun to point out cultural quirks and oddities, but it’s ironic that the cultural heirs of Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers so often insist that Koreans should think inside the box and see onion dispensers as having only one conceivable use. You can learn something about familiar things by observing how they are used by people who have no culturally conditioned ways of using them – there’s a whole genre of internet memes which fascinates millions of people for precisely this reason. It’s weird that we applaud the ingenuity of the American yokel who figured out that he can use toothpaste to clean the headlights of his pickup truck, and we dignify his achievement with the label “life hack”; but when some anonymous Korean shopper figured out that catching condiments on a dish was actually a decent idea, or that mixing them together would result in a dish that millions of people apparently enjoy, we deride it as a cultural hack job.

Perhaps the final irony is that if we insist on being purists and on recreating ethnic dishes either authentically or not at all, then we’re simply being difficult, but the more immediate problem with that is that a lot of my favorite foods – General Tso’s Chicken and New York-style pizza come to mind – would never have been created in the first place. You’d also have to say goodbye to the American hot dog, which is itself a bastardization of European sausage that could not have held onions at all if Americans hadn’t added the bun. When you really get down to unpeeling the layers of assumptions surrounding the Costco onion salad, it becomes hard to know which is piled higher: the onions, or the irony.


The only real question remaining for me concerning the onion salad is, “How does it taste?” so in the interest of the advancement of knowledge I tried it. I admit to feeling a pang of vestigial guilt when I piled the onions on my plate, plopped some mustard and ketchup down next to it, and swirled it all together. I’ll also be the first to admit that the resulting mixture really does look gross, perhaps because it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the fake plastic vomit that was sold in the backs of comic books when I was kid.

Once I got past that, however, I found the onion salad to be surprisingly bland, not nearly as tart as I expected, but my curiosity was still only half satisfied. Fulfilling an earlier promise to myself, I cut open a bulgogi bake, loaded the onion salad on top and had a genuine Eureka moment as the flavors hit me: the combination of the breaded crust, marinated beef, cheese, onions, mustard, and ketchup transformed the ho-hum bulgogi bake into a very respectable cheeseburger, and I assume, fair reader, that you don’t need me to tell you exactly how weird and terrible that was.

Tube burger? It's hard thinking of names for this that don't have unintended sexual connotations.

Boom!

10 Things In Korea That I’ll Never, Ever Do

by Mr. Motgol

I wrote this  piece a few years back, and while a few things have changed since then, most have not. As it is currently boshingtang eating season, not to mention Mudfest time, I thought that a re-post may be apropos. I’ve made a few small revisions. Enjoy. And don’t take it too seriously.

I like living in Korea. I’ve been here for almost ten years now, so if I hated it, I would have split a long time ago. I like hiking, I like the food, I like riding my motorcycle, checking out the street markets, and drinking my ass off. It’s a crowded crazy little place and I’ve grown to love it, for better or for worse. Plus, the girls are bangin’ hot. I should know: I married one.

That said, there are a lot of things here that I think are totally lame and that I have no interest in doing. Ever. Here’s a list of ten, in no particular order:

1. I’LL NEVER, EVER GO ON A TEMPLE STAY

journey_600

Does wearing pajamas, waking up at 3 a.m., eating soggy flavorless food, bowing hundreds of times, and sitting crosslegged for hours on a hard wooden floor sound like fun to you?  Doesn’t to me. In fact, it sounds totally shitty and boring as fuck. Yet countless foreigners head to the monasteries every weekend to do  “temple stays,” as if it’s some essential “cultural experience” that will leave them with a better understanding of Korea. If you really want to understand the culture, pick up some of the language and get drunk with some ajoshhis at your local soju tent.

And a lot of people give Buddhists a pass because they’re all “nice” and don’t bomb abortion clinics, but Buddhists believe that people are poor because they were assholes in their “past life.” That sounds like a load of horse shit used to keep people in their place to me. Screw Buddhists. I’d rather be a Muslim any day, as at least they believe in egalitarianism.

2. I’LL NEVER, EVER WEAR A HANBOK

hanbok1

Nothing seems to tickle the locals’ fancy more than dressing up the big goofy foreigners in hanboks, which are colorful, traditional Korean attire.  Schools love to make their teachers put them on for festivals and special days; some losers even get married in the things, no doubt at the insistence of their ball-busting soon to be a battle-ax ajumma future wives.  Hanboks suck.  They make any woman who dons one look pregnant and pretty much every foreigner look like a stupid, fat clown (which is how they see us, anyway.)

clown

In short: jarg clobber.

3. I’LL NEVER, EVER GO TO THE BORYEONG MUD FESTIVAL

mudfest

Nothing says “newbie” like the Boryeong Mud Festival: Packs of fresh-off-the-boat teachers wandering around in various states of undress, covered in mud that’s not even from the beach (it’s trucked in for the event) and celebrating the fact that they can publicly drink without getting arrested. The locals have caught on too, gouging the drunken tourists with quadruple-priced rooms, drinks, and meals. The whole thing is a like ESL spring break, though instead of Cancun, the event takes place in a gurgling petri dish. No thanks.

4.  I’LL NEVER, EVER SEE THE CHERRY BLOSSOMS

cherry

The only thing as dreadfully boring as a temple stay must be the yearly pilgrimages to see the cherry blossoms every April.  People pack into their Hyundai Sonatas and wait hours in horrendous traffic jams just to catch of glimpse of the “beautiful cherry blossoms that sooth the soul.”  Sure they’re kind of pretty, but they’re just little fucking flowers on trees. Are they that desperate for natural beauty in this country that blossoms on trees whip them up into some sort of sightseeing frenzy? I don’t get it. I’d rather wash my cats, or spend the weekend watching National Treasure 1 and 2 on a constant loop.

5.  I’LL NEVER, EVER HELP THE ORPHANS

crying-asian-child-photo

It’s seems like every month, somebody’s doing some kind of benefit to “help the orphans” – concerts, silent actions, volunteer trips – you name it, those orphans are getting a lot of love, not to mentions some big coin. It’s as if they’re the only charity that foreigners care about. Who are these “orphans” anyway?  I’ve never met any. I thought all of the orphans in this country get adopted by needy and neurotic white Christian couples from Wisconsin.

6.  I’LL NEVER, EVER WATCH AN “EAT YOUR KIMCHI” VIDEO

eat your kimchi

Really. Those guys should be flayed with razor wire.

7. I’LL NEVER, EVER PAY MONEY TO SEE A SUPER COOL LAPTOP BAND

xiuxiuwadsworth

There have been a smattering of bands coming through Korea of late, which I do applaud.  However they’ve all been small combos of unshaven emaciated vegan hipsters playing electroclash or whatever bullshit is passing for cool among the ironic mullet set in Williamsburg, Silverlake, and Portland, Oregon these days. A few years back an outfit called Xiu Xiu came to town. I checked out their video on youtube, and it was a steaming glass of pretentious cat piss. This isn’t surprising, seeing how they’re signed to my home town of Olympia’s super-elitist Kill Rock Stars label, who have always put out music so “cool” that it doesn’t even have to be good.

Call me an old, out-of-touch jerkoff, but if you require a laptop computer to play a show, you’re not a musician and I probably will hate you and want to burn down your band.

8.  I’LL NEVER, EVER LEARN HOW TO MAKE DEOK

ddeok

Deok, or Korean rice cake is culturally cherished, but it’s really like eating concentrated apathy. It’s nothing but rice that’s been smacked to death with a huge wooden mallet. Koreans love the things and are always forcing them on foreigners, oblivious to the fact that most of us do not think that “Korean rice cakes are the most delicious rice cakes.” But it’s always in front of your boss or at a home where you teach a very lucrative private, so you choke down the slab of “deok” that looks and tastes like it was cut straight out of a Nerf football.

Some silly and stupid foreigners go on weekend retreats where they learn to make the shit.  That’s just wrong. Some recipes need to stay in the family.

9. I’LL NEVER, EVER EAT BOSHINGTANG

boshingtang

Boshingtang is Korean dog meat soup. It’s pretty much only eaten by men (to make their dicks hard), and is eaten mainly in the summer, often with su yuk (steamed dog meat). Most foreigners rightly turn their noses up a the disgusting and depraved practice of eating fido, but there are a big enough minority that give it a try, some with gusto even. They think they’re getting some “real” cultural experience, but no, they’re just eating nasty-ass greasy dog meat and patting themselves on the back for really “getting into Korea.”

Fuck that. I’ve been to the Gupo dog market and seen those poor guys stuffed in their cages and looking out at me with sad, defeated eyes, resigned to their unfortunate fate, which usually involves being strung up and beaten before getting killed. This supposedly makes the meat more tender or delicious or some other load of crap, but I think it’s just because the people who raise and slaughter dogs are just plain mean.

dog

I know, I know. I’m a hypocrite because I eat other meat and those animals are too, treated brutally. But I say fuck you, dogs are different and should not be eaten. Chickens and turkeys, on the other hand, are fair game. (rimshot)

*10.  I’LL NEVER, EVER PAY OUT THE ASS FOR OVERPRICED SHITTY FOREIGN FOOD 

curry

How many times have I gone to an Indian, Thai, or Turkish place in Korea and gotten totally hosed? I never trust any foreigner who says, “Oh, there’s this amazing new middle eastern restaurant in Kyungsungdae.  It’s awesome.” Why? Because it never is. Most all of these places require a wheelbarrow full of banknotes to pay for portions so small that they’d leave a Darfur refugee wanting for more. One time I counted three microscopic pieces of chicken in a sixteen dollar curry at an abortion of an Indian restaurant. The worst is the time I went to the Thai place in Haeundae and ordered the crab and shrimp curry (thirty six bucks). The dish arrived, with a handful of small, spiny, gum-slicing crabs.  Upon further investigation I discovered there were no shrimp at all. When confronted, the indolent waitress just shrugged, told us that they were out of shrimp, turned and walked away. And I won’t even write about the massacres that are Korean attempts at Mexican food, except to say that the ceviche I tried in Masan was made with ketchup. Motherfucking ketchup.

I’ve pretty much given up, and so should you. Wait until you leave this country to get your fix of foreign food, or make the shit yourself – that’s what I do. And to all you wannabe food critics out there, stop writing glowing reviews of awful foreign restaurants for those English language publications. I haven’t read a negative restaurant review yet, and believe me, some of these places need their rectums reamed.

Me? I’ll be sticking to bibimbap, galbi,  and my daily jeong shik. As for the shitty foreign restaurants? Just like the holocaust: never again.

 

*Okay, I’ll admit that foreign food options these days have gotten a lot better. I’ve had passable Indian, okay Thai, and some very good Mexican, but this is a new development. I should probably remove #10 from the list, but just let me stew in the hate of days gone past. 

Creatures of the Night: Itaewon Edition

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.”