Missionary Imposition

1910107_506533641047_2726_n The first Koreans I met were in Xi’an, China. They were missionaries and so was I. We had bubble tea on a university street on a hot evening and talked about miracles. Mean little homeless cats stalked across the Lazy Susan on the café table. The Koreans, a young couple, were mildly concerned about the state of my salvation because I wasn’t Catholic, like they were. The police deported them the next day for proselytizing, which is officially illegal in the country. I forget their names now.

This was summer 2007. It was my first trip to Asia and I’d flown over with eleven other bible college students. White saviors, there to do the Lord’s work. To witness to the locals and show them the signpost to salvation. After seven weeks of laying groundwork we’d leave, pushing them off on their own like kids on a bike, reinforcing them from the other hemisphere with the power of prayer. Hoping they’d start a church or something and that the conversion rate would grow exponentially in our wake.

To get visa approval we had to go “undercover” as university students enrolled in a Mandarin speaking course. We were coached by our school’s Student Missionary Union to stay off Facebook in the country, because that would expose our links to the church. And not to use the words “Jesus” or “missionary” in public, in case the local police overheard us. All of this was enough to allow myself to indulge in daydreams of espionage, of being an international renegade infiltrating a secular Communist bloc. I remember the rush of wrapping my Bible up in T-shirt and burying it deep in my suitcase like I was smuggling a 9mm Beretta through immigration. I was James Bond, if James Bond were a nineteen year-old American Christian who had never kissed a girl and didn’t know what beer tasted like.

So it was a vice-free excursion. No alcohol or nightlife. But that was fine; at that point I didn’t know what I was missing. Lights out at 10:30, after prayer meetings and four-chord worship songs strummed by our team leader. During the day we’d entrap college students by hosting huge ultimate Frisbee games on the quad. The goal was to make friends, invite them to coffee, then slowly sneak in our message during conversation, which we’d direct toward the topics of passions and dreams. 1910233_506663695417_7316_n I didn’t really bother with any of that. I was happier sticking with the leisurely perks of a summer abroad; tearing into a plate of dumplings on the street and posing in front of pagodas wearing aviators. I didn’t consciously acknowledge it until years later, when I got a little separation from it all, but I was a fraud that whole summer, as I had been from the jump. A wholly insincere Christian, only really enlisting as part of the flock because it was all I knew. Evangelism wasn’t a priority. I just went on the trip to impress girls from church and to compile a Facebook album.

I was less of a human being than I was a wellspring of arrogance, this being courtesy of a stilted worldview and a perception narrowed to the width of a sniper scope. Mine was an untested, unchallenged childhood spent behind a shield. Comfortably inside the middle-class Baptist bubble. I look at American soldiers in Seoul and trust-fund backpackers in the Philippines and many of them regard the planet with same superior smirk that I used to. Seeing each country as some quaint destination that exists for our amusement. Or yet another place populated by natives in need of our ideology.

I was the rebel of the team, because I’d vault the campus fence at midnight and go on six or seven-mile runs through Xi’an. Past the Drum Tower inside the old city wall or through the alleys in the Muslim quarter. Or through the red light district, where the girls carrying trays in dive bars wore shorts that showed their ass cheeks. A new sight, for me. The filth in the underworld was almost impressive: the decades of grime packed into the grooves of the sidewalks, the rolling hills of trash and the grease slicked all over the steel walkways twisting overhead. Old women in shapeless clothes just squatted and shit wherever they happened to be walking. night-time-below-drum-tower-xian-china Every run was another spin of the kaleidoscope. Sweaty taxi drivers on break tipping back flasks of baijiu, one of whom casually vomited in his cupholder as I went past, as if this was standard operating procedure. I spent a lot of nights out there, pounding through the city. My curiosity impelled me; I’d come all this way, I wanted to see something real.

And I did. There was the night a guy had his girlfriend pinned in front of a bar with her arm corkscrewed behind her back. He was knocking her head sideways with open-hand slaps as I came around the corner. The other drinkers all sat nearby and sipped. I’d never been in a fight; I don’t even think I’d ever seen someone get hit. He yelled at me to go away and I did. I still think about that moment.

Xi’an in the country’s old capital. Like any Chinese metropolis, it’s the real deal and makes Western cities look adorable. Its towers spawn out into infinity. Some people look at a city like this and regard it with urgency, because they see eight million people who are damned unless they can reach them all. I was wondering who could reasonably expect us to do such a thing.

I got lost in the sprawl some nights and the humidity would force to me to a stop. If you ever slowed down, then groups of kids on canes came up to ask for money. Most of them had been maimed by local bosses or whoever organized the begging racket. There were little girls whose legs had been broken and reset so they healed backward. Slumdog Millionaire schemes. If Jesus loved them, he had a strange way of showing it. On Wednesdays we went to an orphanage and took the disabled kids with swollen heads swimming. They liked to be held weightless on the surface of the water. Doing this made me feel helpless. Against ugliness, against all this cold chaos I kept witnessing. All these vignettes were adding up to something. They put deep cracks in my foundation and forced me to a point of honesty.

It’s been eight years since then and now I drink. Now I don’t believe in Heaven or a guy who decides if you get to go there. Billions still do, but I don’t necessarily begrudge them that. Someone has to go to the orphanage. What has kept surprising me is that, despite all the warnings of the emptiness that tortures the lost souls on the other side of the fence, I’m more fulfilled now. south-korean-church-crosses Now I’m back in Asia. There’s a stretch of road near my villa here in Korea that I’ve learned to avoid because it’s a missionary hunting ground. Enter the zone between the golf driving range and that glassy new hospital and you’re straying into the confluence of three churches. Right in the middle of overlapping fields of fire. You can feel the neon crosses tracking you like target reticles. The Christians always dress smartly and they’re quite clever; they’ll stop you to ask for help with “Englishee homework” before quick-drawing a Bible and beckoning you inside the church to hear the “Secret of the Passover.” My fellow expats will relate. Sometimes blond Mormons from Utah will come up and I’ll shoot the shit with them just to enjoy a rare sober conversation with a foreigner. Twice, cars have shuddered to a stop next to me and their drivers have rushed up with leaflets. I empathize with their urgency. They care about my salvation. I guess in a way it’s kind of nice that someone does.

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.”