Saturday, September 20, 2014

reasons to dislike Itaewon

As I had threatened earlier, I took my trip into Itaewon today. Here are a few things I can't stand about the district.

1. Fellow expats. I didn't come to Korea to hang out with expats. True, the small handful of close friends that I've made here includes two or three expats, and I freely acknowledge that it's often nice to share insights with someone whose worldview dovetails, more or less, with your own. That said, I really have little use for most expats. Part of this is GOMAS: I selfishly want to feel that my adventure in Korea is unique. Part of this is my resentment of people in America who refuse to make any effort to assimilate into the larger culture; seeing Americans acting the same way here as foreign expats do in America just rankles me and erodes whatever traces remain in my head of the cherished-but-obviously-mythical narrative of American exceptionalism. Americans follow the "birds of a feather" rule just like everyone else.

2. Skyrocketing prices. Barely a year ago, a döner kebab at Sultan Kebab in Itaewon cost only W3,000 per tiny wrap sandwich. Now, the price is W6,000. My wallet spent all evening complaining about how painful and bloody its asshole was after dinner. There's a sock store at the edge of Itaewon, near the Noksapyeong side, that used to sell plastic packages of socks for W10,000 a package (ten pairs of socks in each package). Now: W18,000 for the same fucking package. That's roughly the same inflation rate as Sultan Kebab's. It's because of bullshit like this that people are increasingly turning to iHerb (website here; Charles recently wrote about it here, but I'd heard about iHerb last year from my buddy Tom, who sang its praises for its cheap, fast overseas delivery of a variety of "healthy" products), which offers reasonably priced items that expats can't find elsewhere. (I'll be hitting iHerb up for psyllium fiber.)

3. Annoyingly pushy Korean salesmen. I'm a large guy, but I don't need to be reminded of how large I am by Korean guys standing in front of big-and-tall stores who boom out, "Big clothes? You need big clothes?" The quickest way to get me to avoid your establishment is to try the hard sell on me. I did end up inside a keunot-jeom (big-and-tall clothing store), where I bought a shirt... for W35,000. See (2) above. My wallet was positively weeping by this point. It curled into a fetal position and refused to leave my pocket ever again.

4. Ho fashion. Is it my imagination, or is Itaewon a magnet for sluts and slut wannabes? I'm all for the tasteful revelation of the female form, but a never-ending cavalcade of scrawny little East Asian asses packed into tight jeans and miniskirts can quickly result in sensory overload. Tonight, I heard the Jesus freaks singing pious songs in front of the Hamilton Hotel, and I almost sympathized with them: they had obviously figured Itaewon to be Korea's own Babylon, and judging by all the crotches on display—all the ambient crotchality—I'd say they weren't far wrong. Maybe I'm just turning into a bitter, sexless old prude.

5. Saturday crowds. Itaewon is packed on Saturdays. I had forgotten that fact, mainly because I've tended to visit Itaewon during its off-days and off-hours. Today, I was on the main drag right at dinnertime—probably the very worst time to be there. I hate to say this, but I'd almost rather be walking the crowded streets of Gangnam than weaving my bulky way through the seedy masses in Itaewon.

Itaewon's attraction, for me, boils down to two things: (1) items that I can't find anywhere else, and (2) Western or other styles of international food. I agree with my friends that Itaewon has improved in terms of its no longer being quite the wretched hive of scum and villainy that it used to be, but I still fail to see its appeal. I go there only if I have to, and then only grudgingly.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I was pissed off to discover that one international store was closed this evening. I'm pretty sure the place is run by local Muslims—Pakistanis or Bangladeshis—which ought to mean the store should have been open, since the Muslim holy day is Friday, not Saturday. I had wanted to hit this store because I knew it had powdered Metamucil; I recently ran out of the Metamucil that Tom had given me a month before. I knew, too, that the price for this Metamucil would be exorbitant, but I was willing to pay more for the convenience of immediate availability. Since the store was closed, I chose instead to order fiber tablets from iHerb, which has a deal on fiber tablets that rivals the cheap prices I had enjoyed when shopping at Target while living in Front Royal, Virginia.



John said...

Well, Itaewon is a great place for darts anyway. And I'd say 25% or more of the folks in the dart bars are Korean. I've made many fine Korean friends in Itaewon as well as meeting a smorgasbord of white people from around the world.

I'm just arguing that what makes Itaewon unique is that it is the one place in Seoul where people from all over meet and interact with each and other and the brave local folks who willing to step out of their Korean-centric cocoon.

I mostly like it.

Kevin Kim said...

We may have conflicting concepts of what a "cocoon" is. For me, being American and stepping into a place that feels familiarly American means living in a cocoon, i.e., not stepping outside of one's comfort zone (where "comfort zone" = "cocoon"). But I can see how surrounding oneself in "otherness" might also seem like cocooning behavior: it's certainly more comfortable for us introverts to be surrounded by the unfamiliar, especially when that world expects little or nothing of us. Interesting difference of perspectives.

For me, one of my heroes (though I don't think I've ever told her this) is Andi Young, now known by her dharma name of Seon Joon. Until recently, she was a nun in a Korean Buddhist order. She stepped about as far outside of her comfort zone as it's possible to go: she lived among Koreans in a nearly cloistered temple environment, studying Korean, classical Chinese, and liturgical Sanskrit during her postulancy, which culminated in her ordination as a Buddhist nun. Andi leapfrogged me in terms of Korean-language proficiency; her efforts in that area put mine to shame. But I admire her for what she accomplished. She has since "put aside" her monastic precepts, but she's still walking a disciplined path: having graduated from Yale years ago, she's now at Harvard Divinity School, going for a Ph.D. in what I assume is a continuation of her Buddhist studies.

Perhaps we all exist on a scale or spectrum of "comfort-zone abandoners." Some of us stay within the zone; others of us stray outside it a bit but keep one foot inside the circle; still others shirk the zone entirely and head fully out into the world, becoming different people in the process.

Kevin Kim said...

...or did I misread you? I think maybe I did. You wrote:

"... where people from all over meet and interact with each and other and the brave local folks who willing to step out of their Korean-centric cocoon."

So you were referring to locals, i.e., Koreans, who normally wouldn't interact much with foreigners. So perhaps we're both using "cocoon" in roughly the same way.

That said, what I wrote re: the spectrum of "comfort-zone abandoners" still obtains, I think.

John said...

Yeah, I was on the road today so didn't get the chance to clarify, but as you deduced I was talking about Koreans stepping out of their cocoon.

Anyway, Itaewon is what it is. I'd agree that if that is all waegooks experienced it would be like never having come to Korea at all...

Rhesus said...

Speaking of comfort zones, how about those who've never really felt comfortable anywhere, in any situation, with anyone? I've met expats like this in Korea, who seem to relish the disaffection they experience. Maybe for them getting out of their comfort means returning to a society in which they are expected to participate in some way. In any case I doubt you'd find such people hanging around Itaewon.

Kevin Kim said...


Interesting insights. I've never met anyone who relished their disaffection, but I've met people who've relished their otherness (as I have, too, on occasion). Introverts, in particular, appreciate the mental and emotional distance that comes with living in a culture that prefers to mind its own business instead of interacting with you.

Then again, if disaffection means something like alienation, perhaps we're talking about the same thing. But I take disaffection to have a somewhat negative connotation: to be disaffected is to be in an undesirable emotional state—which makes it paradoxical for someone to desire or relish feeling disaffected. I'm not saying such people don't exist, but I am suggesting they're living a paradox.