Okay. So. Itaewon is an area of Seoul which contains a United States Army base and which is known as a place where westerners congregate. While riding the subway there, I was beset by doubts: did I really want to go to Itaewon? If so, why? Wasn’t I meant to be experiencing the real Seoul (ie the Korean Seoul)? All of these thoughts ran through my slightly-addled head but in the end I decided that it couldn’t be that bad and that at least I could go home saying I had been there once. We exited the subway station and I was immediately struck by how different Itaewon is from, say, Insadong – it’s more like the Kings Cross area of Sydney, with lots of bars and trash on the ground. US military police (known here as “CPs”) roamed the streets, enforcing the midnight curfew for soldiers.
We headed to a Canadian bar up the hill, where a fellow-teacher of mine was participating in an acoustic guitar and singing competition. The bar was, well, as you’d expect, just like a Canadian bar – complete with authentic crushed peanut shells on the floor. The acoustic competition was in full swing, with a Korean duo playing a mix of originals and covers – including, of course, “Hotel California” which drew the most enthusiastic response from some obviously homesick Americans (or perhaps they were just Don Henley fans). Upon sitting down with our giant pitcher of beer, I immediately felt a wave of culture shock: I hadn’t seen this many westerners in over a month. It was like they were a room of aliens – loud, drunk and odd. We were sitting, however, next to the fan club of the Korean duo and soon enough we got to talking so it wasn’t that painful.
I don’t mean to come across like I feel superior to other westerners living here – for all I know, these people hanging out at the Rocky Mountain bar were genuinely into music and desirous of conversation with ‘native’ speakers. Maybe some of them are only in Seoul because their partner has a job here. Who am I to judge? I’m not in a position to criticise anybody, really. The fact is, though, that we (Kevin, Matt and I) were actually more interested in talking to Koreans. So that’s what we did. We sat through a few more sets and then all of a sudden, the tequilas came out. I said to Kevin, “Don’t look now, because if you do I can guarantee that you will be offered a shot of tequila.” Not surprisingly, Kevin’s head swivelled on his neck like a gun on a turret and within seconds we were adding to the dangerous brew of beer and spicy chicken already fermenting in our stomachs. The winner of the competition was announced – not surprisingly, a lanky north American whom the Korean girls “adored” but whose musical gifts I would hesitate to describe as staggering – and people began to slowly leak out of the bar and onto the streets.
We stuck with the Koreans who took us to ‘Kings Club’, a bar playing R&B (huge here, both the look and the sound), where we danced for a while before heading upstairs to try and play pool. There was a Russian girl working there as a ‘hostess’: for every drink we bought through her, she would receive half – her only obligation being to talk to us. This was my first experience of what I suppose is common practice in Japan and elsewhere. Her name was Sveta. She was a nice enough girl, had been in Korea for about three years and, like everybody else, was trying to learn English. Kevin, for some reason, told her that I was a ‘professor’ and within ten minutes she had signed me up as her private English tutor. I’m still waiting for her call but I’m sure she has forgotten by now. I think that the downside of being a hostess is that you have to drink an awful lot of alcohol and keep talking. Anyway, by this stage Matt had passed out in his seat and we decided it was time to go home.
On the street, Kevin insisted on sampling another chicken stick and as we stood there while he ate it, the guy who had won the guitar competition walked past with a Goth chick who had also been in the bar. For no apparent reason she came up to me and shoved me before walking off. I guess that pretty much summed Itaewon up for me. I won’t be going there again.