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Korea: Of army men, hookers and porn Karaoke - Exploring Seoul's seamy underbelly.

This last week has been full of great stuff. Work has been an interesting experience on its own level: I'm a 24-year old software trainer teaching 8 people, and the youngest person in the group is probably 6 years older than I am. It caught the director of the group highly by surprise: while Korea has changed a lot over the last three years, particularly after the economic crisis of 1997, this is a society that still has fairly strong Confucian traditions, at least in the business world. This means that part of daily functioning (in the business world, for sure) involves gauging whether one's relationship to others falls into one of the five relationships that Confucius described as essential for daily functioning. I won't try to explain it, mostly because I myself don't understand it all that well. Suffice it to say that the relationships between old and young and between teacher and student are very unequal relationships that carry a sense of respect that other relationships don't. So, as a guy my age teaching people who are probably already into their 30s, it made for lots of questions the first couple of days trying to determine where exactly I stood in the grand scheme of things. This is probably the only situation in which I have ever used the name of the university I went to as a tool to give me some form of status. That combined with my saying "I speak four languages" (here goes the language thing again!) and being able to read occasional words in Korean helped me establish more quickly that I'm not just some schmuck sent here from across the ocean without a clue (although I am) but that I know what I'm doing, despite being a young'un.

Eating is a big deal when doing work. Everyone eats together, all the time. The senior person in the room decides when lunch is eaten, where lunch is eaten and what lunch is eaten, and gets a significant amount of respect and deference. Being brought up on the "be your own person" philosophy, this takes a while getting used to.

Weeknights I've fluctuated between trying to be brave and go out around the city knowing that I have no language ability or staying at the hotel, watching hotel television and chatting online. From what I can discern, Korean TV consists of some basic genres:

  • The historical serial involving people dressed in traditional Korean garb, going around buildings that look like palaces and occasionally breaking out into traditional folk singing. Sometimes people are killed with daggers.
  • The young-people-type game shows involving various forms of physical activities and grand facial gestures.
  • The Regis/Kathy Lee-style talk show, where every time that Mr Kim and Ms. Park are seated they are behind a table that is holding a bushy bouquet of flowers.
  • The daily news show that looks like the newsshows in many other parts of the world.
  • The comedy show involving people in living rooms and classrooms. I would say it's a sitcom, but there seems to be no continuity.
  • The occasional Japanese cartoon dubbed in Korean. I saw some of these things when I was a kid. In fact, my friend Jang commented yesterday that a lot of the perceived cultural unity that Latin Americans and Asians might experience are probably a result of Japanese goods, food and TV, including National televisions, raw fish, and cartoons.

There's one Korean network that needs a bit more mentioning. It's called Arirang, and every show on it is in English. And not just any English: almost perfect, up-to-date, North-American-style English is spoken. The thing that strikes me as different about this is that it's intensely corny. Maybe it's just cynical me, but the shows have a Nickelodeon meets MTV feel that's a couple of steps away from creepy. It's as if kids who once danced around with Barney had grown up, consumed more of the special Kool-Aid, and had built a whole network around very Happy Fun Wholesome entertainment. To be fair, I've learned some Korean phrases, learned about Korean food and other cultural traditions that I wouldn't otherwise understand, and I have learned of places I should go to while in Seoul. However, their 10-minute exposé on how to behave at a Korean hotel lost a lot of credibility when they set it at the Hyatt (!) and explained in very careful detail how you can use the pool (it seems like an ordinary pool to me!) and call for room service. Other beauties of Arirang TV have included a 30-minute play-by-play viewing of a session of StarCraft between two professional computer gamers, a shopping spree including American Tourist Shopping For Wedding Dress in Seoul For His Girlfriend, and a show discussing the latest cinematic releases to such detail that you might as well skip the movie altogether. The channel has a quality akin to a bad accident on the interstate--so bad that you can't bear just rubbernecking for just a little bit longer.

There's Japanese television, which is always full of Super Fun 2000 and Karaoke shows (I'm not making this up), the Armed Forces Network, and some Australian and European channels including French television. In fact, I had a very postmodern experience last night, watching a show in French about what's going on in other European countries, where there was a representative from one of six nations speaking about what's going on with condom sizes in Germany or newfangled bicycles in Greece or traffic accidents in Portugal, discussing insults in Italian and Portuguese, all this from my hotel room in Seoul, South Korea.

I do get to watch reruns of Mr. Belvedere and Small Wonder on Star World, which makes me wonder how low their budget is. It's even the first season of Small Wonder, complete with the dippiest theme song this side of Gilligan's Island. Bliss.

But so much for that: TV is always an interesting window on the world, but not as much as going out and experiencing life.

Namdaemun Market from my window
Namdaemun market from my window

On Wednesday night I made an attempt at going out the Namdaemun market to eat dinner, but the language barrier got the better of me and I just walked around, saw some cool camping gear and eels and returned to my hotel, humbled, and headed to the overpriced buffet and had some OB beer.

My forays into the world of functioning actually began in earnest on Friday evening. I met at interesting fellow who I will name GS14 earlier in the trip. We'll call him GS14 because well, the guy's in one of the armed forces and well, he's not really supposed to Tell, nor will I Tell in his place. In any event, we chatted for a while when we did meet and there was friendly clickage, so he graciously agreed to serve as nocturnal tour guide of Seoul's mild gay life . The evening began with a cab ride to Yongsan Military Base, the main point of US presence in South Korea. We had to walk around in the rain for a while (wrong entrance) and made our way to the Navy Club for non-Korean food, which was a very fun experience on its own. The sandwich I had was a good return to warm food after about a week's worth of cold pickled spicy vegetables and noodles, but the crowning touches included a couple of women from the Phillippines (in over-Flowing dresses (i.e. tight and flesh-exposing) singing Gloria Gaynor and Tammy Wynnette tunes) and a roomful of very good looking Army guys.

We left after a couple of beers and walked to the I'taewon district, which is described as a "shopping district for foreigners" in the tourist literature and hotel brochures. Whomever wrote that was trying to pull a fast one on some Japanese shoppers. Yes, one can buy leather jackets on the main strip and browse purses and shoes in narrow little shops that remind me of contraband markets in South America, and never mind the "The North Face" store and the occasional Asio-trend boutique: aside from Nashville, the 'Mericans Only Country Western bar on the main strip, the center of I'tawon's night life is Hooker Hill and environs.

Surprisingly enough, Hooker Hill is actually a hill, a fairly steep and narrow one. And, sure enough, Hooker Hill has hookers. As one walks up this street, it's hard not to think of bad Vietnam War movies: left and right are little "restaurants" with women at the doors, of assorted sizes and shapes, working in earnest to bring the Boys through the doors and onto their laps. And they're not just passive, standing in the doors waiting for clients to arrive--they'll actually be quite intent on engaging passers-by. In fact, so forward are they that one of these women, of particularly prominent proportions, even grabbed my elbow as H and I worked on dodging our way up the hill and around the corner to the little rooming house where GS14 would be spending the weekend. "I like you GI!" some others yelled. Most of the 'Merican males on the Hill seemed very intent on using the intensity of that liking to get a servicemember discount.

GS14 and I were pretty definitely not going through Hooker Hill looking for hoochie-coochie (and if you're not aware of why, well, here are a few really good explanations). However, and fortunately, GS14 and I both enjoy people watching, so we sat and watched as drunken Army boys caroused with loose women, as a group of pseudo-bikers (they're everywhere!) gathered outside of "The Grand Ole Opry" and as the occasional older Indian tourist wandered up the street.

We made our way, eventually, to a little strip of bars on a street parallel to Hooker Hill. The place we went to was next door to a joint called Always Homme (clever, clever) and across the street was Why Not?, and since I do not remember the name of the place we did go to I will call it Because. AH was one of those tablecloths-and-Cosmopolitans kind of place and the other two where fairly standard issue small gay disco bars stuck in an Olivia Newton-John video.

Because had that Miami Vice-ish, black-tile-on-white-grout-with-black-light feel to it, and also had the ubiquitous screen with porn movie. Unlike many other places, however, this porn display was punctuated with the changing lyrics of assorted karaoke songs: apparently, it is illegal to display obscenities on their own, but if obscenities are displayed with karaoke lyrics it is OK. I do have to say that reading the lyrics to Rod Stewart's "Do ya think I'm sexy" and Babs' "People, who need people" while some guy is getting things done to his hiney is oddly appropriate.

Mt. Namsan, from my window
Mt. Namsan, as seen from window

GS14 and I eventually left the place (apparently Friday nights are not kicking) and headed over to his little room to hang out under the air conditioning and, ahem, chat.

I took a cab to my hotel, and was very proud of myself--I somehow managed to let the driver know how to get to the Hilton without using any words other than Hilton, Namdamun and Namsan. The guy was even lost in I'taewon and I pointed him the right way. I'm glad I paid attention when the hotel shuttle took me there earlier in the week.

More to come soon.

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