Creatures of the Night: Hongdae Edition

Some things in life are like a box of chocolates: You always know what you’re going to get. (Hint: it’s goddamn chocolate in that box of chocolates, Forrest. What else were you expecting?)

For instance, if you—a young Western expatriate living in Seoul or thereabouts—decide to roll into the capital’s famed Hongdae bar/club district on a Saturday night, you know exactly what you are going to get. Your night out will be the same damn thing, beat for beat, of the last time you went to Hongdae. Your night in Hongdae will be another cycle of a time loop, like Source Code or Groundhog Day (“Ground Hongdae,” if you will.)

So this is what will happen. You, the young expat in question, will take the subterranean passage into the city along with a small band of thrill-seeking cronies. You will disembark at Hongik University station and hike the Everest of escalators and stairs and finally break onto street level. Welcome to Hongdae. Welcome to lights, schwarma vendors, kiosks selling socks and iPhone cases, bars stacked three high on both sides of the alleys. You will be pulled along by the energy of the crowd, and you will bump into packs of young Korean women because they’re using their Samsung smartphone cameras as mirrors to make a pore-by-pore inspection their faces, instead of focusing on the business of walking.

It’s important to remember you will not be in Hondgae by choice. You will be there because Hongdae has beckoned you. It demands your attendance. It is a magnet that draws in all the idiots abroad, all those who are somewhere between college and thirty, those somewhere between vagrancy and the shackles of Responsibility. You will be there because you know Saturday nights in your prime years are a currency that depletes much faster than you care to consider. You will be there because you’ve heard many an older person talk about life back in Their Day, and this is Your Day.

You and your posse of Hongdae Whores will strut through the noisy alleys. You will stop at a 7-11 and pick up tall gold cans of OB and keep on strutting. Somewhere in this bright maze is a pub, and you will enter it. Of course you’re starting the night at a pub while you’re in Asia. The authentic Korean bar will come after. This pub will be a bustling place on the second floor. They’ll be playing “Ride Wit Me” by Nelly and tall windows will let the city lights in. You will have a hefty draft Cass and someone will pick up the pool cue and someone else will play darts.

has spent many moons in Korea, and he will tell you that how much he loves “the culture” here. Probably because he is told daily that he is a hansum man. The second person you will meet will be named Jason, and Jason has already blasted through a full bottle of soju and suddenly his arm will be on your shoulders because dude! he’s totally from where you are, back in your home country! This makes you best friends. You would rather not talk to Jason, but talking to people in bars who you don’t want to talk to is like 70% of what you do on a night out anyway.

So you will meet some Germans and South Africans. You will meet some Scots and some Brits. Some Kiwis and Aussies. Just a sea of white, like milk mixed with milk. Yawn. Just a bunch of hooligans with the same biography and the same disdain for an early Sunday wake-up time. By the time you get another frosty mug in your hand you will observe a loud American named Brad (probably) who works downtown, smokes like his last name is Draper, and can’t even say “hello” in Korean, and he doesn’t plan on learning, bro! And in the corner, there will be the token squad of Europeans and their poseur American counterparts, looking up at the flatscreen, where there the DVR’ed Manchester United will be playing.

Following “Bad Romance,” the first of Pharrell’s many 2013 #1 singles will start playing. You will hear fast stomps on the stairs just before four American soldiers blow through the door. You will know they are soldiers because of their haircuts—which will be high-and-tight, their eyes—which will be deep, frantically churning wells of sexual frustration, and their T-shirts—which will be tighter than the 2000 US Presidential election. They are freight trains of testosterone, built to do damage. They will attack the bar and occupy it like a beachhead. When it comes to Saturday night in Seoul, they can and they will go from go from zero to sixty in 2.7 seconds. They will begin ripping tequila shots, and between each of these said shots they will murder even more brain cells by headbutting each other. They are emissaries to Korea, here all the way from the Planet Douche. But you can’t blame them, they are products of their environment, and their curfew clock is ticking.

The plot will thicken ever so slightly as a soldier pivots and hands you a shot. It’s Jaeger, bro. You don’t want to drink Jaeger. But you will do that shot because America, because freedom. If you’re not American, you will still do that shot because Yeah, remember that mistake we made with invading Iraq? the soldier will ask you. Wouldn’t want that to happen to your country, now would we?

The shot will hit your system and express itself as a chemical explosion. Blam—the fire will flash through your bloodstream. The embers will reach your head and a tingle will begin behind your cheeks. And then you will, for the next twenty minutes or so, be immortal. Like a jet taking off, you will lift out of your own body, reaching a stratospheric level of false confidence. If you are a female, that large Canadian named Paul you’ve been avoiding will suddenly seem like he’s worth talking to. You know, the guy who self-identifies as a rugby player yet by the looks of him probably hasn’t hit the pitch since before the “Harry Potter” actors hit puberty. If you are a male, you will meet a small, scared-looking female ESL teacher named Sarah, or maybe Lucy, who was dragged here by her friends, and you will initiate a conversation by demanding to know where she is from. She will answer your question and you will get very excited because hey, that’s where you’re from too—

When you re-enter your own head, you won’t know where you are at first. You will be inside a dark, loud, shapeless room. Do not panic. This is normal. Your vision will unblur just as, funnily enough, “Blurred Lines” starts playing. You will now be in a sea of Koreans in a basement establishment named Go Go Club or Ho Ho Bar or something, dancing atop speakers the size of Panzer Tanks. You will be perfectly content to stay in this Korean club, your own personal heaven, slingin’ won till the break of the dawn.

Hours will pass. Then the scene will cut in the montage that is your night and you’ll be on the street throwing paper airplanes made out of club fliers that say NO COVER! Another jump cut, and you’ll see some foreigners you know on the curb outside 7-11, slumped over like they’ve been executed by firing squad. Cut again, you’ll suddenly be on the sidewalk with a greasy white box in your hand, trying to eat your weight in pizza. A crossfade and then it will be dawn and you will be back on the train, feeling vaguely melancholy and looking at your phone, wondering why you’re now Facebook friends with some American soldiers.

You are the young expat. You don’t always go out in Seoul, but when you do, you go to Hongdae. And when you go to Hongdae, this is what will happen.

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Expat Musings & Mysteries

It’s a moonless Wednesday night and I’m stalking the spit-spackled sidewalks of my neighborhood in Incheon, Korea (the Southern one) with a cup of coffee in my hand and a head full of questions. Your boy Fred here needs a break from writing, so I’m just drifting down the streets. This is because I am new to the country and do not yet have a phone or easy internet access, and I’ve read all the books I brought with me. So for the first time in years, I’m legitimately bored. So tonight, without the mind-sucking distraction of a smartphone or online Daily Show archives, I walk.

I walk through neon-blasted alleys and past restaurants with huge fish tanks in front of them. I cringe, wondering: was it a bad idea to jokingly suggest to my co-teachers that naughty students should be sent to North Korea, just for the afternoon? By the end of my walk I decide, yeah, that was a bad idea.

I walk on. Tonight, I am alive again, after a 24-hour bout with a hellish fever that led to me sleeping all day in my elementary school nurse’s office under purple dinosaur sheets, shaking and wondering if this was The End. If I had touched a dirty Seoul subway pole over the weekend, or high-fived too many 2nd graders who have never washed their hands before, and that was it for me. A post-work hospital trip yielded some pouches of multi-colored pills that looked more like Flintstones vitamins than anything a governmental agency would approve. But I took one dose, and was resurrected. I’m on the Korean healthcare system and I got a doctor’s visit and kick-ass medicine for the equivalent of 10 US Dollars. I wonder: is socialized medicine really that bad?
I walk on, and pass a lot of love motels. But I also pass a lot of churches. One some blocks, there are two or three of them, interspersed between the love motels. Jesus and the Devil are both big into real estate here, staking out property on every single street, sometimes right next to each other. But in terms of visibility, Team Christ is winning. Some of the churches’ crosses can be seen from space. There are probably more Christians here than in heaven. I wonder: do they have Christianmingle.com here? I make a note to research this subject and if so, buy shares in that company. Then start handing out flyers for the site outside of churches at noon every Sunday. Everyone needs a hobby.
I walk on. I’m drinking coffee on my stroll, because I usually don’t partake in alcohol during the week. But if I wanted to, I damn well could, right here, right now. There are no open container laws here, unlike back in Amurka, the police state that is my homeland. But in the interest of trying not to look like an Orc by the time I’m 30, I’m practicing a little moderation. Every fifty steps or so I pass a drunk middle-aged salaryman bumbling down the sidewalk, carrying one those little green bottles of soju. You know the type: a blazer, white dress shirt untucked, hair unruly, cheeks reddened, a bulge around the midsection that is probably less belly fat than it is a severely enlarged liver. Maybe they are dashing from a bar to a love motel, or vice-versa, or maybe from a love motel to a Catholic church confessional booth to get right with the Big Man after what they’ve just done at said love motel. One man is even double-fisting soju bottles. I grin to myself and invent a drinking game that I file away for later use, dubbed “Edward Sojuhands.” They’re drunk, they’re drifting, and they’ll be back at work in 10 hours. I wonder: what are they escaping? Is there a nagging ajumma waiting for them at home? Is this how midlife crises are manifested in this country?
I walk on. I go to an internet cafe and post this. Tomorrow: more coffee, more walking, more mysteries.