Monday, March 23, 2009


That ROKetship panel pretty much sums up anything there is to be said about Itaewon, where I went with one of the other foreign teachers on Saturday, Brendan. In stark contrast to Uijeongbu, your chances of being able to have some kind of conversation in English with a random Korean off the street are pretty good, and about a third or so of the people you see milling about are white, with a few Nigerians (or at least I'm told they're Nigerians) thrown in for good measure. Actually, on our way back, a Korean fellow on the Seoul subway actually heard us speaking English and started a friendly (though halting and rather simple) conversation with us about where we were from and what we were doing in Korea, etc.

But before we could catch the subway, we had to take a bus to the station, which took maybe twenty minutes or so. The buses in Uijeongbu (not sure if this is true all over Korea yet, but I'm sure I'll find out) are not designed for comfort or luxury but purely for maximum bodies-to-bus ratio. There's single seats along either side of the bus, with a few pairs towards the back, but most of the time you stand, and you stand in sardines-like conditions.

After the bus was the subway, which took another half an hour, maybe longer, before we were in Seoul. Rides on the Seoul transit (the buses and the subway both) are done by duration. You buy a transit card (which is proximity based so all you have to do is wave it at the bus or subway gate which is really really really cool and futuristic and neat-o) and put X amount of Won on it, and a short trip might only be 1000 Won, but a longer one might be 1500 Won.

The subway platforms also serve as valuable retail space. Vending machines sell audiobooks, and you can pick up munchies at manned snack booths. Pretty clever, really, and I'm surprised I haven't seen it anywhere else.

Our first stop was an English bookstore, with both new and used titles. The fellow accompanying me wanted to pick up a fantasy book he ordered, and I ended up walking away with a very nice, gently-used edition of The Man in the Iron Mask for $3.50, $4.00 American. Right next door was the "foreign" grocery store, where Brendan restocked on deodorant.

Two points, here. First of all, there is very little distinction in every-day Korean between ethnicities. American, French, Russian, Indian—if it's not visibly East Asian, it gets lumped into one giant amorphous blob of a category called "foreign." So you see a lot of places that advertise themselves as a "foreign" restaurant and that's it. Same for this grocery store: "foreign" meant "American junk food, Indian cooking staples, and GOYA products."

The other point is that you can't easily get deodorant here. For whatever reason, Koreans just don't sweat enough to warrant it. Deodorant was something the recruiter recommended we stock up on, as well as hard-to-find spices and probably a few other things as well. I just took deodorant to heart and skipped the rest.

There's lots of bars and restaurants with English names (none of which I can remember, of course), and also stalls selling bootleg DVDs or other items of questionable origin (Chinese knock-offs of name brand products, etc). Clothing boutiques with pieces that echo the aesthetics of places on the Jersey Shore—which is to say, absolutely trashy and poorly-made—are common, too, appearing two or three to a block.

(As for the "corn-free pizza" line, yes, for reasons unknown, pizza in Korea will typically have corn in it.)

We also stopped in Yongsan to go to the I'Park Mall, which is supposed to be the largest mall in Asia. It is pretty huge but not quite a mall in the American sense. In fall semester I attended a lecture about virtual worlds in games, and the main thrust of the talk was the difference between "location" and "place." A location, according to the lecturer, is any random place in a map, virtual or offline or whatever. But a place is a location where people stop and linger and congregate. The I'Park mall is very much a location and not so much a place. There's no place to sit or relax, it's just an eight-story collection of stalls, crowned with an "e-sports" stadium, to which we paid a quick-but-obligatory visit.

Via the Internet, I found two craft stores in Seoul that carry beads, so this weekend I will probably repeat the trip (on my own!). If you don't hear from me again, it means I got lost and slept in a gutter, with all of my money spent on soju and rice cakes.

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