Not far from Seoul’s landmark tower on Namsan mountain lies Itaewon, a love-it-or-hate-it district made up of a good portion of Seoul’s foreign population.
It’s rather curious that I have been silent about Itaewon this far. Two years in, and I’ve never weighed in on Seoul’s best-known foreigner hangout.
I suppose this is, in part, because it has taken me this long to arrive at a conclusion. Itaewon is, at times, difficult to process. It was born of a neighbouring US Army base, like most communities that cling to military installations it is filled with questionable alleyways and dark corners, an inherent rowdiness, and a hill of brothels. Yet it’s home to some of the best restaurants in Seoul, and the only area in the city that can truly be called multicultural–perhaps in the entire nation.
When I first arrived in Korea, like many expats who find themselves thrust into the cacophony of strange voices, I clung to Itaewon like it was my last oxygen canister at the summit of Everest.
And then time passed, and I began to feel at ease being only foreigner in my neighbourhood. I started enjoying the zen of being surrounded by voices that I don’t understand. I grew into the pseudo-isolation that comes with being in a foreign land. And then something unexpected happened–I began to loose patience with my own culture. Going into Itaewon became jarring and unpleasant. Suddenly those once familiar voices that comforted me in my first days became grating and superficial.
I began to see violent, drunken westerners stumble down the street loudly bellowing every curse they knew for no apparent reason. Fights on the street. Vendors haggling me to buy suits I have no need for. Soldiers sneaking into brothels behind the backs of the military police.
And for a while, that was how it stayed. I hated Itaewon.
And then, as inexplicably as it happened, the irritations melted away. I saw endearing vendors toughing out the cold winter evenings selling socks and t-shirts and trinkets, smiled when I saw foreign kids laughing (perhaps the most rare of sights in Seoul), took another long walk down the dark alleys and questionable locales. And it was okay.
Strange as it is, I like Itaewon the way that it is. I like it’s quirks and faults. I like the concoction of east and west, awkward as it may be at times. A city needs grunge and chaos, diversity, depravity, and even ignorant drunk westerners.
It is what it is, and I’m damn-well fine with that.