Since arriving in Korea I have been outside the city on few occasions. After an invitation to celebrate the birthday of a friend in Songtan I was eager to step outside the Seoul city limits and out farther into the Korean nation. Friday night I leave the school and immediately head to Nambu Bus Terminal catching a bus bound for the small city south of my home.
An hour later in a semi-delirious state I emerge from the bus in a strange new city. It is immediately distinguishable from Seoul. It is smaller and aged, with streets rising up hills, surrounded by farmland. A taxi ride later and I step out at the main gate.
The gate, I quickly learn, is the front entrance to Osan Air Base. It is a joint US-Korean military installation, surrounded with coiled barbed wire and the familiar grey concrete structures of American design. I am reminded of an airbase I once visited in the Bavarian region of Germany. Buildings for function, not form.
The main strip of the city is a straight line of illuminated storefront lights with an unusual proportion of English. This is immediately attributable the the Air Base itself, which has stood in this spot since the Korean war. Walking down the streets of the strip I am mildly uncomfortable by the atmosphere – although at casual glance it could be any street in Seoul, there is a heavy presence of armed Military Police. Soldiers and pilots trawl through street vendors. Even in Itaewon I haven’t seen so many North Americans. And certainly none of the shops sell switchblade knives and push-daggers* as they do here, nestled between nightclubs with menacing names. My mind flickers to war movies where locals gravitate toward military bases in hopes of catching a few American dollars from the hands of soldiers. And it hits me. This is precisely what has happened, and is happening, today. No one is rude or aggressive, and yet I find it strange to once again be among my own continental neighbours. I suddenly find them loud and boisterous after spending so much time among expressionless Koreans.
After a dinner at Brazilian buffet that serves an incredible amount of beef in infinite combinations, we float from bar to bar for the rest of the night. One of the bars we visit is one of Korea’s infamous “Juicy Bars”, places in which the waitresses also double as on-call prostitutes for the right price. In Osan-Songtan, there is a heavy Filipino presence, and all of the waitresses in this particular bar (and most others) are from the Philippines. It was a strange experience, to say the least. We talk for a bit with a few mildly intoxicated USAF members and head back to our friend’s apartment to crash in their absurdly beautiful home.
It was a surreal evening to say the least. The next morning we are treated to a real american breakfast, as our gracious host was with the US armed services. I was absurdly excited to have North American bacon and Canadian maple syrup again, both of which are impossible to find elsewhere. I have always been impressed with the US military’s ability to make any place feel like America by shipping in anything you’d find back home. I am still dreaming of the bacon.
Back to the bus station and an hour later I am back in Seoul. And I am shocked to learn that it remarkably feels like home.
*Update: Since writing this original post I have, in fact, found several switchblades and other questionable items for sale in Itaewon. Is there anything you can’t find in Itaewon?