Editor’s note—Occasionally The Three Wise Monkeys will run a “RETRO PIECE”. This is a feature that was not published by the local English language media, or, if it was bludgeoned by the power hacks that be.
Excuse me if I am in a state of high dudgeon I just spent summer turning to Fall in Dublin but I live in Seoul, South Korea in the sweet sounding neighbourhood, Haebongchong. It’s a neighbourhood at least half populated by non-Koreans, commonly known to all as foreigners, and it often wears the nickname, “The Ghetto”. Its crowded main street begins at the Yongsan Army base’s uniformed gate then left past the store over- packed with small and huge kimchee pots and then drags upwards. The Ghetto area is a fantastic place because no one is really forced to live here. The quantity of housing, the fusion of restaurants and affordable bars is renowned on the chat boards so the nickname seems to suggest that the Urban Legends living here want a little street cred. Cred for living next to an army base in a country torn in two? No, probably just for being a white foreigner living in Seoul.
If the foreigners in Haebongchong don’t have a pecking order of cool, then someone should get around to it: TOEFL teachers, Comedians, Dj’s, Guitar carrying carpet baggers, Groupies, Internet talking heads, Artists, Techno-trippers, Blue-eyed players on their way to Thailand, Almost literaries, New Age hippies, B-listers waiting for Survivor China to call back and this is just a working list. Whatever the coordinates of cool are, I place myself somewhere on the grid but definitely out side the buzz of its hive. I am an American, an English teacher, I go to South East Asia when it’s the right time and the only thing unpredictable about me is I wear a Barack Obama button. I have been linking myself with the winning Obama presidential campaign since January 26 when the then Illinois Senator (born in Hawaii not Kuwait) proved that he could win in a rural state primary against the tried and true Juno of the Democratic party Hillary Clinton. Not much to consider for me is there. I have been living in Seoul, Planet Korea for five years. No one cool in Haebongchong seems to have an affection or wonder about America (of course most have never been there), and so then came a someone who is now our first black prez. Harvard educated, worked for affordable housing in Chicago, speaks in full sentences, and not long ago smoked Marlboro Reds. Hey, the game is on. Here comes the righteous blow back after 8 years of idiot lunacy coming from the American White House.
Of course there are many others living here but off the Haebongchong cool chart like me and my Obama button or ‘badge’, as they say here in Dublin. They are for one thing non- native English speakers and/or non-white. The Nigerian import/export crews, the Indian commercial travellers, maids and cooks from the Philippines, Russian hostesses who are kept by their tattooed gangsters. They may not be cool, for, what they really are is the other and yet what they do in The Ghetto is keep it real. Well almost. Wonder up that hill besides the army base and spend a little time in one of Habongchong’s bars or restaurants. Forget about the price of the beer or taste of the food, and don’t even pretend to consider about the multi-polar times we live in. No, simply dig an ultimate experience in Ghetto Surreal. Very rarely do any non-whites patron these places and that’s even as the steep majority of those over here in South Korea’s capital to teach English do. Remove your ear pods for it’s a safe bet you will rarely hear the chatter about: lesson plans, problem students, managing the class room or anything with the practical side of the teaching profession; it’s just too grotesque. What you will get is a different kind of grotesque: a great lesson in affectation. The cool folk continuously talking loud about themselves how they are always online looking for names for their new rock band and claiming the lowest air fares because as soon as their teaching contract is up in Seoul or even if it isn’t yet, whatever, they are taking the money and running to Thailand. Of course South Korea is not an easy country to live in for a foreigner and the world will always have lots of second-rate hedonists and “Look-at-Me” ’s strung out while waiting for their next self gratification buzz, but why is ‘I’m not American’ such a pressing part of their speedy mantra like it is?
Regardless of where you are from or where you are going to, if you read something besides internet hucksters you’ll certainly come across positive headlines and jubilant editorials about how America is on its way back. According to Not for Tourists guidebooks more Brits now want to live in New York than Bangkok and even the desultory by nature French paid passionate attention to the American Election. And in the 54 countries of Africa? Africa, enough said. Yes, the world is tuning in to America again and a big part of that is due to Barack Obama. But are we watching over here in The Ghetto?
Recently there was an article in one of the daily local English language papers (obviously not The Seoul Times) featuring the Democrats Abroad Korea election night party where the first thing the columnist did was let the reader know that he was a Canadian. That might not be bizarre if he continued his piece with something to say about the significance of an election night gone right that or he personally was non-plused or amped-up about Obama. He did manage to squeeze a forgettable quote and cliché about the election in before the last paragraph where he again returned to the big idea, that he himself the columnist was a Canadian. Well, I suppose that here as in most teeming Asian cities the globe trotters backpack with the red maple leaf patch on it has finally been everywhere cool. Yet it’s scary sign of the times stuff what is worthy of a real expat’s attention isn’t it?