Eds: Occasionally The Three Wise Monkeys will run a RETRO PIECE concurrently with an UPDATE. Below is a feature covering attitudes of foreigners in Seoul involving the 2008 US presidential campaign. The Update is an appraisal on foreigners’ attitudes and platitudes about the two Koreas, baseball’s almost perfect game and this 2010 World Cup summer.
Obama in the Ghetto
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 neighborhood, Haebangchong. It’s a neighborhood 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 kimchi 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 Haebangchong don’t have a pecking order of cool, then someone should get around to it: TOEFL teachers, Comedians, Dj’s, Guitar carrying carpetbaggers, 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 outside 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 Haebangchong 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 eight years of idiot lunacy coming from the American White House.
Of course there are many others living here but off the Haebangchong 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 travelers, 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 Haebangchong’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 classroom 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-plussed 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?
Whatever you are doing over here in South Korea, who hasn’t experienced a blow-torch America moment? It’s almost the way the non-American foreigners here in Seoul begin to take their first steps forward before they can start to revel in their own cultural id. Shortly after candidate Obama’s knockout speech on race given in Liberty Hall, Philadelphia, I was at a foreigner bar in The Ghetto reading a comparison of him to Lincoln. I went to grab a beer and use the toilet and on return someone had picked up a pen and remarked by sketching over Lincoln’s head, “I am an arse”. It was a cartoon caption and I actually giggled myself surmising: “No worries, whoever did that only wishes that he could write for the Simpsons.” I smiled and looked across the bleak vinyl bar at someone who could well have been the culprit. Surprised to see that it was a woman I presumed, “A Hillary supporter.” But not really, just another usual suspect English teacher in Seoul, South Korea perturbed and agitated that I was reading and not listening with shits and giggles to her spiel about how pop she is in on Facebook.
In fact, for a long time outside of the United States the subjects “Bush” and “America” have been perfectly interchangeable categories. Yet even now going on inside the windows at the Haebangchong Pub Quiz they don’t seem to carry as much import as the categories “FIFA Legends” and “Australian Soap Operas.” I admit I tried to listen with interest and good cheer and then write down the answers but when FIFA says, “No to Racism,” it doesn’t do much to excite an Obama guy living abroad. Instead, I picked the ‘ooh and ah’ moments between quiz categories to get the bar to play the American Gangster OST zooming out the speakers and take notes on what the brainiac stripe of the cool crowd say about Obama the president. The facts that came out that night:
No, president elect Obama does not think President Bush and Israel conspired to do 9/11. –He will commit more troops to combat Al Qaeda and ask support for this from Europe.
No, Obama was not an orphan floated down the Euphrates river and found by witch doctors.– His father left him at the age of three to pursue a PhD in Economics.
Of course they are “taking the piss,” or, they think I write for The Simpsons or something as the caucus to promote their greatest interest continues…
No, he doesn’t know if airline ticket prices to Bangkok will go down if he becomes president.– He wants to wean people off oil dependency.
Summer past in Dublin, Brooklyn born rapper Jay-Z turned his show into an Obama rally. There were images of Obama, JFK and then George Bush interchanging on the stage’s backdrop. In brief moment cell phones went unattended and the crowd went flying into wild cheers then boos. It was part politics yet also part gospel and rock ‘n’ roll in the onstage tradition of call and response. It was a: of the people, by the people, for the people Y’all, definition of cool. Yet, don’t stop the Hookah, The Ghetto Cool of Haebangchong still won’t get it. The big-time creators of Seoul’s indie music magazines( There are now numerous ones whose only value seems to me the 241 coupons) have taken to block emails suggesting a story idea for what’s on Barack Obama’s iPod. It was suggested four months ago with a working title, “You are only as Real as what You Listen To.” Since then, every musical/cultural, magazine/zine in all of Christendom has had Obama on the cover often interviewing him about his musical taste. Yes, he is part Stevie Wonder geek, has Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks completely downloaded and listens more to John Coltrane than to Jay Z. But this simply isn’t cool enough for the straight up movers and shakers in Seoul. This month on the cover one of them (again the name is not noteworthy and the copy inside only garners an impatient glance while waiting for a cheap beer) portrays President elect Obama in a Santa Claus outfit. If you take time to read the offal inside it’s a circle jerk with the intent of congratulating each other’s local bands and fetish stories about international Dj’s that no one without Attention Deficit Disorder gives a rat’s ass about. Yet everyone can dig that Obama inspires the artists and the bohemians, so really: what-up in The Ghetto?
If you get off the brown subway stop (line 6 exit 2) at Noksapyeong check out the Haebangchong Music and Performance Festival. Sounds wicked doesn’t it? You’ll find the scene really is a different world than the rest of megalopolis Seoul. Just as many foreigners are walking around as Koreans. And sometimes you can’t stop the challenge of racial otherness. We really are foreigners; people outside one’s own community. And then make a left and follow towards that may pole Namsan Tower. And even though on a sunny weekend day The Ghetto of Haebangchong seems less about vital souls colliding and more about the usual suspects proclaiming watch me, I’m hot! Check me out and tell me which character of a reality show I must remind you of. Whatever, you can still start to celebrate the coming jubilee of January 20th Inauguration Day. And beside the cool cast of characters –with fingerless gloves- from the Haebangchong Tarot Deck: the other walks too. The Filipina Charwoman trying in all of her floral dresses to stay warm in her first real winter. The invisibles, the outsiders to cool with the rough jobs who were not born into a place that only speaks English; so they can’t teach English here. Yet, maybe they were born in an exotic place like Hawaii. One of the cool things about Barack Obama is that he notices the other, he has to: he is one himself.
Well to be fair it’s obvious not everyone is meant to care about the politics, the struggles, or the genuine vibe of the times. Flags on a backpack, pub quizzes and open mics will pretend to do that work for us won’t it? After all taking time to notice the other constipates the image of our own celebrity. So however much the price of a plane ticket to somewhere exotic changes, whatever, I can’t trust it. It’s just a Catch 22 question. The ironic reality is that you can sling a guitar over your shoulder pierce that other ear then move to a foreign country and never the less still find yourself on life’s tourist circuit. Perhaps it’s because we never move far way enough from our cool selves at all to ever really notice the other. Yeah, I still wear an Obama button. It helps keep the tourists in The Ghetto away… and keeps me invisible too.
The writer lives in Seoul and is the Founder/Editor of The Three Wise Monkeys and this message is not endorsed by Barack Obama. Contact – email@example.com
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