Editor’s Note: This begins a loose-leaf, round the dial, yawp heard round the world on diverse (hopefully) neighborhoods in Seoul.
I’m in Love with modern moonlight
And the neon when it’s cold outside
I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll and I’ll be out all night
To Sinchon Rotary from Incheon International Airport. Airport Bus Limousine # 6044. I’m just back from an E-2 visa run to Japan and, yes, it feels like I have been on some sort of public profile tour. I get off the plane, bob and weave through immigration and set feet on solid ground. And it’s not just in my head that Korean Immigration is clocking me and to the best of my knowledge it has nothing to do with making 3WM. I am up to about 10 delays, missed trips, rescheduled flights skittered boat crossings and the like which when all combined should add up to about two months of ‘overstayed visa’ time. Of course it’s a melodrama involving officials and a back-packer, “Why have you overstay?” “I didn’t know, Mr Kim at Immigration office told me to get a bigger passport. I need more pages.”
I’m not trying to laugh at ‘The man’ or belittle his life but the fact is, he started it. I was doing well living at Yakcheonsa, the Buddhist temple on Jeju Island: early wake-ups for chanting, rice and soups really anytime of the day, making headway with the Korean language. I even found my own personal Bodhi Tree to sit under. It was all handy dandy good until the men from the government paid a visit. I told immigration officials at Jeju airport I would be staying at Yakcheonsa and had the invite letter from a monk to clarify it all. Two months later the same two who begrudgingly stamped my passport showed up at the temple dining hall to stand in front of the community kitchen sternly looking for me and when they saw me, turned the other way. They dressed identically in some sort of security guards of the twilight zone episode. Two everyday stiffs in cheap nylon navy blue suits and at the bottom white tube stocks fitting into goofy moonwalk black sneakers without any brand name on them.
Their cold posture and cheap indifference took the head monks away from their lunch, and away from the dining table. The two whispered their own officialdom brand of poison into the monks ears, and two weeks later I was chauffeured back to the airport. Off of the Buddhist temple on Jeju Island and back to Seoul, or first Incheon International Airport. The last two days at the temple were anything but a panic. The place had marked it’s calmness on me and even though the monks would not go to the mat against Korean Immigration and their gossip jibes of me being an unsavory rule breaker, no matter, I had quickly found a cheap place to stay. A Hasuk-jib in the Seoul megapolis: student housing in the student district of Sinchon. It’s gonna be cheap and greasy but that’s OK. The last time I was in Seoul was in Sinchon. I was slithering through wet alleys shot-up with neon then down into a basement bar with temple-food thin bodies grinding out some of the wildest rock ‘n’ roll scenes imaginable.
Back again it seems sooner than expected; Sinchon Rotary via Airport Bus Limousine #6044. The digs were not half bad. I was on the top floor of a five floor walk-up. My floor was coed with Japanese nationals studying Korean and the bathroom and kitchen were scrubbed completely into sanitary submission every day. The J. students wandered around the common space slurping Ramen and always talking about, “Police Bar.” Just then that sounded too ominous to me. From the triangle window of the common space I could stretch one way to see the guidepost of Sinchon Rotary, the Hyundai Department Store, the other vantage was angling down to street level and there it was the crustiest bar still standing in East Asia, Woodstock the 70’s Bar. The smells of Sinchon are famous on their own: from the cat-pissed-on-the-floor bar toilets to the baby-loves-love perfume walls opening or blocking everyone to come into the Hyundai Department Store. Besides the smells, the one thing I can’t escape is that early in the morning I had come off temple for keeps and by the time the sun was dropping I had landed into the debauched drinking quarters of Seoul.
Coming from the tangerine greenhouses of Jeju to an urban hothouse of Japanese students, confused about their own and everyone else’s identity, I wanted to get into a universal space where bird is the word. Where some foreign music (a.k.a. rock ‘n’ roll in Korea) would be played loud. Part two of my desire was also throbbing because my expat monologue was on the tongue.
‘I wanted to tell someone that I was just escorted off the Buddhist temple due to two immigration officials, dressed like non-union plumbers, who came to the temple, that I called home, to convince all the monks that I was squatting. I guess I have no other place to be, so now I am here…’
The little cross walk alleys and four corner intersections of Sinchon are always disorienting or fun depending on the mood, the weather and the amount of vomit-made soju puddles on the pavement. I found the Nori Bar in about twice the time it takes me to find bars, museums or churches that I know pretty well. Then I heard and felt what was happening in Sinchon really for the first time. The place was in-between songs when the door got pushed opens towards me. All the dark mud colored walls were scribbled over by hands that seemed most comfortable when holding a purple crayon. Waves and swerves of graffiti communicated in mass dis-coherent rushes what could have more easily been throw down in one line: “Abandon hope all you who enter here.” I focused and started on maybe what was the 10th beer I had in all of two months and then it began loud and disturbing. Sounded like some theme to a Gustav Mahler symphony played by giant Slavs with wrenches for drum sticks banging on carcasses of rediscovered heroes. The strings were made of steel spaghetti veins taken from the living not the dead. I was transfixed on the word “Wichita”. The bar tender thought I grabbed a piece of scrap paper to make a song request but it was for the lyrics to this song that some anti-hero was singing,
“Don’t want to hear about it.
Every single one’s got a story to tell
Everyone knows about it.
From the Queen of England to the hounds of hell.”
The White Stripes, Seven Nation Army (lyrics).
There were never more than 15 patrons in Nori Bar that night, and I never got round to telling about my temple life, yet this would be the first of many tangled nights of trampolining madness at Nori. This was in 2004, then, Sinchon was in full madhouse swing. It was before Hongdae variegated its entertainment zone by plopping down some rock clubs for expats. Meaning someone got dollar-and-cents smart and added the live music market to the house music wasteland of Hongdae clubs. Refreshing maybe, anything to make a buck for sure. It was about making a scene where whitey: the-expat-creator, could shuffle in with guitar and make noise that generally sounds out a self-serving yawp. A yawp you say? Isn’t good rock ‘n’ roll always a yawp? Well I say the most debilitating thing that planet Korea will ever suffer while I am here began when whitey English teacher showed up with guitar. Editor’s note: that issue, images and scene will be explored unyieldingly and at length in future 3WM features.
Now is now and in the same passer-by-ism look and persona of hey, screw it, I’m just in from an E2 visa run: time to let it fly via Airport Bus Limousine #6044. I’m alive, free, but now also legal–same shit perhaps but a different stamp in the passport. And the dark half of the year is coming. The veil between the two spheres of the living and the dead is shredding and dissolving. Time to exorcise all demons, exorcise all fear of strangers. I’m a legal alien in Seoul and want some of that Sinchon paganism of the street. I want to give peace a chance. I want to give rock ‘n’ roll a chance.
Coming out of the packed bowels of the Sinchon subway is some particular Asian urban scent blast. A perfumed wonderland. Sweet sweet sweet desire in the street congealed with fresh coffee and grilling pork chops. Getting through the perfumed phalanxes can be such a pain in the ass that there were times when I lit a cigarette in each hand in order to create the minimal space needed to get passed the glitzy and unblushing mob. But I don’t want to sound like too much of a white-ass myself. This is all really a fire mechanism for camaraderie. Its primary sponsor might be “Bean Pole by Jun. J accessory”, still, there is an undeniable urge and vibe suggesting that we all have just been shepherded by Hermes from a claustrophobic underworld to a refreshing open place.
There is a slow down on the corner for both males and females to stop and to get a tall as an oil rig eye full of themselves in the Hyundai Department Store front mirrors. A 40 feet high dapper dressers experience. And yet what a real chance for a real culture jam. To continuously throw bits of rice cake (when no one is looking, of course) around the subway exit and move away to let squalls of pigeons gather in their own deep ranks and reign hell on the trendy. This is what happened in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and don’t bet there won’t be a short sequel made by RoK Moviemakers. The Birds-Transgressive (Korean version).
To save that epiphany for another time as I have made it this far and the side street to the Sinchon boozing troughs is close. It could be a big night ahead and no one can expect to be fed on the shot-put flight between Korea and Japan. Bird is the word is close and that means a pit stop for street grub. It is the last stall before alcohol and was named, “Nice street food in 2009 by SBS media.”
I could smell it of course before I could read that pitch. Pork Burgers in Mayonnaise. Better to hang back a little and see how this comes out. But if the government keeps handing out awards for good taste, I suppose it might be okay. There are two kinds of paste: sweet and sticky and even ketchup. The Burger Lady twirls each one on twice for one burger effectively turning it into a mud pie trying to stay afloat in a swamp. She won’t accept the fact that I want one twirl around the burger with one sauce. I tried to let her choose the sauce on her own but that enhanced hungry street food confusion. She has been looking at me like the immigration officials did on the temple in Jeju and the way airport immigration officials always do, piercing at me again with that here comes the rough hewn beast slouching towards Bethlehem look. I’m communicating with her in Korean, but she can’t break down my motions and stop and turn it over to me. No one is being thick here, it’s all part of the training she needs to keep everything in place. Grill the burger each side for a minute, drop on the white crumbling bun and start twirling the sauces. $2.
Her life is bracketed. She has six nights a week out here becoming at one with the noise and smells of the sizzling griddle. She’s probably not up for any other job or much more in the future other than griddled pork on white bread. Regardless of who becomes mayor of Seoul, or, if the sea of Japan renames to the Yellow Sea, or when China pegs it’s currency to the Martian standard, she is in one clean mind’s eye view, the Burger Lady. This is one thing I remembered trying to take with from the time on Yakcheonsa Temple. When you start to emphasize with those around you and dig where they are coming from, you have opened yourself up to a heap of suffering and from that comes misjudgment, and from that continuously more suffering. It seems fairly preposterous to me right now. I am legal to be here, Planet Korea, but there was a time when it made sense for me. Away from the Burger Lady. Down the street from the corner of her stall is an old landmark, The POLICE BAR.
Part II coming in January from 3WM
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