THE JOURNEY CONTINUES: As far as my own personal journey is concerned, I’d never expected to become a long-term expat. Like most fresh out of university men and women who move to Korea to teach English, I expected it would all only last a year. But that certainly isn’t how it played out and in total; I’d end up spending over a decade in Seoul.
When I was checking in for my flight to Seoul, I remember meeting someone else headed in the same direction. He was crouching at the side of the check-in counter rearranging the weight of his bags. He had what appeared to be the contents of his dorm room, plus everything else he could possibly need. It was so ridiculous. He was under the impression that these necessities were hard to find, that blow dryers, irons, kettles, etc. were…I don’t know, only available on the black market!? Am I the only one who finds that really comical? He’d looked at my single bag and I could tell from his expression that he considered me utterly unprepared. In retrospect, maybe I was. But nothing in that mans bag that I didn’t have would prepare me for my first month in Seoul, and again, I will publish something I wrote at the time.
The following was written on April 30, 2002. Less than one month “in country”. I had just turned twenty-five.
Friday was Tim’s birthday. Saturday was Brandow’s birthday. Sunday was my birthday. Sunday night was the adventure.
We all met up outside the Chicken Hof near work at seven in the evening. The group numbered six. We wandered down the street toward the river and found a nice place to have some Samgyeopsal.
The only Korean with us that night was Brandow. Where he took us I will never forget.
Prior to adventure night, the only other prostitutes I had seen in Korea were the dodgy looking ladies who work on Itaewon’s infamous Hooker Hill in the various “drinking rooms” where they get men to order them drinks before retiring into dimly lit rooms in the back. Those women were all dressed in the latest western skank wear, as their clients were almost always expats and soldiers. Where we were heading was a Korean red light district far away from the dimmer latex lighting of Hooker Hill.
We spilled out of the taxis underneath a highway overpass, the fumes biting at my throat as I drew on my Marlboro. Along the road were many little entrances to alleys, hidden away with what looked like those strips of heavy plastic they have in place of doors in the meat department at a grocery store. Once past these smelly, dirty, barriers my ears were soon met by the shrill voices of women cackling “Sexy Sex Sex”.
The district was a maze of alleys four or five feet wide in most places where myriad of stalls sold barbequed meat, spicy things, larvae, squid, octopus, cola, beer, soju, etc. The alley we were in straddled the highway barrier wall. We’d entered a den of debauchery, but we kept as far away from the center of it as possible. The side opposite the barrier wall was a shiny glowing wall of glass panels. Within each glass paneled storefront were the ladies on display, mostly sitting on mats in what can only be described as loose formations.
What set this place apart from Hooker Hill was that all the women had tired and sullen looks on their faces. Passing as many as a hundred of these establishments I noticed that they were all, for the most part, watching the same TV show while they made sure their hair was right, fixed makeup, and played with their fingernails.
What amazed me the most about this red light district was that all the women essentially wore the same thing. They all had ill-fitting wedding dresses on. For the most part all the dresses were white, but some places had them in lime green, red, and blue. It was spooky in a way. No words can adequately describe how I felt. I became so nervous…looking at all the women sitting there watching TV, doing their makeup, smoking cigarettes, or just staring out the window.
At the entrances of all the places stood an older female, not dressed up in a gown, but rather in shabby clothes. I’m guessing they were the trusted ones who did the bargaining, took the money, and organized who got who and all that. I wouldn’t go as far as to say they were the pimps, because I’m sure the real power figures were men, keeping themselves shacked up in the back counting money, or far away in their mansions or upscale drinking holes.
According to Brandow, red light districts like this one are popular with young men heading off for mandatory military service. What I saw were businessmen drunk as skunks swaying this way and that in pursuit of strange. Every so often you’d see a salary man stroll out of a brothel sweaty with all the girls inside saying goodbye in really patronizingly cheery chipper voices.
For the most part these women were all good-looking ladies in their twenties. They were clean and looked proper enough. I’ve heard that a lot of them were once sold into the profession by parents not needing or wanting a daughter. I’m not sure how much of that is true today, but it’s true somewhere, and it’s tragic.
[There was no indication at the time that any sort of underage business was going on. I’ve heard stories, but please remember that at the time of writing, red light districts in Korea were legal. They were business that, I can only assume, didn’t want to cause problems.]
Both feeling a bit out of place, Tim and I decided to get really drunk. It did the trick, for a while.
Because a few of us, myself included, didn’t want sexy sex sex, we decided to get a “show” and sex for the ones who wanted it. Someone picked a place and we made our way to a room in the back of the brothel, Brandow haggling the price the entire time.
The six of us crammed into a seven-foot by seven-foot room with a large coffee table in the center. “When are they bringing the beer”, I thought as a very pretty woman sat down beside me in her white wedding dress and put her arm around mine. That’s when the chain smoking began. It was like an uncomfortable dream.
A few minutes later, a lime green wedding dress came in, obviously borrowed from another establishment. She was the one doing the “show” for us.
As soon as she got in the room the gown was on the floor. She was all business. Time was money, and even before her bow to say hello was done a knife was in her vagina and she began cutting an apple. She was just casually slicing pieces up for use to eat. With the apple cut the knife came out and in went a candle. She had us say “one, two, three!” and on three she snapped the candle in half. What was going on?
Candle comes out, turkey baster with yogurt drink and beer goes in. She positioned herself over a glass and squatted over it, squirting yogurt and beer until the glass was half full. She passed the glass to Shane to drink and he passed it to Tim, and Tim then passed it to the next person and so on until it was in my hand. What the hell, I drank it. It tasted like yogurt drink and beer.
After all the “Holy shit, you drank it!” fuss, a hard boiled egg, shell and all, went in for a few seconds and then came out, peeled and ready to eat. Again, she offered the egg to Shane, but he knew better than to pass it on and instead gently lay it on the table.
And that was it. Just ten minutes of bizarre nonsense. The guys having sex went to do their thing leaving a few of us in the room alone with one of the ladies. She seemed offended that we didn’t want to have sex. Ten minutes later the other blokes started to return and I gulped the rest of my beer and we got the hell out of there.