1. Let’s Get Out of Here
My mother was sick with liver cancer. We worried how we could afford the chemotherapy and countless medications. A friend told me that I could make good money teaching English in Korea. She referred me to a hakwon, a Korean after-school tutoring center in Gangnam, the richest area in the country. I took the job, flying out of LAX in 2008. My Korean-American friends refer to this as a “homeland” trip, a necessary ritual in the hyphenated-American life: an effort to confront, understand, and hopefully embrace your heritage, and return with a deeper sense of the world, yourself, and your parents’ theretofore inexplicably foreign behavior.
But my early days in Seoul provided none of that. I started off in the Apgujeong neighborhood of Gangnam, the heart of a luxury shopping district, plastic surgery row, and elite hakwon market – a far cry from my artist mother or farmer-teacher father’s origins. Apgujeong sits on the affluent, southern side of the Han River, a waterway that both divides and unites the city. After surviving Chinese invasions, Japanese colonization, and American occupation in the 20th century, the Seoul elite uniformly settled below the Han, perhaps to get another few miles between them and the traumatic new nation to the north.
The districts south of the river have since maintained a certain homogeneity of class and wealth, visible in the endless repetitions of its elite commercial high-rises, expensive retail rows, high-end entertainment venues, and prestigious universities. Coming from LA, the ten foot LCD billboards, neon awnings, and rampant displays of wealth through cars, clothes and sculpted faces didn’t hold my attention for very long. I began to look across the Han for inspiration.
The north is a mixed bag of lower, middle, and upper class districts built after the war in defiance of nearby North Korea, protected by the DMZ at the 38th parallel. It contains the President’s Blue House, the U.S. Military base, a gigantic bootleg clothing mall, a historic commons that hosted political rallies during the war, as well as a host of theaters, clubs, and art galleries. And it was there, on one of my many meandering walks, and after many missteps, that I found Bogwangdong, where Seoul’s outsiders live — my new home. But, as so often, I’m getting ahead of myself.
2. Let’s Go For a Walk
My exploration of North Seoul began in Noksapyeong, which I knew from various ex-pat friends, who had apparently settled there because it was a charming working class neighborhood in the infant stages of gentrification. Noksapyeong is a favorite second home for diplomats, who send their kids to the international schools nearby, and enjoy the cosmopolitan array of dining and cafe cultures that cater to their international wallets. The locals are open to foreign residents and make earnest efforts to integrate the wandering first world souls into their communities. It feels nice in Noksapyeong, like modern Korea has a chance. But I wanted something a bit grittier.
That naturally drew me to the neighboring district Itaewon, reviled by many native Koreans as a shitshow of Western culture, but embraced by Westerners as a refuge from Korean monoculture — a passable facsimile of home life. When I started hanging out there, I met some charismatic Americans that took me to some insane punk shows, folk nights, and movie nights. I liked them. They all turned out to be military kids or servicemen that worked at the Base in Itaewon. Naturally, I understood that this was the military force that had divided my parents’ country, but soon I saw that they were good people just trying to make nice lives out there.
One night, they took me around Itaewon. The main drag is a strip of army-geared pubs, bars, and clubs accompanied by American fast food, retail, and a clinic staffed by English-speaking doctors. I found myself downing rounds of shots and whooping at guitar solos with people I never would have socialized with at home. Once I was drunk, one of the guys made a shitty comment about a nearby Korean girl. A large white male in his early 20’s, he said he might make her perform certain sex acts in return for English lessons and a green card. I was enraged, but knew that he had about thirty pounds of military-manufactured muscle to my vague recollections of strip mall martial arts. He was surrounded by other soldiers. He performed another air-guitar solo; he was lovin’ it.
Even here, even here, I had to leave. What was this feeling I was feeling? What was this rage that sharpened to a point right around my throat? What could I do with this? Stepping outside, I saw a shop-owner closing up for the night and locked eyes with him, perhaps hoping that we could form a spontaneous gang to defend the honor of a fellow Korean. He took the stare with blank pupils, turned the last lock, and spat on the ground as he walked away. Right, he had dealt with this for much longer than me. I decided to walk it off, and soon found myself on a tiny path at the foot of an enormous hill. I looked up and saw a brick-shanty town of small two or three-story apartment buildings, precariously maintained since the 80’s, squeezed so densely on a slope so vertiginous that it seemed a marvel the whole thing doesn’t slide down and crush the street. Marvel, okay, that’s better than rage, right? So up I went.
Climbing the mountain’s steep but steady slope, I paced myself with a hunchbacked ahjumma (elderly Korean woman), who marched up the hill across the street. Once I ascended past the initial ring of sardine-packed apartment buildings, I found myself at a crossroads. The sun peeked out over the morning layer of smog, and a deep azure light spilled over the windows, bouncing off the backs of K-pop posters, leaves of plants spilling out over balconies, clouds of lazy cigarette smoke, and steam from early risers grilling fish for breakfast. Straight ahead, I saw a line of empty tables come to life as grocers emerged and began stacking their produce, pickled vegetables, meat, fish, and herbs for the weekend market day. To the right, I saw the hill descend to a slumped gaggle of red-eyed teenage boys spilling out of a PC Bang (an internet cafe geared towards PC gamers) by a bus stop. Then I heard it to my left — a lilting pair of voices laughing carelessly, saying their goodbyes after a long night into day.
I wandered up towards the musical laughter and found two very pretty young men, who beckoned me into a storefront obscured by bright pink lights and a giant poster of Marlon Brando. I was hesitant but they insisted, soon taking me into a lobby bursting with settees and chaise lounges. The walls were covered with posters of 50’s and 60’s American movies, pop stars, and sports stars — all men. The giggly pair offered me a small cup of coffee and asked what I was doing wandering around there. There was no ambiguity to their question, they weren’t softening me up for an offer of services, they just wanted to know if this wanderer was okay. I related the story of the night, and it spilled into the longer tale of my departure from Los Angeles, and experience in Seoul so far. They laughed and explained that I had come to the right place.
“This is where people like us make a home in Korea. Not that you are like us, but you are like us,” one of them said, lazily gesturing at the nigh-vertical neighborhood outside. They told me how they ended up here, one of the few places where a gay man could be out and free. They recounted how they began working for the brothel started by their uncle who discreetly satisfied demands from nearby army men during and after the war. They laughed when I said I’d never read about any of this. After a few more cups, we were friends, and they urged me to come back. The older one saw the disoriented look in my eyes as I walked out, and pointed left up the hill with a reassuring smile and nod. I waved goodbye and took the advice.
I didn’t know it then, but this was the notorious Bogwangdong — historically, the bastard child of Seoul neighborhoods. While Itaewon was the visible runoff of culture that serviced the ever-present U.S. Military population and the curious members of Seoul society, Bogwangdong was the ghetto in its shadow. South Korea’s desperate and often bloody post-war scramble to modernity was shouldered by imported labor from Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries. And when any of those laborers saved enough to move to Seoul, the government sent them to Bogwangdong. The property values plummeted as Koreans scrambled to Itaewon or Noksapyeong, whose foreign elements had lighter skin. The Koreans that stayed or settled there tended to be poor folks from other cities, or marginalized members of Korean society — the homosexual, transgender, and the rare secret Communists.
I passed other brothels and began to see the subtle advertisements of the services available hidden in plain sight — a chimera adorned a corner of a tranny bar, a pair of peonies frame the sign for a lesbian-only sauna, little flags on the bottom right corner of doors showing the nationalities of the workers. Each had its own morning rituals of gruff, sexy, or friendly goodbyes to customers who shielded their eyes from the sun and hid their faces as they stumbled down the hill. Then I passed through another ring of apartment sardines and, as the sun broke free of the clouds, I heard hundreds of male voices chanting morning prayers from a beautiful white mosque.
Women in hijabs towed sleepy-eyed children in and out of a Halal supermarket, and brushed past me without making eye contact. I smiled, not quite knowing why. A pair of older Iranian men were sitting outside a cafe sipping tea and offered me a handshake. I returned it and took the open seat. They said they didn’t often see Koreans walking through their street during prayer. I told them I was American; they shook their heads and apologized to me. I took the hint and bowed goodbye, vaguely remembering my dad’s stories of his college friend complaining about working for Hyundai in the early days, and working with an Arabic translator to try to get the Iranian factories to meet production schedules on their first car models. I realized that these elders were about my dad’s age, and resolved to get to the top of this hill.
I didn’t realize how long I’d been climbing, but after peeling my sweat-soaked shirt from my chest with a plop, I turned into a store for a cold drink, running right into an ahjussi (older Korean man) who was running out so fast he ran right into me and knocked us both over. I helped him up, and he rapidly explained that he owned an apartment building up the hill, but just had a renter leave overnight without paying the last few months of rent. He was rushing down the hill to try to see if he could track the renter down, but now realized that it was a fool’s errand. As we sat outside, sipping the drinks and watching the sun climb to its peak, I asked if I could see the place. He walked me up to a three-story apartment building right at the top of the hill, all the way up the stairs, and opened the door to the roof. There in the center of the roof was a small square room clearly constructed long after the building. It was tiny, but with the heated concrete floors for the winter and open windows in the summer, it had all the comforts I needed. I stood and spun and saw the whole of the city as if for the first time, flying over the glittering matte steel, glass, and gold of the south, and the uneven living archive of Korean modern histories to the north. I took the apartment on the spot, and lived there quite happily for the next three years.
3. Let’s Try Go Back Home
“Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Recently, I wanted to show friends my old home. So we surrounded a laptop and via Google Maps, I flew over the tiny Korean peninsula and zeroed in on that riverside hill of Bogwangdong. I soon reached my old crossroads and turned left at the gay brothel and glitched past the mosque and Halal market. But each time I tried to turn right to go further up, I only found a large gray square. The stuff of postmodern nightmares: a photographic representation of a living community censored by the gray squares of corporate transparency. I circled around the entire circumference of the hill and couldn’t find a single path that went up. Frustrated, I zoomed out and realized that from a specific height, the entire center of the neighborhood was a blank gray hole in the center of the satellite-photographed landscape of Seoul.
That’s when I remembered the last moment I had on that rooftop. The landlord had come up to say goodbye and return my deposit. It was deep into the humid summer and we swatted away baseball-sized horse flies as we took in one last look of the city together. I turned to him and he nodded at the signage: Daewoo Corporation Luxury Apartments Coming Soon! They had finally crossed the river and begun work on the hill, my hill, our hill. He wished me a good life, and I promised I’d visit if I ever came back, but he thought in silence. Then he replied, “There might not be a place to visit when you come back. Just remember this right now. That’s what’s important.” Google’s censored model of the area seemed a perfect metaphor for the corporatization that had certainly followed.
4. Take a Left at The Grey Abyss
I had moved to Korea on a special entitlement called the F-4 visa made for the children of the Korean diaspora who escaped Japanese colonization, Chinese invasion, American occupation, and of course, the war. It is a suspiciously generous visa by all accounts, that allowed me to work for whomever, live wherever, enjoy all of the free national healthcare services, and basically be a citizen just without the right to vote or mandatory military service. To Korean-Americans, it seemed like a kind of historical justice and a sweet way to travel.
To Korea, offering the western-educated children of their old citizens means tapping into a huge supply of intellectual resources. They draw us back to train their youth in the proper international language of business that comes in handy behind the defense table in many a patent hearing with an American corporation or in the negotiations of trade deals with G8 members. All this makes more sense now, in retrospect, with the American economy hollowed out by globalization-driven outsourcing of our manufacturing power to East Asia, and Obama’s historical pivot to focusing on US education and innovation. Korea generously offers F-4 visas to people like me to come teach English in exchange for the illusion of a homeland.
And I fell for it. The whole shebang: the American neoliberal focus on eat/pray/loving your identity, using politics and travel as your mode of self-expression and your career path as a statement of your beliefs. I embraced the whole lie, defining myself in opposition to both American and Korean mass culture, convinced I was finding my truth. I met a lot of other homeland-truthers out there, fellow F-4 expats that shared complaints about the inherent misogyny, unfair labor practices, heteronormative oppression, and general racism abundant in Korean society. These were all the natural reactions of adults raised in the identity-politics obsessed 90’s that also couldn’t tell you what the letters IMF stand for.
I thought I saw a paradise of scrappy global diversity on the hill, a place for the powerless to find simple dignity. But what I ignored was that I was a part of the same machine of capital that would eventually gentrify the entire neighborhood. So now, when I look at that invisible hilltop on Google Maps, I realize that there’s no point in climbing a mountain if that means it’s going to collapse under your weight.