On a day-to-day basis, my life in Seoul is really quite boring. I work. I go grocery shopping. I go to capoeira class. I spend time commuting on subways and buses. I do lunch with friends or co-workers occasionally. Sometimes I go salsa dancing for a little bit but usually go home early because I’m old. I spend too much time reading and thinking and trying to figure the world out from the safe confines of my tiny little apartment.
But sometimes fun and interesting things happen, which I guess is one of the advantages of living in a huge city far from home. Like this past weekend. I was able to meet up with some old friends I hadn’t seen for five years. They are living in Tokyo and somehow the stars aligned so that we were all in Seoul. We had all traveled together on Peace Boat, which is a unique and interesting bonding experience to share with other people, and although we don’t stay in touch much, we’ll always have that special connection.
Meri and Yuko
My friends Meri and Yuko had been in Korea for a couple of weeks working at a peace summer program as they are still heavily involved in that world. We met for lunch one day which turned into four hours of sitting in the same restaurant catching up on all the people we know in common. It was so interesting to hear about everyone’s trajectories and how they had becoming more of themselves – like everything changes, but nothing changes. It’s true: ‘the future has an ancient heart.’
We then met up with a friend of theirs, a Korean documentary film maker who took us out to dinner in the backstreets of central Seoul frequented by locals who come for the cheap, traditional food and alcohol served in ramshackle dwellings that were haphazardly put together in the 70’s.
I thought I knew the city well, considering I had done a lot of work for the city’s tourism department and even had some work published by Lonely Planet. But the film maker, who luckily spoke English, took us down one street in the Jongno area surrounded by love motels and informed us of how it had become a popular area for gay men. And indeed, there were gay men everywhere, sitting outside drinking and eating, having a merry time. I was surprised because Korea is an extremely conservative and in many ways, backwards country, perhaps like the United States in the 1950’s, with a large stigma and taboo attached to homosexuality. I knew there was a bit of a scene in the foreigners’ ghetto with clubs, bathhouses and transvestites, and also in one of the popular university areas for women. It was cool to see that these men were not hiding but were out having a good time, and everyone was just letting them be.
We also stopped by a protest that was happening in the central city. My very politically aware NGO friends wanted to see how it had been organized as they are often organizing such events in Tokyo. It’s funny – things in Korea are so often badly organised, but they seem to have the protesting down. Of course, being the only blond white girl there, I stood out and soon enough, a lit candle had been thrust into my hand and a newspaper reporter with his camera and notebook was all up in my grill asking what I thought about the issue (the current president had been given leaked intelligence). I was deliberately vague. Freedom of speech is not what it is in the west and being seen at a protest, even though I was just there looking, is apparently a violation of my visa.
The next night, my friends went drinking in the artsy, student area of the city. We tried to co-ordiante so that we could meet up with our other friend from Tokyo, Sam, who was DJing at a club in the foreigners’ ghetto. Alas, our telecommunication devices let us down and I ended up going to see him alone. I hardly ever go out to bars and clubs. The music is always too loud and crap, they’re smokey, and let’s face it, full of young people. When I traveled with Sam years before, he used to tease me about being homebody wallflower, so I made a point of going out. I intended to only stay for a little bit to catch up with him, maybe dance a little then be home in bed before I turned into a pumpkin.
The club was huge and glamorous and full of scantily-clad Korean girls. Sam and his friend, who was the headline act, had a little red velvet VIP booth where I joined them. I hardly ever drink, but they also had a $400 bottle of vodka. So I drank. When I was in my early 20’s, about 7,000 years ago, my part-time job when I was a student was working in a bar/club. I did it for several years. So a bunch of memories came flooding back. It was like getting on a bike again after many years of driving a car. Ahhh, I remember how this works! Still, I couldn’t fake being cool and right away, I let Sam’s friend, the famous hipster DJ, know that even though he’d been flown in from another country and was, judging by the hundreds of people lining up outside, very well known, I had absolutely no idea who he was. He laughed and then we talked for a while about his crazy life – he doesn’t actually live anywhere for more than four days at a time, usually in Tokyo or New York and his whole life is being flown around the world to play in clubs. Actually, it sounds like hell to me but he was enjoying livin’ la vida loca. Maybe a bit too much.
I spoke with Sam for a while too, even though it was impossibly loud. We were never close, but we are both from New Zealand and share other things in common so there was enough to have a friendship. I was always a little bit in awe of him. Not because he’s tall, good looking, and very stylish (all the girls that know him refer to him as ‘Hot Sam’), but because he exudes kind of natural confidence and self-assuredness. He’s a natural leader and everything he does, he does with passion, enthusiasm and a positive attitude. It’s funny where people’s lives take them. He had done the same government teaching program I had done in Japan (in the same area although our paths never crossed), then Peace Boat. Afterwards, he went back to NZ and worked at Amnesty International. Then he went back on Peace Boat. Then became a staff member and for several years traveled the world promoting human rights. When he turned 30, he said he needed to make some money and was offered a job at a major fashion business as an international representative. So now he travels the world doing fashion stuff. It seems like such a switch. Indeed a nice life he has created – with a beautiful and doting girlfriend in Tokyo, a ‘real’ job and a passion for music that both take him around the world. He works long hours and has his music stuff happening on the weekend. I asked him when he gets time to sleep. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he replied.
And so my night unfolds. Some drinking, some dancing, some talking and then at 3am I start to feel like I just really want to go home and sleep. Some very drunk, brazen and ‘up for anything’ Korean girls have invaded our booth and although both men are standoffish and not the kind of guys to take advantage of what is on offer, these girls desperately want to get their groupie on. I see this so often here and it really irks me. It is time to go home. Of course, the taxi driver gouges me by doubling the fare because he knows I have no other way of getting home. While I am glad that in the spirit of carpe diem, I made the effort to go out, but every time I do, I’m reminded of why I don’t like to. Still, I was happy to see some familiar faces and reconnect with people from a past life.