Itaewon Freedom… Well, Maybe That’s What It Was 30-40 Years Ago

안녕하세요여러분! Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of Korea: Sights and Sounds.  This episode features Itaewon (이태원), Seoul’s foreigner district.

Not quite so back in the day, there was a song that went by the name of “Itaewon Freedom” that extolled the district’s virtues, such as the presence of music and love.

I love the disco-feel of the song, but I just didn’t feel any of the “freedom” when I was on Itaewon Main Street, which serves as the heart of the district and is also featured in the video.  In fact I felt like I was back in San Francisco, specifically Market Street and all its graffiti, dirt, stench, unsavory/questionable characters, and blatant capitalism.  The entrance (featured in the pictures) and the stores near it were the nicest part – it went all down hill from there.  Admittedly, I came around 9am on a Saturday morning so I might have gotten caught up in Itaewon’s “Morning After” look, but when I went to church the next day at 11:30am, the scene remained basically unchanged.  Rough looking people (both foreigners and Koreans) smoking, dark looking alleyways, an unknown pervasive odor in the air, unclean streets, streets crowded with vendors selling cheap goods. On Saturday when I was surveying the place for the church and the black hair shop, this African guy in a parked van said, “Hey Sista!” to me and said something unintelligible.  His friend/acquaintance was standing outside the van on the driver’s side as he said this.  I immediately said, “No, I’m okay” in a firm, but calm tone and they left me alone and went back to talking to each other.  Maybe he thought I was lost and/or needed a ride because I looked at a map of the area and turned around, but actually I had decided at that point that I had seen enough.  And I was not getting into a van with two dudes- that would be a blatant violation of two of the three rules that I have sworn to keep: Have Fun, Be Safe, Come Home.  Combine that with the aforementioned sights and smells, and my Ugly American/debauchery/ghetto spider senses were tingling.

Therefore, Itaewon, like SF’s Market Street, has been banished to the realm of “Only if I Have To.”  Since the church that I’ve been going to most likely will be moving to the Sinchon area (aka my backyard), I barely have to get my feet wet in Itaewon as the hair shop is in the safety zone of shops located right around the main street gate. Overall, I felt extremely uncomfortable and had to go back to the “Korean” side of town to relax (a few hours in COEX Mall did the trick). However, a lot of foreigners like Itaewon, so maybe I’m too Asian ? (People have pointed that out to me before.)

I’m going to leave you with a quote that basically sums up my thoughts on Itaewon (except for the hair shop, as the ladies there did a wonderful job when I went on a Thursday): “Personally I wouldn’t be caught dead in this place.” (Phyllis Diller  from The New Scooby Doo Movies episode “A Good Medium Is Rare”)

See you next time!

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