OK, I know, how cliché! A writer sitting at Starbucks, laptop open and nursing a four-hour, four-dollar double tall cappuccino – deal with it…
Watching out the window amid the Friday afternoon rainy day umbrella rush, everybody walking by looking down, bumping umbrellas as they shuffle home from work, I wonder, what is at the heart of this place, what makes Itaewon different from the rest of Seoul, and what makes the people that come here tick. It’s good that the rain always makes me more introspective.
There was a time when most Koreans shunned Itaewon, even feared venturing here with its reputation for pushy salesmen and a somewhat seedy nightlife. It has grown up in recent years, going through a renaissance of restaurants and transforming into a cosmopolitan district of diversity. Koreans began to come in a trickle but now come here in droves to experience a little foreign food and culture, or even to interview foreigners for a class English project. Even the foreigners who swore off Itaewon, hoping to avoid over-Americanized influences have come back for its foreign bookstore and strong sense of open community.
A Korean friend told me only yesterday that she comes here for a sense of peace and quiet, saying that it is much calmer and more open than the bustling avenues and cafés of Kangnam just across the river. “Sure, Itaewon is lively and active, but it reminds me of somewhere else, somewhere nondescript, somewhere I might be on vacation. I know it sounds strange, but I come here for a sense of peace.”
Itaewon – for peace of mind?
I suppose it has to do with that feeling of being in a foreign country when you are here – an international space within the city, not really Korean or American and somehow devoid of the constant rigors and restrictions of the Confucian day. Also, despite the obvious influence of the Shamanistic rituals of the night as well as the predominance of Korean faces, the homogeneity of Itaewon lies in its uncharacteristic disregard of everyone walking by.
As a foreigner living in Seoul, I’ve always said that I live in Itaewon for the anonymity, no one staring at me as I sit on the subway, or watching me walk by with inquisitive eyes. Here, I’m just a face in the crowd. It seems that even for Koreans, it’s a place to get away for a few hours, to be anonymous, and explore the outer reaches of the world – without the passport and the “fuel surcharge.” In Itaewon, there are no Koreans or foreigners, there are just people.
I sit in Itaewon and watch people walking by, as I imagine many others do, an observation of a different type, of imagining their potential story, and thereby somehow discovering my own.
So aside from a bit of debauchery, Itaewon offers a respite from “Korea,” an (un)common ground for rest and recreation, a place for people watching, revelry and retrospection, and as such, a place of peace. Come to Itaewon and find your peace in the discovery of the difference, or as the French would say, vive le difference.