Tank Top Man and The Korean Night
After my first week of teaching English in Seoul, I needed an escape – both from the staff and my Kindergarten classroom. Though a Friday, it wasn’t like any other last day of the week affair. No, it was Founder’s Day. And more importantly a day off. (The holiday, Founder’s Day, celebrates the birth of Korea – an incidient I am sure involved the clashing of battle axes and bad hairdos as the Mongolian Genghis hoardes were pushed back north of the DMZ. Today Genghis thinks he’s Elvis and is looking to con the world as well as his own people).
I wanted to stay in bed a bit longer, but there was an unsettling prospect on the horizon. The principal of the school, still not through with her help-out-the-fresh-off-the-plane-gringo binge, said she would come by and pick me and another teacher up so we could shop for several hours. Yes, I was out of bed very early and ready to experience Seoul, solo.
I was also looking forward to the fun and crazy party time that was rumored to exist in this city of 12 million. Shedding the Mormon dress code of the last six days, I ripped open my suitcase, tore out a muscle shirt and left Clark Kent at home on the cozy wooded floor – to become… Tank Top Man! I was going for the society’s xenophobic jugular. If they wanted to gawk, I was ready to shock.
I boarded the subway and instead of eliciting a collective gasp once they saw my bulging, barely covered body and tufts of uncovered chest hairs, I was shocked to hear – voices. Despite being filled with enough bodies to provide extras for a Braveheart sequel, people in the subway looked straight down with zombie-eyed, funeral-cast faces.
This didn’t change during the work week. Nary a voice – just a steady stampede of tardy Asian workaholic feet, a “running of the Bull-gogis” – hundreds of people bumping into each other unapologetically, yet never missing a step as their eyes contemplated something near their navels. They were so stoic they didn’t let out a yelp when slammed by the subway’s indiscriminating doors (when it was crowded there was always a victim amongst the ooze of bodies that heeded not metallic doors).
We were fresh off the starting line of a three-day weekend and people were actually smiling, gesticulating, not looking like the casting call for Night of the Living Dead that I had come to associate with my weekday subwaying bretheren. Sure people stared at me not knowing what to think, but the element in the air for my twelve or so stops was jovial.
I was off to the notorious ex-pat party zone known generally as Itaewon, derisively by the Seoulites as Itaewon. I am not big on foreign ghettos. They tend to be filled with cheesy frat types and older ugly Americans in off-color flower-patterned hosiery. The big gaudy Burger King sign that hit me in the right eye promised that Itaewon would be no different. After walking several blocks, though, I passed middle-aged Pakistanis darting this way and that, tall solo gangly black guys who leered to the left and right, ready to scrap at the drop of their baseball cap. I entered a gringo zone like nothing I had yet experienced.
I have a good ear for languages and can usually identify from which countries inhabitants are babbling in front of me. In Itaewon, however, I was thoroughly confounded. I saw middle-aged, slightly brown, hook-nosed types eyeing me suspiciously while they loitered about six apiece on every other street corner. My best guess was they were from some rogue state way out in Central Asia that keeps the Bin Laden cookbook in hotel rooms.
If not this impromptu streetside al-Qaeda meeting, Chicano dressed types with chewed baseball-like caps pulled halfway over uninviting stares jostled aggressively through people traffic. From the slant of their eyes, though, they had nothing to do with Latin America. Perhaps they were weekend furlough sherpas from Nepal. Big, beefy types with pigtails and the thinnest slits of Asian eyes I had ever seen were speaking a weird and wacky tongue. Possibly they were descendants of Genghis Khan hailing from Outer Mongolia. I was not about to satisfy any curiosity. Suspicious eyes were constantly on me even after I ditched Tank Top Man.
It wasn’t just the sinister air that turned me off to Itaewon. With streetside shops falling into shambles, the feel was of a movie set of a bad 70’s film where people wear tweed suits and bug-eyed sunglasses. I should have left at this point but my lushy side got the best of me. I soon found myself in a gimmicky American bar called Gecko’s Terrace. I sat down to a beer amongst less threatening types. Even average American families could be seen amongst the international crowd that gathered here.
I ordered one Korean beer after another and was soon staring at the pictures of fascinating landscapes that Lonely Planet clumps together in the middle of their guidebooks. I enjoyed observing the clientele. Goofy, white guys tried to pull outrageous pick-up lines with the Korean girls seated at the table next to me, only to be rebuffed with a cold silence. The guys reacted by ordering yet another pitcher of beer. Many of them wore crew cuts and tattoos and were probably with the US Army.
I left Gecko’s Terrace and headed for the subway. On the way there I passed by a sign that read “sauna open.” My principal and her husband recommended the sauna as a great place to relax. As I wobbled in the chilly night, the idea of a sauna struck me as the perfect way to warm up while sweating out my drunkenness. I entered, leaving the streets of Itaewon that were becoming sketchier by the minute.
I saw a reception and a menu of services. I chose the relatively cheap sauna and found I was alone except for a white man who entered shortly after I did. We struck up a conversation and then he politely asked if I minded him masturbating. I got up, bolted from the steamy room, went straight for the locker room and hurriedly got dressed.
I dashed towards the subway, forgetting it stopped at midnight. I had just missed the last train out. That meant I had to take a cab. It was then I realized I did not have my wallet, nor my sweater, nor my Lonely Planet book. I headed back, quite drunk. In the maze of little streets on the periphery of the main boulevard, I could not locate the right sauna.
The night was cold and long. I walked and walked, having no idea where I was going. I crossed random districts where Asian whores sat in windows gilded by flashing pink lights à la Amsterdam, where sidewalks led nowhere, where remote factories stood out against the windy night. Eventually I clumped into a bed of green leaves along the side of the road.
Shivering away in my bed of leaves, a passing car slammed on its brakes. Out of the driver’s seat came an old Asian woman, yelling in Korean. She took a World Cup T-shirt from the trunk and threw it at me. She returned to her trunk and came back with what looked liked three squashes. She handed them to me all the while rattling off something in Korean that sounded like a scolding. I thanked my yellow-faced angel, put on the T-shirt and ate the squashes as she puttered off into the night.
I got home sober and no longer pissed off at Korea but only at myself for being an out-of-control lush. With daylight I even started laughing as I recalled the man from the sauna.