[Working draft of chapter 4 and the ending to the book! I have to get something to the editor by today, so I'm posting this 90% finished (a section to flesh out in the middle, a few images to scrounge up, and some proofreading to do) – but I have an ending! Yes, it's first draft and has typos, but I'll be giving it the once-over within days.
And no, you're not hallucinating – Chapter 3 has not gone up yet, but it will within the week. This book is getting first-draft finished this week, come hell or high water! Any suggestions or comments will be very appreciated!]
PASSIONS OF THE NIGHT
At night, the streets and spaces of Seoul becomes quite a different kind of "playground," one which remains comfortably out-of-sight and out-of-mind for many of this city's early sleepers. After night falls, and especially after around midnight, balloons go up, neon signs on portable trucks are lit, while men in dark suits with red faces stumble about laughing and joking loudly, streaming into places that cater to the darker, more elemental desires of the human psyche.
Seoul nights are marked by drink, song, and the press of flesh for sale. For better or worse, Seoul – as is true with most urban areas of Korea – switches into a new economy driven mostly by the consumption of carnal desires. Some economists might call this a part of the "shadow economy" while a political scientist could call this a part of the "informal" economy or nodes of control. Some might even call them the "play spaces" of an older economy, one that many people would like to be rid of, preferably without having to look it in the eye, or confront the large role that this shadow lifestyle has taken in Korean life.
By the end of this chapter, most readers will be more than ready to think about moving out of "the passions of the night" and back into the warm, reassuring sunlight of the day, where reality tends to be more comfortable, where it tends to resemble the world your parents and the schools worked so hard to present a certain kind of world. It is the world that most people think of themselves as inhabiting, the overt, obvious world that is easy to acknowledge, easy to see, easy to explain.
But there is another world, one harder to see, and much easier to want to ignore. What is perfectly obvious to the outsider – me, the American whose culture is relatively quite conservative about sex and liquor – is often something to which everyday Koreans are often completely, willingly oblivious. To ordinary Korean people who don't tend to walk around thinking about "Korea" all the time, these are the bars, night clubs, barber shops, room salons, "business" and "미인" clubs, and red light districts; there are also the connected businesses that support the main industries of night life, as seen in the many all-night restaurants, street stands, convenience stores, and the huge clusters of "love motels" that charge by the hour, situated around any large university or other area where people are out at night.
<INSERT FANCY LOVE MOTEL INTERIOR SHOT>
- the carnality of seoul night life is defined in the lack of limits, the basics of painting the town truly red, for better or worse: liquor, women, and places to play.
- in seoul, there are more places to imbibe liquor than there are probably in the entire Midwest put together.
- In many of these places, there are also women whose express purpose is providing the social lubricant when needed
- not surprisingly, near any of these places of music, drink, and women are places to consummate all kinds of acts
- Often, you have to look closely, either the kinds of service are not merely the traditional types of sexual services, but rather are all kinds of sexulized services, and the obvious availability of them is also quite surprising.
- america, as much as many koreans mistakenly think is a "liberal" culture, has many Puritanical limits
- public drunkenness, bars close at 2AM
- red light districts? room salons? as if.
- hostesses? you bring your entertainment with you.
- no affiliated industries of 대리운전, most cities don't have readily available taxis,
- the landscape is generally not punctuated by loud shouts, cursing, or fistfights. Generally, vomit is only visible on the sidewalk in the morning around college campuses, and there aren't businessmen sleeping on the streets, surrounded by last night's piles of trash left by the late-night crowd. One might see similar scenes on New Year's Morning or after Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but almost every night is a limited version of these celebrations in the neighborhoods mentioned above.
<INSERT POST-VOMIT SHOT>
One might think a foreigner to be the last person to know something about the innermost circle of Seoul's "Hell," but one thing that many Koreans haven't thought about is that fact that it is the foreigner's very separateness, that allows him or her to often be the unlikely observer, chronicler, and holder of secrets.
In addition, it is easier for a foreigner who speaks Korean to enter sensitive social situations, or deal with people who otherwise might not trust talking to a fellow Korean, especially when it involves something about which general society might judge them harshly or negatively. The homeless man, whom I accidentally bumped into and entered into conversation with, assented to pose in this photograph after I simply treated him – probably for the first time in a long time – as just a normal person.
He started confiding in me and talking about no end of things in his life, not simply because he was "crazy," but because I think he saw me as outside of the world he knew. I also found it easier to talk to him, since in my own culture and society, I don't recall ever having had a conversation with a homeless person beyond forced smiles and feeling extremely guilty about wanting to end the conversation as quickly as possible. I also found more difficult to emphathize with the angry elderly lady who was following the man around, yelling and chastising him. She was indignant that he was "lazy" and living off of the discarded waste of others here, at this first "Hi Seoul Festival," where I saw many homeless people wandering about, finding large amounts of uneaten food in the trash cans. Here, I simply asked the man if I could take his picture – he gave me permission and seemed to warm up to me simply because I treated him as a human being.
This is one reason anthropologists are more effective outside of their own cultures and why, as I mentioned previously, they are encouraged to leave their own cultures to do their field work. In some ways, as an outsider, access to the inside is difficult; but in certain other, more important ways, access to the true, inner core of a culture, where the dirty secrets lie, is actually far easier.
The most problematic and perhaps deeply embarrassing parts of any culture are usually kept wrapped tightly beneath layers of social taboo and willful ignorance of that subject. In America, the pain related to the subject of race is difficult to talk about frankly, so many aspects of it are as controversial as they are taboo. This is one reason that in America, race is a favorite topic of comedians and movie comedies; many Americans are, deep inside, quite uncomfortable about the subject, so it is often as source of embarrassed laughter and shocked expressions when certain obvious things are pointed out that everyone thinks about, but which most people find too embarrassing to say aloud.
[TRANSITIONAL PHRASE SETTING UP SEX WORK AS THE THING THAT KOREANS DON'T LIKE TO TALK ABOUT]
The Korean media was abuzz with the issue of sex work from around 2004, when the Special Anti-Prositution Law went into effect and Korean society was witness to the protests of sex workers in front of the National Assembly; it is only now that the noise of postured indignance and moralizing has settled back down into the normal, willful ignorance of the subject. It was just after that that the Korea Herald asked me to do a photo story on the aftereffects of the law; I was surprised at what I found, as well as surprised at how little Korean people actually knew about what one could argue is one of the key social problems of modern society, albeit a problem that masks itself very well. I think that the reason it flies under the radar of many Koreans in everyday life is not because it isn't there, but rather because it is so pervasive that one can't continue to be struck by it all the time. Humans are socially adaptive animals; the socially distasteful idea of sex work in society is like a bad smell you come across when stuck in a room you can't leave – you simply adapt and soon cease to notice the smell at all.
This is not to say that most Korean people are not aware of the fact of sex work in Korean society, but rather that people tend to not want to recognize the social pervasiveness and ubiquitiousness of what is undeniably a social institution, as well as a major part of the national economy. Both are undeniable facts, obvious to anyone who has been keeping up with the government's own conservative statistics, or who keeps an observant eye opens when walking down just about any street in any town in Korea; from barber shop to room salon to business club to sauna to "sports massage" parlor to neighborhood hostess bar to out-and-out red light district, it is hard to find a street where sex itself, or value-added sexual services, are not offered in some form. But even if one is able to deal with the reality and enormity of the industry, most people are still in denial that a lot of men and women are involved in a thriving, sex-based economy.
The three common "vices" go great together.
Most people, understandably, find it hard to personalize the stories they see in the newspapers or on television, and do not want to consider the fact that it is may be their daughter or sister, or perhaps their mother, aunt, or even grandmother might have been involved in this industry at one time in their lives. What makes this fact obvious is the way sex workers are treated by the Korean media: we generally only hear about the extreme cases, in which women are hapless victims, who don't resemble "anyone I know." They are simply "pitiful" or alternatively fallen women, in need of help and sympathy in the former case, or derision and contempt on the other. These extreme representations avoid the fact that many of these women are largely somewhere in between the tragic cases, and that many of the women are motivated by the same emotions and material concerns that any drive you, me, or anyone else.
These are women making a living, and in the views of every single woman interviewed for the photo essay I originally published in the Korea Herald, they don't think of their work as fundamentally different from the way you or I makes money to put food on the table or pay their bills. That is one common view that all women spoken to in relation to this piece made, which they claimed was echoed by everyone else they know. One common reaction I received was one of great hostility and suspicion, especially when I introduced myself as a "reporter" for a newspaper; they were largely quite angry with the way the Korean media has dealt with this issue, which made my initial interviews quite hard to carry out, and this story nearly impossible to photograph.
There are so many different kinds of sex work, and accordingly, various kinds of sex workers, in Korean society. My first and most useful informant was, surprisingly, a woman who owns a bar in Itaewon's infamous "hooker hill," which would be the easy and expected place for the foreign photographer such as myself to start a story such as this. Ms. X, as I shall call her, was helpful because she had the most perspective on the issue, both in terms of the fact that she was in her late 20's, as well as because there were specific reasons why she did not want to enter the much larger and more lucrative Korean-oriented sex industry.
Ms. X described sex work in Korea as being of two main types: that having to do with "entertainment," with sex as an option for the girl to make extra money (most bars or hostess positions), or as a straight sex-for-money relationship, such as is found in a typical red-light district. Ms. X had worked in the American-style "entertainment" end as a "juicy girl" for most of her 20's, earning money from customers by making 50% on every 20,000 won drink a male customer bought her. "Juicy" bars are generally only found in places such as Itaewon, which caters to foreigners.
The Korean-style "entertainment" establishment that is not to Ms. X's liking generally involves drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol with male customers who tend to come in large groups. In most room salons, "mi-in clubs," business clubs, etc., the women don't have a choice as to which customers to take, and according to Ms. X, tend to be far more demanding and disrespectful of their hostesses, as Korean men tend to drink far more than American men in their socializing, on top of the fact that Korean men tend to come in groups, whereas men come either singly or in pairs. In both cases, women make their only money from the actual premises based on the drinks they encourage their clients to have. but in the Korean-style case, drinking/hostessing establishments give the workers a flat fee for the group, usually in the range of 30-50,000 won, whereas in places catering to foreigners, the money is a 50/50 split for every drink purchased, with no upper limit. So the woman working for a Korean place is saddled with the burden of constantly drinking large amounts of real alcohol and having to make her money from "the second stop" - going somewhere to have sex with the customer for usually a couple to a few hundred thousand won.
The Koreans-oriented room salon girl, in order to make any decent money, needs try to stay sober while as a rule convincing the customer to go out for sex after drinks, whereas the foreigners-oriented "juicy girl" makes the most money drinking "special" (read "non-alcoholic") cocktails while encouraging their clients to spend their cash on buying as many drinks as possible. Sexual services, if the "juicy girl" actually wants to offer any (some, she tells me, do not ever or often leave the bar), are occasional and usually involve a returning customer, or a customer who has spent an inordinate amount of money on drinks.
Of course, there are places that offer straight sex and really only use the bar as a front, but most of the money in Itaewon is made on drinks, drinks, drinks, with sex as an option if the girl is willing and the price is worth it. In the Korean case, the game involves trying to imbibe as little alchohol as possible while trying to not appear to be doing so, even as you encourage the client to drink more. But there is no direct financial incentive to drink more, or even to get the client to do so, after having received a flat fee for the group, and the real money is made by leaving with the customer, in which case all of that money is the hostesses' to keep. Ms. X is a "juicy girl" who saved her money and bought out the owner of the bar, so she keeps all of her drink tab, since she is the owner and operator. She has another female friend working for her during the days, of whose cut Ms. X keeps an unspecified amount.
But what of straight sex-for-money? What of the many and much more typical red-light districts that are exclusively for Korean men? I spoke with Ms. Y, who is in her early 20's, lives in a small town in the southern part of the peninsula, and was frank about her reasons for entering into the more direct style of sex work, the red-light districts found in almost any medium-sized Korean city as well as all over Seoul – Cheongnyangni, Miari, Yongsan, Yeongdeungpo.
My talk with her was brief, not to mention expensive. Her room, which she said is typical of many and any others these days, was surprisingly spacious and clean, albeit suggestively red. I had about 15 minutes to talk, since that's about all the time I'd get as a customer. I decided to get right to the point and broach the big question of how people generally got into this kind of work – was she in debt, were there cases she knew of women trapped in debt bondage, or perhaps even women being kidnapped from the countryside? Her reply was a dismissive laugh, whereafter she chided at how ridiculous a notion that was. Perhaps such things were true in the 70's or 80's, and you heard about such cases sometimes in newspapers, but there are so many women wanting to work in red-light districts that there was no need for such ruthless recruiting.
A panoramic photo-stitch of Ms. Y's room.
Contrary to what many people want to think, there is such a high supply of women wanting to do this work, with the competition to attract and keep the best girls so strong, that women scarcely needed to be coerced. In fact, her room and all the furniture in it was completely free and part of a package deal, such that women could walk in off the street, not pay a dime, and start earning money for herself and the house. The way she described it, supply was so abundant that it was in everyone's best interests to aggressively recruit with clean, fully-furnished rooms.
Ms. Y laughed off the "Special Anti-Prostitution Law" for what I already thought it was – a show for the media and the public, after which it was back to business as usual. Brief talks with a few other women confirmed that the crackdown had scared a few girls away and briefly kept recruitment down, but it was apparent that it was business as usual in the major red-light districts around Seoul.
Ms. Y explained that most working girls lived and worked in their rooms, with a day off once a week. Girls came for all kinds of reasons, from supporting family members back home, to paying off personal debts, to wanting to gather capital for starting their own businesses, or for no particular reason other than make a lot more money than they could otherwise. "That doesn't happen anymore" she said, snickering as if even suggesting such a thing was utterly ridiculous. "There are so many girls wanting to come to do this work - why would you have to force them?"
The sign warns customers to "Watch your head."
She continued to emphasize the ludicrousness of the notion that anyone was forced into this sort of work anymore, before proceeding to explain her own circumstances. In her case, her mother had become hospitalized, so she had made the decision to come to Seoul and earn the money to cover the ongoing bills. She had been allowed by the house to adjust her schedule to three weeks on and one week off to travel back home, so she lamented the fact that she had no rest days for that long stretch of time. In the end, she seemed to be implying with her answers, as well as through her expressions and demeanor, that it had been a financial choice, albeit one inevitably influenced by circumstance and the social reality that she was able to easily make more money through sex than any other kind of labor, but she did not equate this with not having had a choice.
This brought me to think once again about the issue of supply, which is positively staggering. The Korean government's own late 2002 estimate places one million women engaged in sex work at any one time, which is almost unbeleiveable until one remembers that it would take a high number to support an industry that was 4.4% of the GDP, which is more than is constituted by forestry, fishing, and agriculture combined (those three industries make up 4.1% of the GDP). And this is a conservative estimate, based on the of formal places of prostitution that can be tracked, in terms of numbers of workers and estimated revenue; other, less trackable forms of informal prostitution are still nearly impossible to quantify.
An old-fashioned "Phone-in rooms" are where men go to small rooms to receive calls and female "freelancers" call in to meet the men. Such stickers are not obvious, but often plastered all around neighborhood telephone poles and bus stop signs.
When one realizes that these statistics easily translate into something from 1 out of 10 or even 1 out of 6 adult Korean women having worked in the sex industry at the present moment – and this goes without mentioning the number of women who might have worked at any point in their lives – the social implications of these estimates simple take the breath away.
What seems apparent in this whole public discourse about sex work and its treatment as a "social problem" with a clear and concrete solution – public crackdown and a "zero tolerance" policy – is just how unrealistic and ignorant of history it is. Obviously, sex work has become as important a part of the economy as any other "legitimate" one; more important than even that, it is an integral part of everyday culture as well.
Unfortunately, the Korean media treats the issue as they do any other – superficially, and represented through atypical and extreme examples that work better to spice up the story than convey a more realistic slice of reality. Political groups use the issue – and the women – as alternatively whipping boys or sad sob stories that further their own agendas. What is really being ignored is the very culture that legitimates sex work as a part of everyday life, or the use of the female body to sell everything from bread to even toothpaste – as something that has been completely normalized.
Whether sex work is "good" or "bad" is not the crux of concern here, but it would seem that this is the only truly interesting aspect of the matter, and is the only worthy question of consideration for anyone truly concerned about this issue. What does the fact that there are more sex workers than schoolteachers mean for society? What should one make of the fact that it is easier to gain employment as a sex worker through a neighborhood jobs circular than it is to get a job in McDonald's? What of the fact that, anecdotally at least, some significant amount of the capital that goes into starting "legitimate" businesses in Korea can actually be traced back to a women working on her back? This leads us to the big question: How does this affect men's views towards women in general?
"Marry a Vietnamese virgin" proclaims this banner, common on street corners and residential areas throughout Korea.
What these questions speak to – as well as the several people interviewed for this article – is the fact the "social problem" approach to this issue becomes an exercise in futility when we, as a society, simply morally condemn all sex workers, or the industry itself, or even the police forces and government agencies that protect and regulate this trade in sex for money. The problem is deeply structural – it is not a matter of mere morality, or one of passing new laws, or having temporarily enforced, zero-tolerance crackdowns. In order to deal with this deeply-rooted structural problem – one that is also a major underpinning of both the economy and culture itself – it is most useful to contextualize this issue – or the cases of the girls with whom I spoke for this piece – within a much larger picture. One must see the problems as they are linked together, rather than simply scrutinize the smaller parts of the equation.
For example, one might consider the fact that Korea ranks 63rd out of 70 countries measured in the United Nations' commissioned Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which is calculated based on the number of women in actual positions of economic or political power. Just to give this statistic some context, the US is ranked 10th, Japan is ranked 44th, Thailand 55th, Russia 57th, and Pakistan 58th. The only other countries that actually managed to score behind Korea were all places in which women's inequality is overtly and sometimes even brutally enforced; in ascending order of GEM rank: Cambodia, where domestic violence is not even legally a criminal offense, comes in right behind Korea at 64th. The United Arab Emirates, where a man can still legally take up to four wives, is 65th, and Turkey, where "honor killings" of women who have had the audacity to be a victim of rape are still often committed by male relatives of actual victim, takes the 66th spot. Sri Lanka follows, with Egypt, Bangladesh, and Yemen bringing up the rear, last out of of the countries measured.
Does this statistic really have absolutely nothing to do with the high rate of state-supported, socially sanctioned sex work in South Korea? Does it have nothing to do with the fact that appearance is still, realistically, the key factor in most women getting jobs, all other factors being equal? In many other developed countries, including the United States, requiring pictures on resumés, or even asking to indicate age, place of birth, ethnic origin, religion, and marital status is illegal and is the grounds for lawsuits if asked for. Is it really surprising that in a country in which the sale and importance of the woman's body plays such a large part of the economy and culture that even the Ministry of Gender Equality has not even addressed this obvious issue?
"Too old," as the handwriting at the top of the note says.
If the sex industry is as much a part of Korean life and the economy as any other, then what seems important to consider are the demands of the sex workers themselves, echoed in the comments of all those interviewed for this piece, to be treated as what they are, for better or for worse – integral parts of the economy and culture. If someone has a bone to pick with the ramifications of this on greater society, it seems wiser to call into question the overall position of women in society, the legal and structural factors that create gender inequality and sex discrimination, as well as the overall societal attitude that so disproportionately values consumption of the female body over any other kind of work that a woman does and can do. If one wants to address this so-called "social problem," the best strategy would seem to involve ceasing to focus on individual cases, and instead squarely address what is a macro-level issue with macro-level solutions that speak directly to the problem of women's overall status in Korean society, as opposed to alternatively demonizing or lionizing the cases of individuals for the sake of news ratings or use as a whipping boy for one's moral agenda.
INTO THE LIGHT?
"Light" is often the metaphor for talking about the future; Korean media campaigns and propaganda slogans often talked about the "bright future" linked with an open heart. I am of two minds about the subject; I believe that the future of Seoul and Korea indeed to be bright, but that with every silver lining, there is a hidden price.
moving from golmok to "playground" to where? There are, of course, the many places where people live, and people have made great effort to combine the seemingly contradictory goals of cramming as many people as possible into a given amount of space, while making it a space humans would actually want to live in. So city planners and apartment engineers build up, seeming to try and reach higher and higher away from the gritty reality of the ground.
Old Seoul overshadowed by the ever-encroaching presence of huge apartment complexes.
But there seems to be a price paid for Koreans' sudden obsession with everything modern, new, and branded with names of seeming wealth, status, and power. As an outsider, as someone who comes from a country that has naturally developed into its industrial and economic power, I see something else that comes with the nouveau riche naming of apartment buildings – "Golden" and "Mansion" and "Palace" and "Tower" and "Castle" can be combined in any way you like, along with specific words that connote feudal status, such as "Noblesse" or "Noble" or "Rich" or "Intelligent." The furniture that Koreans tend to buy seem like a veritable parody of the concept of luxury, a hodge-podge of European baroque gaudiness and a tribute to conspicuous consumption.
<INSERT: Artist's conception of the Tower Palace Apartments.>
The very spaces of the city have come to no longer resemble anything Korean. And perhaps it is too simple to glibly call this "Americanization." I think it's something more, perhaps the first steps to a truly global culture that America and other capitalist democracies came to define first. The future is indeed fun, since I'm told that Starbucks tastes better, movies in a Megabox theater are punchier and more dynamic, the comfortable cars of Hyundai, Daewoo, and now Samsung have smoother rides than the sputtering, manually operated vehicles of old. Maybe this move "forward" is inevitable? But need we do so in this way?
Why do corporate visions of urban spaces and reality have to dominate over others? What about the democratization of the landscape? Is it not tragic that the spaces that come to define the boundaries of all our activities are largely not created by most of the people who occupy them? In democracies, we tend to find it important to participate in the choosing of our political leaders. We expect to have a say in the people we associate with, the freedom to move about and travel, and revel in our freedom to define our private spaces.
But do we ever think about the fact that we have little knowledge of who determines the shape of the majority of the public spaces that define our lives? Do we ever think about the fact forces beyond our control have effectively turned most human interactions into required acts of consumption? When did we give our permission for this? Did we even realize that this happened? Every day, we give our tacit consent by meeting, eating, and conducting business in the "playground" of consumption, while agreeing to live in the ultra-modern, yet lifeless and sterilized utopia of glass and steel, living an automated and electronic life of convenience.
In one essential way, we have become like ants in a colony, placing little stock in the importance of thinking about the meaning of the spaces around us. Much of our feelings of a lack of control and ownership of our own work is summed in the old American quip, "Hey, don't ask me. I just work here, man." In modern, super-fast, high-rise Korea, it may have gone a step further: "Hey, don't ask me – I just live here. I don't make the decisions."
Still, there is a certain saccharine pleasure in the mass consumption even in the corporatized and commercialized atmosphere of urban culture, the tension between the old sensibilities and Korean personality that are the legacy of times spent living in the golmok, which conflicts with the newer attitudes created by a new Korean affluence and obssession with things "luxury" and "comfortable." Within this whirlwind of change, you have both the disappearance of individual choice that comes crashing up against old-fashioned Korean dynamicism that makes Seoul a truly "interesting hell."
This is what will really mark the beginning of the end of the "old Seoul" – the remnants of pre-development Korea that was and is a welcome counterbalance to the ever-encroaching invasion of glass, steel, and plastic. Yet, it is not the materials themselves that spell the doom of everything that makes Korean city culture unique. It is the unquestioning willingness of the city's denizens to knock down all that is old or stained by years of use, or to welcome the corporatized versions of what was once original and individual; the taste of Seoul's food is already becoming notably bland and uninteresting, as the basic ingredients for cooking most foods now tend to come from the same sources, forcing even the most old-fashioned and talented grandmother cooking her favorite recipes to work with the most uninteresting of creative palettes. No matter how talented, even the most inspired artists cannot create well if limited to a few simple colors.
But by the time the taste of dwaenjangjigae/된장찌개 starts to taste the same everywhere you go, it will already be too late. When the clothes we buy are the same as what everyone else's, we lose something. When we all drive the same cars, live in the same apartments, eat the same food, and even spend our free time in exactly the same ways, and even as our own desires are now largely no longer our own but what advertisers and marketers have convinced you to need and want – where does one define the self?
The pieces of Seoul life that have made it unique, like little bits of heaven surrounded by what people have mistakenly called "hell," are going to disappear. When the street food stands either disappear or become chains, the crooked streets so full of character have been paved over by high-rise officetels and apartment buildings, and the open-air markets all become E-Mart outlets for mass consumption – what will define Korean life so specifically from Japanese, French, Canadian, or American life?
Even Korean movies, now hailed as part of the "Korean wave," have lost as much in character as they have gained in production values, creative marketing, and growing star power. I used to find Korean movies quite interesting, daring, and provocative right after the lifting of heavy governement censorship in the late 1990's. Now, as an American, I have little interest in most of them. If I want to watch Hollywood movies, I'll watch Hollywood movies.
But there is something more than just this downside. One cannot deny the sheer, unadulterated fun that defines Seoul life, Seoul nights. There is pleasure, especially as an American, at going to the E-mart or watching movies at massive cineplexes. Watching the overwrought melodrama of Taeggukki play out on the big screen was almost painful to watch; yet, I couldn't help but shed a tear in one scene, despite the fact that I hate all of that director's films. It's slick, pre-packaged claptrap; but it works.
Many Koreans who move to the US or Canada describe, to their surprise, that these are boring places to live, in comparison to Korea. With America's overall economic development and relatively high standard of living, with that long-developed stability, comes a lack of surprise, tension, or social danger. Korea is a country whose development happened in fits and starts, partially under self-determined, Japanese, and American regimes, against the backdrop of war and the insecurity that followed it, combined with the conflicts and contradictions caused by a rapid, forced, and often violent development regime. Korea gathered its capital through both hard work and borrowing, through means both moral and immoral; individual sacrifice, lack of freedom of dictatorship, gains offered by the US through the dispatch of troops to Vietnam, capital gained through sex work, the exploitation of labor, as well as countless acts of individual selflessness – both good and bad were part of the development story. Both good and bad manifest themselves even today.
So in all honesty, I cannot say that I don't feel a conflicted relationship with the ease of life here, especially as Korea and the world globalize along increasingly similar lines. And yes, there is obviously real, palpable pleasure in the older ways of playing as well, as found in drinking, dancing, singing, and sexing the night away. There is a "dirty" underside to the clean, polished face of Seoul and Korean life. It is, strangely enough, that dark side that gives the one of light a certain kind of meaning. There is a constant, nearly indescribable tension here, one I had never felt before coming to Korea, marked by the dichotomies of old and modern, dirty and clean, corrupt and pure, light and darkness. That tension is what marks Korea's charm, its irresistable new lure to the outside world.
But there is a sadness, too. There is loss here. As Korea walks away from and becomes more and more of a stranger to its own older way of life – as the cultural memories of the golmok pass out of memory, as Korea becomes more of the 선진국 it has so desperately wanted to be – a certain unique and peculiar aspect of the Korean character is being lost. From the early 1990's to just a little after the now is what I see as the "golden age" of the Korean street, when Korea stands at a fragile balance point between the past and the present, the then and now, un- and over-developed. In a way, it will never be worse and always seems to be getting "better."
Once Korea comes a bit further into the realm of the modern and postmodern, when the rule of law become pervasive and people no longer ignore traffic lights, all wear their seat belts, and don't curse at each other any longer; when the street stands are gone, restaurants are all chains, and we all eat lunch in food courts; when the red light districts are closed, people stop drinking to excess, and the streets are empty after 12 – for many people, Korea will have taken a step closer to being a "heaven," the dream of decades of development. But for all the hard work and feverish effort made to get ahead – without ever asking the question of "why?" – many Koreans will have forgotten all the guilty pleasure of having lived in "hell" along the way.