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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Itaewon Freedom

The following is the original of my latest feature for Yonhap News Agency - the shorter published version can be found here (worth looking at for the photos by Jake Hanus, if nothing else:

Koreans Drawn to Freedom of Foreign Enclave

Situated just outside the concertina-wire topped concrete walls of U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan  –  home to the headquarters of United States Forces Korea  –  the suburb of Itaewon has long been known as a foreigner-friendly enclave. U.S. troops roam the streets, monitored in the evenings by Courtesy Patrols of Military and Korean National Police; English-language teachers mingle with international students; Africans of various nations peddle jewelry on street corners; and Pakistani, Indian and Turkish restaurants share street space with Western diners and English-style bars.

Itaewon’s foreign flavor precedes all of these newer immigrants, however. Historian Robert Neff, co-author of “Korea Through Western Eyes,” said the Japanese were based in the area when they occupied South Korea and before the Americans moved in. Neff has also been told that a Chinese presence preceded the Japanese but has no proof of that claim.

The faces on Itaewon’s streets have changed again recently, as Koreans reclaim this most non-Korean of suburbs, which was once considered both unsafe and undesirable.  

When Ashley Cheeseman, Executive Assistant Manager of the Grand Hilton Seoul, first visited Seoul in 1997 with his Korean wife, she did not tell him about Itaewon, “because she had only heard bad things,” he said.

The Englishman was told of the area by another Westerner and visited, finding a home away from home. Cheeseman and his wife subsequently lived one suburb over in Hannam for many years, and he continues to visit Itaewon three or four times a week.

“There wasn’t so much of a mix back then,” he said. “People were very segregated. You had the African community going to one place, Filipinos going to another.

“Now, I see this community where everybody is accepted and nobody is looked down or frowned upon.

“You have this perfect combination of young Koreans being in an environment with a lot of foreigners.”

He believes the change began when Korea co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and Koreans wanted to socialize with foreigners and be part of a global experience. Itaewon was one of several focal points in Seoul where locals and visitors gathered together to watch the games.

Kevin Cyr, the Canadian owner of the Chili King burger bar, is another long-time visitor to Itaewon who has watched the area mature along with Korea itself. After coming to Korea as an English teacher in 1996, Cyr started selling chili burgers from a truck on the Itaewon main street in 2008 and moved to permanent premises on a side street in April 2009.

In 1996, he said, Itaewon was dominated by young American military and English teachers, he said.

“Most Koreans didn’t come to Itaewon because it was still considered dirty and dangerous.”

He said that perception has changed with promotion of the area by the Korean Government and as Koreans “slowly but surely become more wordly.”

“The late-20s, early-30s generation wants to experience more than Korea. A lot of them have either gone abroad, studied abroad or been on trips, so when they come back to Korea, they still want that authentic feeling. They don’t want to go to a Bennigans. They want to go to an Italian restaurant that actually has an Italian cook. They want to go to an American burger joint that actually has a Westerner cooking. They want the authenticity.

“Itaewon is basically the only place that really offers that.”

Koreans on the Itaewon streets gave similar reasons when asked what brought them to the suburb. Young parents Shim Gyu Sang and his wife Choi Hye Young said they both first came to Itaewon as middle school students and now visit every year or two. Bringing their 10-month old daughter for her first visit, Choi said she had noticed many more Koreans in the area.

Koreans frequented the area, she said, because “there are lots of tasty restaurants and many authentic restaurants.”

Nineteen-year-old Lee Jeong Sun, who was visiting to take photos with two of her friends, said she had been to Itaewon “just a few times.”

“When I was just a high-school student,” she said, “I heard that Itaewon is a beautiful place, similar to Europe, with so many foreigners.

“I think Itaewon is not like Korea because so many foreigners live here so they have their own culture and their own behavior.”

Kang Jeong Moon (26) said that he has visited Itaewon to shop, go to dance clubs and meet friends about 20 times in the past 10 years. He had also noticed a lot more of his fellow citizens in the suburb and said it was the foreign experience that attracted them.

“If you can’t go to America, you can still come to Itaewon,” he said.

Another factor that draws Koreans to the area, in a country where social media is an enormous influence on so-called “Netizens,” is a song that became a Facebook and Youtube phenomena in March of this year. “Itaewon Freedom” is an ‘80s-style disco/rap parody that speaks of freedoms unavailable elsewhere in a culture that has rigid expectations of its citizens.

The duo UV, consisting of musicians Yoo Seyoon and Myuji, and rapper JYP donned faux afros to sing lines that include translations of “a world full of youth” and “the world is there.”

Cheeseman said the song and the influence of many more foreigners on Korean television added to the attraction of Itaewon.

“There’s nobody there judging you,” he said.

“Especially with young couples, it’s an ideal location to go. They can be more affectionate with each other without people looking at them and criticizing them with their eyes.”

Cyr agreed that the area offers a freedom not easily found elsewhere in this strictly-regimented society.

“For them it’s like they’re living on the wild side,” he said.

Other long-time foreign residents grumble about the influx of Koreans to what many view as their own small part of the peninsula, though none spoken to wanted to go on record doing so.

Cheeseman said he had heard such complaints.

“But at the end of the day,” he said, “we’re in their country. We are the visitors here so to have Koreans with us and socially accepting us – there can be nothing better.”

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