GW Expat: Monkeying around in Korea

SEOUL, South Korea

On Saturday, I spent a night in one of the handful of bars in Seoul that are designed for foreigners and proud of it.

The bar is called Monkey Beach. From the first time I laid eyes on the sign, I knew I would find few better examples of an expat bar. The name, adorned with a picture of an impish smiling monkey stood out in brilliant fluorescent lights in one of Seoul’s nightlife districts.

Billboards on either side of Monkey Beach proudly proclaimed its “Thailand Style Live Nightly Fire Shows” and were filled with pictures of smiling people, all white.

Along the stairway, signs were written, unusually, first in English, then Korean. Bouncers checked foreigners’ IDs, spoke clipped English, and pointed people to their tables without raising an eyebrow.

The night’s entertainment was not yet underway, and people kept streaming in. Lanky American soldiers with crew cuts and Midwestern looks, impossible to miss among the Korean customers, strode over to pool tables and ordered Coronas.

Dozens of Korean women in heavy make-up either accompanied soldiers to the bar or sidled up to other foreign-looking men who had bought buckets of vodka cranberry.

Korean men, better dressed than their American counterparts, talked quietly at tables and waited for the night’s entertainment, a fire dancer, to take the stage. The atmosphere was far from quiet. The latest American club anthem pumping from speakers in every corner was sometimes interrupted by the shouts and laughter of Americans in the center of the room.

Expat bars are more than interesting curiosities. They symbolize the intersection of Seoul nightlife culture with the foreign teachers and soldiers who temporarily make the city their home. Expat bars are where foreigners like me are for once not an overwhelming minority.

The American men, their arms clasped around laughing Korean women, are the most obvious meeting of locals and foreigners. Months of smoldering glares aimed at such couples on the subway and on the street have made it clear that mixed couples are committing a cultural snafu. At Monkey Beach there are no older Korean men to swear under their breath at the women or disapproving eyes to keep couples holding hands and doing nothing else.

The fire show started at 11:30 p.m. A shirtless man cradled balls of flame and spun in the middle of the darkened room to raucous applause. As the show, a regular on Saturday nights, drew to a close, the audience started chanting, “Fire! Fire!” Seconds later, a pounding beat burst forth from the bar’s speakers, its chorus an echo of the crowd’s voice. The same song is used to close out every show, and evidently most people come regularly enough to anticipate it.

By 1 a.m., the Marines started to dance on tables, their dates right up there with them, and no one seemed to mind. When I got up to leave, Korean faces did not swivel in my direction and follow me out of the room.

Expat bars like Monkey Beach aren’t traditionally Korean in any sense. Instead they do their best to oppose the norms of posh Korean nightlife. Monkey Bar attracts a mix of adventurous locals and homesick foreigners and makes a night out feel like a short trip home.

-The author is a junior studying abroad at Seoul National University in Seoul, South Korea.

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