Seeing Korea through a different lens

Seoul, South Korea – In Korea, a year living in the country makes you an old-timer. Normally, it takes just six months for a foreign student or English teacher to arrive, absorb, and depart. I can count the Americans whom I know to have lived here for more than a few years on one hand.

The furious pace of entrance and exit makes those few who have stayed a long time the veterans. Merited or not, they are the gurus who confidently make assertions about what Korea is and how to live here.

As a student nearing the end of my one-year term here, there are not many people I know now who can play the role of mentor, but last Saturday night I was reintroduced to my adopted country by another expat.

Lucas joined the U.S. Army in 1998, and three years later his posting to the Yongsan Garrison brought him to Seoul. After seven years in the army he left the service but stayed in Korea to become a DJ, a teacher and finally a graduate student at my university.

One Saturday night, having not been in my district for years, Lucas called me up to explore it once again.

When he first came, Hongdae was “like the village in New York,” a haven for the alternative and the eccentric. Now Lucas sees it as a pale imitation of its former liveliness. Police crackdowns on drugs have made life here more placid. Skunk Hell, once the seminal punk venue in all of Korea, recently closed its doors. Overall, the once-hopping area has become much more of a destination for foreigners.

As Lucas and I walked down the neon boulevards he ripped into the prejudice that he still sees around him, with the buildings that had prohibited U.S. soldiers up until a few years ago serving as a reminder.

We arrived at a basement bar where Lucas had arranged to meet a friend. Also there were several Australians and Englishmen, all strangers to us. As we sipped drinks and began the obligatory introductions, I reflected on how strange it is to go eight years in a country and still spend Saturday night hanging out with strangers. If seeing the same people in Foggy Bottom feels stifling, imagine going to college without a reliable circle.

Lucas’ old friend stopped by, a woman who worked at a bar in Hongdae years ago and was one of the only people who could speak English with him when he was a DJ. After a few awkward minutes of conversation, I was surprised to see her abruptly leave.

His voice dispassionate, Lucas explained that she was nervous about being seen in public with him since they were both married to other people. Citizens of Seoul have often told me that despite living in a city of 10 million, a common worry persists that someone you know will spot you with a foreigner.

At almost midnight, we headed out once again, trying to find landmarks from a different era. At one house music venue, Lucas proudly explained he used to work the tables as the first white DJ in Hongdae’s history. But the club has been rebuilt from its former shell and none of the owners remembered him. For an hour the sparse crowd, made up of a few English teachers and some Koreans, moved slowly to the beats and breaks.

Lucas tugged on my arm and we headed back outside. He shook his head and set out for another club that he thought might still exist. And it did – there we found one DJ who remembered Lucas, a Korean with an expressionless face who waved us into the building.

Inside, the sights and sounds were even less reassuring than those at the other places we had been to. Shy, the DJ seemed to not remember anything about Lucas besides his name. Despite months of working alongside Lucas, all memories of conversations shared seemed to have been burned up or drowned.

We left Hongdae as most of the clubs were emptying out, picking a taxi out of the crowd and arriving home in the early morning hours.

During the ride back, I was pensive. As an exchange student with a finite amount of time here, I do not have any illusions about my long-term relationships with people. I do not expect to come back years later and find the same crowd. But Lucas could not stop describing his former friends and how little he knew about the place where he had spent so much time.

I have known for a long time from textbooks that Korea changes on short notice. But it is much more poignant to actually see the change through the eyes of someone whose world has become unrecognizable so quickly.

-The writer is a junior spending a year abroad at Seoul National University in Seoul, South Korea.

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