Today I spent the day in the foreigner's district of Seoul, otherwise known as the foreigner's ghetto, or more formally as Itaewon. It is always quite an experience to be thrown back in the midst of English speakers after being nestled in a community where only a handful of foreigners are around me. You get a sudden lash of culture shock, surprise, and then a slow dissipation of familiarity akin to riding a bike while watching a Seinfeld episode you swore off with television.
Regardless of how strange it is initially, I enjoy Itaewon. I amble up and down the narrow alleys with its assortment of Nigerians, Canucks, Saudis, Kiwis, Brits, and American ex-pats. I welcome the Nigerian who asks to toss a baseball to knock down the pins for a prize; or the Korean suit salesman who tells me he's the Buddy Hacket of Korea and can make me a custom suit unlike any other. It's all well and good and makes for a heightened state of excitement, as I try store after store to see if I can find a shirt that will fit across my broad shoulders.
As night approaches, I stop off in a bar on the outskirts of the ghetto. A local band is huffing through blues riffs and yelling about sexual exploits in Thailand. I choke through the cigar smoke and manage to get into a conversation with a tall Nigerian. He smiles at me and claps my back as if we were old friends.
"I love Nova Scotia," he says.
"What?" I ask over the music.
"I love Nova Scotia," he almost shouts, and points at my friend whooping it up at the bar. "I love Nova Scotia, so I already love him."
"Good," I laugh. "He is a great guy."
I introduce Edme to Jeffrey. They discuss weather in Nova Scotia, Nigeria, and Seoul. Jeffrey says he likes Seoul weather best, and the Nigerian is at a loss for words. Then he laughs as Jeffrey gives him a bear hug, which Nova Scotians are known to do. The Nigerian hugs him back and they talk for a bit before the conversation turns back to me.
"Where are you from?" the Nigerian asks.
"I am from Iran," I tell him.
"No," he says. "You are not Iran. I have many friends from Iran. I have been to Iran. You are not Iran."
"Yes," I laugh. "Well, I am from Los Angeles."
"My friends from Iran wear clothes like this," he says and draws a hand from his elbow to wrist. "This far. Not like you. You dress like you are from America or Africa. Like you are ready for a club."
I look down at my tee shirt, that says, "New York City Meat." I nod. "Yes," I say. "I dress like I am from Los Angeles."
I turn away from the Nigerian to look at some ex-pats, dancing wildly with their partners. One of the men, an American, looks as if he has just gotten off the 60's night train. He has a cowboy hat and pleather vest with patches. He dips and twirls his Korean date. Another is severely overweight and just moves his body back and forth like he is on permanent trunk twists with an Energizer battery attached to his hips. I smile at them, and point to a man with a camera to capture them for posterity. He pans between the dancers and the band, who are in the grips of bad sound, lack of musicianship, and copious amounts of alcohol. They scream at the audience. Their instruments making dissonant clangs and feeding back through the shoddy speakers.
I smile. I order another water from the bartender. I nod at the Nigerian. My Nova Scotian friend tells me how glad he is that I made it out. I nudge another friend who is nodding off against my shoulder. I giggle at her. She giggles back. The lead singer in front of us pulls the microphone off the stand, walks into the crowd, and screams for death. The audience screams back for another song. I smile again.