I claim no vast amount of experience regarding Korea. I also claim no historical perspectives on a country that still seems so foreign to me. But after two years here, I’m reconsidering Itaewon as a place worth stopping by more than once a year. Beyond being one of the best places for international flavors, it’s re-emerging as a central place for socializing with fellow expats.
Itaewon was my very first stop, my first real destination that I visited without a friendly Korean teacher who helped with my first trip to E-mart. As it was described to me, this self-contained “Americatown” supposedly had everything I would need that I couldn’t find elsewhere. Food was just the tip of the iceberg -- finding thousands of English books at What The Book was another wonderful surprise.
My first visit, on a Saturday night no less, reminded me at once of how far from home I truly was. Between the foreign Hangeul (still my first week in Korea), the culture shock of actually being a world away from friends and family, and the locals trying to sell me custom-tailored suits, the brand names seemed to be the only things I was familiar with.
And yet, there’s more to Itaewon than brand names.
The area holds the largest concentration of international restaurants in Korea. I find it hard to believe there’s another area on the peninsula where one can find a wide selection of Middle Eastern food, Irish food, Thai food, and Indian food -- not to mention the Italian, Bulgarian, Iranian and Chinese restaurants nearby -- all within walking distance of each other. Don’t forget about the Taco Bell making another attempt at profitability right across the street from another taco restaurant -- a place seemingly unworried about the well-known franchise. Walk down to the more familiar American restaurants or brunches if you like, but know that there are plenty of options around the area.
Itaewon is also a reminder of how small our world is as foreigners in Korea. Get involved in any number of volunteer, sport or creative opportunities for a few months, then walk down Itaewon’s main drag. Among the tens of thousands of English-speaking foreigners living in Seoul, you’re likely to run into at least one face you’ve sung with, volunteered with, played sports with or worked with at some point during your tenure here. At a recent Saturday night party, I bumped into not one but four familiar faces I didn’t come with and didn’t expect to see.
Hongdae is still a great place to party and mix with the locals, but Itaewon feels more like a larger version of Cheers -- sometimes you really do want to go where everyone knows your name, or the name of your trivia team/singing group/dance team. For better or worse, it’s one of the few places in Korea where a diverse worldview is genuinely tolerated -- dare I say appreciated?
Just like the rest of Korea, things change in Itaewon -- the club at the corner of Hooker Hill once held a store that sold computers and computer accessories, and almost certainly something before that. The plaques built into the sidewalk indicating different ways to say “hello” are still quite new, while the main street as a whole seems a bit more upscale.
It’s not perfect, of course -- those tailored suit stores still do enough business to keep their lights on, with the tailors themselves pestering those in jeans and t-shirt about getting a new suit. When one of the three I currently own wears out I might get back to you -- for now, get out of the way.
KEB finally opened a branch on the Itaewon strip, while places such as Woodstock and Helios seem to have been here since Itaewon first existed. The McDonalds, Subway and Burger King are mainstays for those who love the respective franchises, while countless Korean businesses thrive on foreigner traffic. Just because you don’t need a pair of 50,000 won boxers, an eel-skin wallet, or even a tailored suit doesn’t mean a tourist won’t stop and bite. No matter how often you visit, you never know what you’ll find -- that “Infinite Discoveries” slogan suddenly makes sense.
Beyond the food and fellowship, Itaewon is clean most times and most nights. Really. I swear. Go there on a weeknight and take a look around -- odds are the sidewalks are swept clean. Saturday nights may get dirty around the club areas -- but look at who’s throwing their trash every which way.
Get past the party scene, and remind yourself that the area offers much more than overpriced drinks and tourist souvenirs. While the usual pitfalls will always be around, there’s more to Itaewon than meets the eye.
To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; to contact the author, go to chrisinsouthkorea.blogspot.com; the opinions expressed here are the author’s own -- Ed.
By Chris Backe