My Neighborhood

 Itaewon in the Summer of 2014

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Itaewon Freedom (an excerpt) 

Nowadays, when you get bored, what do you do

When things get tedious what do you do

Where do you kill time?

Too many people in Gang-Nam

Hong-Dae’s too bustling

Something’s lacking in Shin-Chon

 

I’ll let you know all; I’ll tell you all

Talk about the new world

There is music, also love is there

There’s the world, please tell it to me

                                                                                                –translated lyrics by UV (K-pop song)

 

Itaewon 2-dong  (my neighborhood)

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I live in Itaewan 2-dong at the base of Mt. Namsan in the Yongsan district in the middle of Seoul, South Korea. I am infatuated with the Seoul Tower. On clear evenings, the light shining from it is blue and signifies good air quality. On smoggy or foggy days it is purple. On certain days, it shines green signifying the color of the mountain and nature. On national blood donation day, June 14th, it is red. Occasionally it flashes through all the colors, although I was too busy practicing the night it actually happened recently to notice.

Pictures of the tower, summer 2014

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When I tell Koreans I live in Itaewon 2-dong, I stress the 2-dong part, as Itaewan itself, although definitely becoming trendy, is still known for prostitutes and seediness (typical for neigborhoods outside military bases). Itaewan 2-dong is a little more quiet and a lot less commercial than Itaewan. Koreans live here. Families live here.

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Itaewan did not have a glamorous start. The word roughly translates to “different fetus home” and refers to children born from Korean nuns who were raped by Japanese invaders. This was over four centuries ago. Today, Itaewan is still known for it’s otherness, referred to as “Westerntown” or “Foreigntown,” somewhat equivalent to our chinatowns in the west. One finds every kind of person in Itaewan from every part of the world. It is an amazing place to eat and play.

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It is becoming a trendy place as well:

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Namsan means South Mountain and Yongsan means Dragon mountain, although Yongsan itself is not a mountain but a forested area right in the middle of Seoul located between Hangang (Han River) and Namsan mountain. Dragons have serious meaning in Korea so the fact that Yongsan is named as such is telling.

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Yongsan is the center and heart of Seoul and is about to become a national park. It has housed the United States military since the war, but the US military is moving to Camp Humphreys fifty-five miles to the Southwest (it really is happening), and turning over the installation to the Koreans. The plans for the park are set. A tiny part of the base will remain US territory for our embassy, but otherwise the Americans will be out by 2016 or so and one more incredible duty station will cease to exist. I’m thinking of all the amazing places an Army musician could be stationed back in the 90’s such as the Presidio, NYC, Berlin, Heidelberg, Bamberg, Panama, etc… Not so much anymore…..

Here are some pictures I have taken on the American base in Yongsan (don’t worry, none of them reveal any strategic secrets). It is going to be a stellar park about the same size as Central Park in New York.

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Dong means neighborhood. 2 means 2 although it is weird that the number 2 is used at all. Korean language uses two different sets of numerals and Arabic numerals are not one of them. Seoul means Capital city. The meaning of South Korea is a little more complicated. South Koreans refer to all of Korea as Hanguk (country of the Han). North Koreans refer to all of Korea as Joseon (land of the morning calm). Land of the morning calm is certainly more poetic than country of the Han but since I’m in South Korea (thank goodness), I guess I could say that I live one neighborhood over from the place where illegitimate children were born near the river and the mountain where dragons preside in the capital city of the land of Han. That is pretty poetic, right? My neighborhood is worthy of poems.

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My neighborhood is hilly, San Francisco hilly. I do not have a car. This makes me incredibly happy, even when I am caught in the rain without an umbrella. I have three umbrellas now, but it still happens, like last night when the weather app said there was no chance of rain. Just when I was too far away to retrieve any umbrella the sky opened and let me have it. The good news is there are numerous little pubs and restaurants that welcome those caught in the rain. I don’t particularly enjoy being wet in street clothes (hence the three umbrellas purchased to date) but I have learned that I am not the Wicked Witch of the West and wet clothes eventually dry.

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Living without a car has allowed me the opportunity to get to know my neighborhood with all of my senses. I smell the sizzling beef wafting out of the corner galbi restaurant. I feel the grease and grime and money of Itaewon on my shoes when I walk on the main drag. I see the evidence of scarcity and plenty in the physical proportions of elderly Koreans and young Koreans, sometimes several inches different in height and waist circumference. I taste the gelattos, the chorizos, the Thai curry, the Indian basmati, the Turkish hummus, the craft brew, the bubble tea, the bin su, the bibimbap, the soy ice cream, the chocolate-walnut scone (can you tell I like food)? I hear the chainsaws buzzing, the hammers pounding, the concrete trucks mixing. I see the new villas appearing daily with little bakeries and pubs and restaurants on the bottom floors. I see the colorful clothing that everyone is wearing happily mixing stripes with paisleys. I smell things I don’t want to smell when I walk over storm drains on the neighborhood roads (tiny little roads that curve and twist and go up and down and it is kind of like playing Frogger when you walk on them). I hear the horns honking, the car engines revving, the scooters and motorcycles zipping, and ponder where do these aggressive drivers come from? The Koreans I have met are kind, thoughtful and welcoming. What do cars do to people? Anyway, my neighborhood is a poem. A really colorful, musical poem that you can taste and it makes you cry because you know it won’t last, but that is what makes it so great too, ya know?

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To learn more about my neighborhood go to these sites:

 http://shelleyscribbles.com/2011/08/16/the-purification-of-itaewon-and-why-i-miss-the-foreigner-ghetto/ 

http://web.yonsei.ac.kr/bk21/situations5/Chanhee_kim.pdf

http://www.stripes.com/news/itaewon-what-s-in-a-name-1.86704

http://www.yongsan.go.kr/pms/contents/contents.do?contseqn=865

http://ftp.buddhism.org/Publications/IABTC/Vol08_06_Hye-young%20Tcho.pdf (This one is about dragons) 

http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2012/04/24/seoul-chooses-design-for-yongsan-park/

To listen and watch the video to “Itaewon Freedom” go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjSJunJUzSI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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