|Literary Vision Magazine: Personal Non-Fiction
|Seoul in Slices
©2004 Steve Kostecke
Neon and grime. Neon and grime. Neon and grime!
Seoul spread out haphazardly as it grew. No civic planning. No street names. No addresses on buildings. No logic.
No order. Always crowded. Always traffic. Twelve million people seething like a vat of blind larvae.
My first two months I labor under the typical Korean tyrant. Short, stout, middle-aged, suit-clad. Power freak. Likes
getting people-whitey in particular-by the balls. In six weeks I watch him fire three good teachers. Three others quit
because of him. One day he has me come to his apartment for some bullshit training session. I get to his place. He’s
too hungover and takes a nap. I have to wait. I check out his video collection and put in The Godfather. Two hours
later he comes out and says: “A very good movie! By watching it you learn how to treat people.”
The position I have been contracted for collapses in unison with the Korean economy (due to the so-called "IMF
Crisis"). I suddenly find myself freed. My former tyrant boss asks me to labor at another institute of his. One of the
perks: sharing a scrunched three-bedroom apartment with three other teachers. Dogs in a kennel. Foreign dogs.
This dog runs away.
The second institute I work for hires me out all over town. I teach tour guides, salary men, public officials, fashion
design students. Thirty hours a week in constant conversation. Accelerated cultural anthropology.
Korean girls. Exotic beauties. Long black hair, slim bods, high-heel shoes, skin-tight slacks, tiny tight asses, loads of
make-up. Holding hands with each other as they walk around “eye-shopping.” Constant flirtatious glares. I work my
way through the crowds glaring back, wanting my tongue between their full luscious painted lips.
"Princess Disease." What too many of the girls suffer from here. Too pretty, too fashionable, too much grace. Walk
around keeping track of all the eyes on them. All that lust and jealousy. And all they give back is that pout. That
sour, sexy pout.
First Korean girlfriend. Thirty with the body of a twenty year old. Lovers before me but a virgin to the white man. First
time in bed she pushes me out, scrunches into the fetal position, and cries about how much I hurt her. For the first
time I have to deal with the problem of being “big.”
Itaewon. The sleazy district near the US army base. Contains what we call “Hooker Hill.” Rows of lounges with Korean
comfort-girls waiting. They stand in the doorways smoking, wretched looks on their faces. Walking behind a group of
GIs I watch a lounge lady step out from her doorway, stretch out her arm, and actually do the old c’mere wave with
her hand. The soldiers strut past as she keeps the wave going. An outtake from some bad B movie.
Hooker Hill. In front of Club Paradise. A lounge girl hooks my friend. Another one hooks me. My buddy and I (both
drunk) look at each other like, Why not for once? We go inside and his girl drags him one way, mine me another.
Takes me to a booth with a curtain. I buy two drinks. She grabs my crotch and coos, “Handjob, handjob.” Scrotum
breath masked with gargle. “How much?” I ask (entertainment purposes only). “50,000 won,” she says. Forty bucks.
With her breath and the way she looks I would not even be ABLE of getting handjobbed. “What do you want?” she
asks, grabbing my crotch tigher. I want to get out. I leave the booth and barge into the one with my friend in it. His
girl looks good. They seem happy. I leave and he goes with her to a love motel that night. Doesn't get charged a
thing. Tells me her official motto is: "Sex is good."
Here comes the subway. And here comes the push and shove of Korea. People fight to get off while others fight to
get on. No sense of personal space. No sense of what we westerners call courtesy. Just the canned-in sick reek of
kim-chi from their mouths.
Asiana Airlines building. Front lobby. A gorgeous Korean girl in a stewardess outfit next to a podium. She bows to
every employee (90% men) as they come in. In the morning rush she bows continuously. Even bows to me. That’s
Old dogged men dragging carts full of used cardboard and metal scraps through the no-rules traffic. Been their
trade all their lives. Seoul grew up around them. Drag themselves through alleyways snapping a pair of tongs
together: Bring out your scraps, bring out your scraps!
First girlfriend. Lives at home under her patriarch’s rule. Does not have much opportunity for our secret relationship.
Calls me on the phone to say: “I would like to experience the power of your penis again, but I don’t have freedom
these days.” The power of your penis. Korean love-talk.
The “freaks” that come to Korea to teach. One night I’m with a Canadian teacher. She’s been in country a week. We
drink and she feels the urge to confess to me why she left her university bubble (grad work in aesthetics?): both her
and her PSYCHOTHERAPIST thought it would be best for her. I don’t appreciate being privy to this info. She is
exactly what I’m trying to get away from in the States.
First girlfriend. Mad at me about something childish. We both teach at Samsung at the same time, different floors. I
take the elevator after class. Stops at her floor. She comes running up, sees me standing there amongst a group of
salary men, sneers and halts. (Salary men saying to themselves: “Subordinate female, why do you make your
superior and elder males wait?”) Finally she gets on, the doors close, and she coldly ignores me.
Bang culture. (Bang: "room.") Norae bang: singing room. Get a room with a karaoke machine in it so you and your
friends can sing in private. Video bang: video room. Get a room with a tv so you and your girlfriend can watch a
video in private. More expensive video bangs have bed-like couching, and many a story to tell. And last: "room
salon." Where you and your friends pay the biggest bucks for the highest class "pros" to join you. They act like they
like you, giggle at your stupid jokes, pour your drinks, sing karaoke with you, strip tease, sit in your lap and allow
themselves to be molested in the most affectionate manner. And if you have the cash they demand--after the
hundreds just spent for three hours of their "company"--off to the nearest love motel you go.
British guy I know is gay. Speaks Korean. Knows Seoul in and out. Gets sex whenever and wherever he wants it.
Gay culture plus a sexually-curious-about-foreigners culture. When he gets drunk he gets obnoxious. As we weave
through the crowds he blurts out in English to passing boys: "Would you mind terribly if I sucked your dick?" Does
this for an entire stretch of road.
Things I’ve heard my students say:
“Stee-buh, your hair looks like a wild bird’s house.” (You mean a nest?)
“Don’t get me wrong: I’m a Christian, but I do not believe in god.” (Class nods with understanding.)
“We eat dog, yes it is true-but you Americans, you eat sheep!”
“We will learn English until WE control the world-then the world will learn KOREAN.” (Class applauds.)
“The other girls in class hate you because you give me more attention.”
“Sometimes even a monkey falls from the trees.” (Korean proverb.)
At a western style bar in Itaewon. My friend wants to score some smoke. Sees two Africans at a table. Goes over,
talks to them, they all slip out. Comes back thirty minutes later. Scoots back into our booth, whips out a quarter-
ounce and says: "Sweet." "How much?" "Seventy bucks." "That's pretty steep." "Yeah, but those guys are cool.
Kenyans. Said they could get me anything."
Tallanjujum. Literally: “happy-alcohol-place.” A place with singing rooms where you pay girls to “befriend” you. I go
with some Korean guys. They fork out the fifty bucks for the girl. She comes in and they seat her next to me. She’s
embarrassed about having to entertain a foreigner-pour my drinks, help me select songs from the karaoke machine,
beat the tambourine while I sing. I of course love it. At the end the guys tell me I have to hug her. I reach my arms
around and she crosses her arms over her chest and turns her head away. I squeeze. They all laugh (except for the
Trucks full of fruit or vegetables or seafood roll through the alleyways. Speakers on top the cab blurt out what they
have. Gibberish to me. In my apartment one of them passes by. Give my friend a wide-eyed glare: "Hear that? The
North Koreans have just entered Seoul."
Five of my female tour guide students party at my apartment and then stay the night. Two sleep on my bed, one on
my bedroom floor, one on the kitchen floor. Me and the last one dance all night in my room until the night starts to
fade. We lie down together on the floor. I make a pass. “No skinship!” she tells me.
Hooker Hill. 3am. Packed with GIs. A pretty Korean girl appears with her not-so-pretty friend. She (the pretty one) is
"hunting." She drags her friend into one bar and comes out empty-handed. Drags her into another and comes out
the same. Then she stands there in the crowd, waiting to be hit on. The GIs for some reason ignore her. So she
drags her friend down the hill in search of fresher haunts. My friend and I follow. I prepare my line. We get up behind
them--and they block the way of a soldier heading up the hill alone. I don't hear what he says but the ugly girl
answers: "Looking for YOU." She hooks him and the three of them head past us back up the hill. I stand there and
stare and pathetically have a feeling of loss.
Second Korean girlfriend. Doesn’t speak English. I don’t speak Korean. (“How do you communicate?” “Body
language.”) Has the habit of partying with her friends till two then showing up at my apartment with a bag of beers in
her hand and a lascivious gleam in her eyes. I have never been so thoroughly satisfied with a relationship in my
"From booking to yuhgwan." How one night club advertises itself. Booking: when the male customers ask the
waitstaff to bring a certain female customer and/or customers to their table. Korean girls willingly yet drudgingly do
this. Then sit there and look bored. Yuhgwan: a "love motel." Old and worn we-have-hot-water signs still out front,
condom machines within the rooms, grunts and shrieks all around. About 0.001% of all bookings lead to one.
Korean gals. Half are members of the rapidly fading virginity cult. The other half have two bases: holding hands,
then home (or yuhgwan).
Ppikki. A runaway whose job it is to stand around the happening night spots and get you to come to a certain bar or
dance club (where he’ll get a commission). Walk past one of these fuckers and he’s all over you with: “You want
cheap drinks? You want nice girls?” Their fashion is a joke. Greased down Japanimation hair, skin-tight suits (on
their bone-thin bodies), dress shoes approximately five sizes too long (“clown shoes”)-but the hippest attitude
possible from the general homogeneity of Korean male youth.
Second girlfriend. At an after hours place with her and her friends. We’re the only ones there. A couple of rough-
looking guys come in and walk up to our table. One fat, the other with Japanimation hair. The fat guy grabs a glass
off our table and whips it at our waiter. He ducks out of the way and just stands there. A middle-aged woman comes
out from the back and glares at these guys. But she just stands there too. The Japanimation guy picks up the roll of
toilet paper off our table (used here for napkins) and whips it at us. Smacks the girl right next to me square on the
nose. (Was it meant for whitey?) Two guys we’re with jump up and grab the guy and pin him to a table. The rest of
us get up and leave. Out front my girlfriend tells me in Korean to go home. I do. But still I’ve got no idea what
happened or why.
Riot police. Every Korean male serves in the military for at least two years. (Unless his parents have got money and
connections and get him a “medical release.”) What to do with this carbuncular corps? Line them along the walls of
the subway exits in their riot gear. Make us walk the gauntlet of their shields, clubs, and glares. Give us that warm
military-rule feeling on a Saturday night.
Motorbikes on sidewalks. Revving and threading through the crowds. Getting on people's asses. The way that
Koreans uninsultingly get out of their way. The way that they accept it as a necessary evil of their lives. One time a
motorbike gets on my ass. I am with two friends. I quip snidely to them: "One of these days I'm gonna hook one of
these guys." The motorbike guy miraculously speaks English. Gets up alongside me and says: "You don't like it? Get
out of Korea!"
Third girlfriend. An absolute virgin. Mine is the first one she’s ever seen, touched-etcetera’d. Been raised to believe
that the first one inside her is the one she has to marry. One night in bed she wants ME inside her. Me I don’t want it.
Of course I’m not going to marry her and of course I’m just passing through her and her country. Plus I don’t want to
be one of the whiteys that come here and defile the “flowers” and mistake that for prowess. She straddles me and
pushes down. I hit against the tight knot of flesh and pull out. I tell her no I’m not going to be the one to do this. Then
I feel strange because I think I just have acted “morally” (but still unsure).
I "befriend" a lounge girl on Hooker Hill (details not included). Turns out she lives in the same part of Seoul as me.
Ends up calling me once a week to hang out. We go to movies, drink lemon soju, go back to my place. One morning
at my apartment her mom calls her “handphone.” Knows about her lifestyle. Begs her not to marry a foreigner.
Wants her to marry her last Korean boyfriend. This call upsets my friend. She shuts her phone and says: “If I never
sexed with foreigner, it is good. But Korean boyfriend is too small. I can not be happy!”
Wake up with a start one afternoon lying diagonally across my bed fully-clothed. I have become momentarily
oblivious to which episode of my life I am in. Where am I, what am I doing. I hear water running. I glance at the sound
and see the backside of a girl washing dishes in a kitchen area. She has a skirt and long straight black hair. I sense
she is not white. A tv on the floor next to the bed has the volume set on low, displaying scenes of an East Asian
historical drama. Ah right, I ruminate to myself: I am in Seoul, teaching English, and that is my girlfriend, a local bar
Street vendors with space heaters sitting outside all night in the freeze. Pandering cassette tapes, fashion
accessories, magazines, varieties of food. A pungent stench has become very familiar to me. One whiff and I know
what I'm near. Silkworm larvae steaming in a snack vat.
Straight line: “How come there’s no wildlife in Korea?”
Punch line: “Because they ate it all.”
Boshintang. Dogmeat soup. The dogs are killed by beating them with a club. Supposed to release more ki (sexual
energy) into their flesh. I go with two friends (non-Koreans) to a place that serves it. (The restaurant’s name: “Health
Soup House.”) We drink heavily before it comes out. A pile of meat in a bowl of vegetable soup. “Looks like a whole
mutt.” The meat is dark with the layer of fat still stuck to it. Extremely tender but nothing special. No taste sensation.
No feeling of ki surging through my penis. Just a culturally-biased disgust at their back-assed superstition.
Korean girls love to have the tiniest dogs as pets--or, as I like to call them: bite-sized.
Fourth girlfriend. Freakish. Wants nothing more than to get me back to my apartment, tug down my jeans, and blow
me in the most aggressive fashion. I can not comprehend this but enjoy it to the maximum. One afternoon while in
the midst of this process, her “handphone” bleeps. She flips it open. Her younger sister is calling to check on what is
new. My girlfriend utters Korean strings-of-syllables to her and, when her sister is doing the speaking, continues her
performance on the "big" white foreign cock in her grasp. Perfect image of WESTERNIZATION.
26th floor of the Samsung World Headquarters. Out the window a perfect view of Namdaemoon-the former south
gateway into Seoul. Must have once been a great sight. Now it’s the center of a five-road rotary, grimed with
exhaust, dwarfed by structures around it, surrounded by video billboards showing the same commercials over and
over and over again.
Vacation in Thailand, make a new girlfriend (not a bar girl), and realize Seoul is over. Return to Korea and make
arrangements to move to Chiang Mai. My last night at my apartment I hang out on the balcony, drinking, looking
around. I hear squalls echoing from a nearby karaoke room. I watch a group of middle-aged suit-clad men getting
drunk at a table outside a small restaurant, forcing one of the waitresses to sit with them. All around me are
apartment buildings, paved roads, cars. Not a tree in sight, nothing non-manmade. I can't feel any regrets. I feel
A slice out of Steve Kostecke:
Steve is editor of the Underground Literary Alliance's Slush Pile zeen and lives in either Northeast Asia or Southeast Asia,
depending on his financial and/or female situations.