Koreans have a common phrase for their friends on nights out, 눈이 너무 높아요 [your eyes are too high], which means they have high standards. For foreigners this phrase is commonly inversed. Experiencing this reversal on ground level is an unpleasant and disheartening experience: casually one will be having a riotous time in a club or bar, and a group of foreigners, usually white men, will come in and proceed to hump any muscle they can find, or like the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, any entity that seems capable of sustained movement.
This happens mostly in places with younger university areas that are Westernized, but not Westernized for foreigners, such as the area around Hongik University in Seoul, the area around Busan University in Busan, and Rodeo road in Daegu. Some westerners complain that the girls in these clubs are sterile, racist, or even “dead inside.” They’re young college kids raised in a society far more conservative, far more dedicated to family values, than any place in the West right now—why would they want you to hump their leg?! You think the army uniform really makes a difference?
For those who think different, I’ll pass on the advice an Irish guy in Hongdae’s club Coccoon told me: “Go to Itaewon’s club Helios, guaranteed one night stand.”
So the next day, in Helios…….
Helios and other such foreigner bars and clubs in Seoul, which respectively lie in Sinchon and Itaewon, are casually described as “meet packing,” which means people can easily meet each other, but this description is probably more accurate given its insinuated homophone, “meat packing,” as in, a place where one can persuade members of the opposite sex to be their pumping, sweat-glistening myoma for the night. As my gay acquaintance once opined, “an ass is an ass is an ass.”
Even in Korean clubs, the annoyance of the foreigner is outstanding. As I join in circle dances with Koreans, meet others at the bar, or simply stand around imbibing the lights and sounds and people, there always seems to remain one outstanding object in the room: A foreigner, usually white, making a complete ass of themselves, drunk and doing every kind of ridiculous dance they can think of, humping whatever they can find, and when they find nothing, they hump nothing. While this is sometimes entertaining, usually it is simply annoying and incurs a domino-effect of eye-rolling with every Korean in the room.
An old white Afrikaner giggles his body, intersecting his movements with groups of young women. A short black kid from Louisiana humps a Korean girl who has fallen on the ground. A young tall GI tries shakes everyone’s hand, then proceeds to scream angrily at everyone until the bouncer kicks him out. Another GI, shorter and full of muscles, slides his way behind unsuspecting young women, holds one by her stomach and begins thrusting himself at her; the look on her face is appropriate.
At all of these displays I cannot help but think of George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant,” where the young Orwell, a British officer in Burma, feels persuaded to kill a harmless, beautiful creature, simply because the natives expect him to do it as a symbol of power. Are these men also trapped in their own foreignness, and for some reason feel the injunction to make obscene displays of power by always being the center of attention, by claiming their rights over the women, by leaping on-stage without any understanding of what it means to actually dance and enjoy the aura of the club?
One night I meet three fellow expats, perhaps the first I can claim some pleasure in making their acquaintance. Allie, the Korean from Germany studying her “roots,” Ashley, the girl with a thick New York accent locked in constant conversation with her Korean boyfriend, and Lalli, a girl from Tennessee with a doll’s curled blonde hair. All three of them are “hybrids.” all speak Korean, not particularly well, but they speak it and refuse to speak English unless they are provoked to do so. They date Korean, eat Korean, speak Korean, and participate in Korean clubs without immediately looking for the first white person to talk to. I find all of this promising and inspiring; I have found some fellowship to combat the blatant disinterest in Korean culture.
The expats and I spend the night in clubs, never quite the center of attention anywhere we go, yet never off the dance floor. Ashley’s boyfriend and his troop show up, though none of them dance. The things she has to say about her boyfriend are befitting for a young Korean wearing a shirt that reads “COMPTON” in wavy white letters: “He calls me every five minutes, wanting to talk. I have to baby him through everything.” “Why are you with him?” I ask. “He’s hot.” she tells me.
Empty stools as I am sitting at a bar in Gwanju, the capital of radical politics. I meet a quasi-communist getting her masters in German literature. We talk among a group of her friends, my Korean tumbles out of me like falling blocks; I look outside and the sun is already up. I ask directions to the nearest sauna. When I get there, men seem to be having a riotous time in the “Males only” section, I feel them trying to touch my shins, which are poking out of a small warm cavern.