The Ugly Gaijin: Love and Lust in the Land of Princess Disease
by Aaron Paulson
"Oh, yeah," my new pal Brad was telling me, a mad gleam in his eye, "they love foreign men. My room-mate had a Japanese girlfriend. She was hot for him. Said she'd do anything he asked."
Brad and I stood on an overheated subway platform in Montreal, swapping notes on the Far East as rush-hour crowds smothered us in damp, down-filled parkas and hockey toques. Brad had taught English conversation for 18 months in central Japan. I had taught a lucky 13 months in pre-recession Seoul, Korea. Now I was back in Montreal to finish the degree I had abandoned when the aroma of wet down and hockey toques drove me overseas the first time. Brad was in town just long enough to complete an MA in English before he hopped back on the ESL gravy train. Memories of the good life, of movie star status and fat paychecks, kept us warm as we fought our way to class through a howling French-Canadian blizzard. A way of life that started to appeal again back in the impoverished day-to-day grind of grad school.
Then Brad started in on women, a subject that warmed him to the same muggy consistency as the air in the overheated lecture hall.
Brad's enthusiasm for the expat lifestyle, the gleam in his eye, reminded me of the hysterical rumors that haunted my last years as a down-at-heels undergraduate student. In the mid-90s, stories about the expat lifestyle in Korea and Japan were conflated into a single escapist fantasy. Millionaire English majors, who'd made fortunes teaching overachieving salarymen, horny housewives, and liberated cherry blossom brides. From the reading chairs of the Student Employment Office, all of North-East Asia seemed a post-punk, post-LA, post-New York cyber future megalopolis, with an insatiable desire for native English speakers.
This was the cultural graffiti written between the lines of every job posting, every second and third-hand report from Asia, overheard in every student pub and line-up outside the Financial Aid office. Before the horror stories, of criminal school directors prostituting gullible teachers, of indentured servitude, that started to filter back from Korea the year I was there. Brad's anecdotes reminded me of the stress and anxiety, the general weirdness, that greeted me in Seoul.
Along with Sarah, another new arrival, I stepped off the plane in Seoul shell-shocked and gasping for breath in the hot, thick, monsoon-soaked air. Jet lagged as we were, that first night in the East we stayed up until dawn, staring out over the red neon crosses of Seoul, watching planes land and take off from the nearby airport. Drinking beer and talking to our new room-mate. With three months in-country, Jamie considered himself a veteran of the ESL scene in Korea. That night, he set out to dispel all our illusions about living and working in Korea. Phone taps. Listening devices in the teacher's office. Random home invasions. Spies among us. According to Jamie, the stench of sewage out here on the outskirts of the city originated in the office of the hagwan, language school, Director, and our new worst enemy, Mr. Min, pronounced "mean."
In the two years since the school opened, Jamie assured us, not a single teacher had lasted out a year-long contract.
Jamie's real obsession, though, the thing that kept him pacing his little corner of our shared apartment, were the wasp-thin women who filled the classes and teachers' office at our large, suburban franchise school. These same women, Jamie assured me, wanted just one thing from foreign men: passports to a better life in the West. The promise of marriage was the going rate to get inside their expensive, designer panties. Even those who hadn't converted to the evangelical strain of Christianity sweeping through Seoul would use virginity to catch a husband.
Sarah's prospects for love were, apparently, even dimmer, since Korea's sons would never taint the blood-line of the family, and the nation, by mixing it with that of a foreign woman.
Six weeks later, Jamie broke his contract and fled to China in the middle of the night, pursued by god only knows what personal demons. He left behind a beautiful and slightly bewildered daughter of a Christian minister, who survived this romance without a visit to a specialist in "restoring" a woman 's virginity.
Seoul swarmed with young foreigners; mostly, it seemed, Canadians in tell-tale Mountain Equipment Co-op jackets and packs. Jacob, the younger brother of a buddy from back home, had arrived a couple of weeks before me, and lived in nearby Taejon. Jamie, as it turned out, had been my immediate neighbor in a student co-op house in Toronto. He used to practice tai chi on our shared back porch. During the day, out in public, there was a certain carnival air to Seoul, as though everyone arriving knew they had landed in the right place at the right time.
A few days after Jamie's all night indoctrination rant, this self-appointed guide took Sarah and I out on the town to show us some of what little we could do to forget, however briefly, that we had been sucked into a hellhole of cowboy capitalism.
The scene at Club Hollywood tied together my first, confused impressions of Seoul. Neon-lit outside and in, this decrepit warehouse-sized building near the American army base served as a home base for new arrivals in Korea, and the people who preyed on them. Its segregated, vertical layout reflected the street-life that prowled through the alleys and streets of Itaewan, Shinchon, and Hongik, Seoul's nightclub districts. Downstairs, well-dressed young Koreans disappeared into a private, racially segregated club, while bikkis, bouncer/touts, kept a steady stream of megooks, foreigners, moving up a darkened staircase.
The scent of weak cigarettes, gassy beer, and rampaging hormones assaulted my jangled, jet-lagged nerves as we stepped into the dim, neon psychedelic club. Soldiers and embassy personnel and teachers by day, by night the displaced young people who jammed the place dressed like extras from a college-age losing it movie. Boys in baggy jeans and baseball caps, and girls in crop tops, danced on the caged-off floor or spilled beer on each other around a circular rail in the middle of the room, or pressed up to the bar to order more $5 Budweisers. The whole football team was here, plus their frat buddies. And not a few cheerleaders. A skinny Korean DJ with electric hair seemed like a stranger in a strange land as he spun Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine from a perch next to the dance cage. In contrast to the undergraduate funk that rocked the first floor, the top floor of Club Hollywood was quiet, relaxed, with deep-stained wood paneling and a 360 degree bar in the middle of the room where they sold imported liquors and Cuban cigars. In one corner a knot of male teacher-types played darts. Around the walls women with impossibly big hair and tight dresses slit up the thigh shifted through shadows, in and out of booths aligned around the periphery of the bar. A $25 drink bought a hand on the thigh, Jamie explained, and a stroke of the ego. Anything more came at the hostess' s discretion.
Back on the first floor the sharks circled the bar. Outside the stairwell bathroom, Jamie trolled through lines of young Korean women queued for an illicit smoke break. "You speak good English," he told a pony-tailed high school student, with all the subtlety of a sex-starved, disbarred school teacher.
Seoul has almost as many soju tents, curbside drinking places scattered about the bases of office buildings and apartment blocks, as it does neon crosses. Every night these tents serve up soju, the local brew, and snacks to late night revelers. We ended the night in a back-alley tent, and with a taxi ride through the City, past the Han River uncurling like a serpent in the hazy, polluted dawn. Back to our cramped apartment in the vertical city of highrise apartments. Planes landed and took off again, bound for all points east and west.
During the week young, single, females crowded the Office. Mr. Min was reputed to be as vain as he was cheap, and so hired only the best looking women to fill the lounge, office, and classrooms. Even in pre-recession Seoul there were, apparently, a large number of women who wanted to save money for travel and studies abroad. Even in the darkest days, when half a dozen competing hagwans opened in the neighborhood, Mr. Min kept around twenty young women filling seats in the teacher's lounge, where they primped in front of the mirror next to my desk. Over the months, I developed a connoisseur's eye for the Korean female form: round-featured, high breasted, impossibly small hips. As a whole, Korean women put in the time and effort to be some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. And they know it. Between classes some stopped in front of this mirror and say out loud "Today I am beautiful." In English. And mean it.
There's an expression for it, "kyung ju pyung," or "princess disease." This was becoming a problem of epidemic proportions in Korea, my class of middle-aged homemakers assured me.
Jamie's desperate leap for freedom eased a lot of the tension that hummed in the office and the apartment like an electromagnetic pulse, that disrupted all the circuits and connections it came in contact with. Mr. Min recruited Alison, who replaced Jamie's paranoid cynicism with a free-spirited sense of adventure and open-mindedness. Sarah, too, proved to be a friendly and uncynical expat, to the delight of the Korean teachers and the horror of the bitter Canadian couple who worked all day to make money and schemed all night to make even more. East-West relations were given a further boost by John, a Korean-American playboy who had come back to his homeland to find a wife. John's droopy eyes and hip LA style apparently struck a chord in the hearts of the Korean teachers, who doted on him with virginal obsession. John's charms helped bridge the culture gap between East and West. His presence convinced several otherwise reluctant teachers to venture with us into Seoul's vaguely disreputable nightlife.
I finally bridged my own culture gap with Young Wren, one of the more Westernized of the Korean teachers at our hagwan. Young Wren spent her university years writing about the same campus radical pro North and South Korea re-unification movements that still incite riots every year at exam time, when tear gas rains down on parts of Seoul in sun showers. She had lived and studied in New York City, and hoped to study journalism at Columbia. During the day, Young Wren and I crammed for her upcoming Graduate Record Exams. Soon, though, our study time together tipped over into private life.
What started out as half-ass seduction ended in bizarre compromise. There were obvious differences from the start. At night, as a gritty, snowless, sunless winter descended on Seoul, we retreated to blankets spread on heated floor of my apartment. Young Wren swooned over Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise. Happy endings. With nice guys. I, on the other hand, had suckled too long on the cynical teat of alternative mainstream culture. I was not in Asia to live out some bourgois fantasy about love and marriage. I expected something desperate, more fatal from its inception. Wild at Heart or Kalifornia, maybe. Betty Blue. I watched The X-Files on Armed Forces TV. I wanted to believe. By the time Romeo and Juliet hit the theaters in Seoul, I knew Young Wren and I were doomed.
Sarah's social networking, meanwhile, tapped us into another circuit of expats and Koreans, those who shunned the worst excesses of Itaewan night life, but were barred by bikkis from the Korean-only clubs in the bright lights of Shinchon. As a group, we found foreigner-friendly alternative clubs in the university district near Hongik. Golden Helmet, Hodge Podge (pronounced Hodgie Podgie), and Joker Red, where Korean girls in go-go skirts and fuck-me boots lingered by the men's urinals and smoked skinny cigarettes. Long after we had cleared out the last traces of Jamie's presence in our apartment, we had finally graduated to a better class of drinking establishment/meat market than the slaughterhouses of Itaewan. Alison also joined us, as did some of the more adventurous teachers from school.
Alison turned out to have a wacky lust for adventure and travel, and had sworn to see the world before settling down. In her I found a soul mate and inspiration, a travel companion with whom to complete my adventures in this life and the next.
True to Jamie's prediction, Sarah was having bad luck with the sons of the Land of the Morning Calm. Eldest sons are charged with caring for their parents, and must continue the burden of family lines that can often be traced back 15 or 20 generations. Sarah's beau, the eldest son of a rich family, met such stiff resistance to his megook girlfriend that they separated shortly after he announced his desire to marry her. All the expats she met embodied the worst elements of men everywhere: lying, cheating, stealing, good time boys.
A blond bombshell in Seoul gets a lot of attention. So does the man she's with. When the moon was full, when cherry blossoms were on the trees of Yoido and spring was in the air, cat-calls and more aggressive, physical behavior were directed toward Alison and me on the streets and in the markets. One of our favorite bars, the Hodge Podge, which had been a cool, laid-back place for good music and cheap beer, had become the late-night hang-out for a group of young Korean men who had learned about sex watching Sharon Stone movies. Our last night at Hodge Podge I pirouetted one of the young Korean toughs onto the dance floor after he had attached himself to Alison's side as his friend tried to distract me with beer. Still, Seoul is as fine a place as any to be in love.
Around us, other stories were also coming to happy endings. Sarah bounced back from Seoul's night-club scene, straight into the arms of an American GI. Miss Lee, one of Alison's students and, for a while, an unexpected and unwelcome houseguest, finally landed a teacher/bodyguard/boyfriend, also from the U.S. My buddy Jacob married his Canadian sweetheart and moved to Bahrain and birthed a bouncing baby boy. And now, here in Japan, our neighbors Michael and Yoko expect a baby in the new year.
Still, Brad's story reminded me of the down-side to cross-cultural relationships, especially for the women. The nightclubs of Itaewan and Hongik are thick with foreign men, in Asia for -- in no particular order -- the adventure, the escape, the money, and the women. Karl Taro Greenfeld's two articles, "Expat Blues" and "Tokyo Sex Wars," published in Salon Wanderlust, chronicle the ups and downs of "starting over" in Asia. The lifestyle can be addictive, getting the star treatment as a stranger in a strange land. Your charisma shoots up 20 base points the moment you step off the airplane. Otherwise unremarkable men can score with women more beautiful than he ever dared hope for as a schoolboy back home, under the blankets. There's an unreality, a lack of consequences, so far away from home and the usual checks and bounds that moderate our more anti-social tendencies. The danger lies in taking yourself too seriously. You know it's time to leave when you start to believe all the hype. When you catch yourself thinking "I deserve this," and mean it.
©2001 by Aaron Paulson