Native Seoulite once removed Chris Lewis recently vented some observations and frustrations with this cartoon.

By Chris Lewis. Click for full size.
By Chris Lewis. Click for full size.

After a few longtimers saying, “My sentiments exactly,” others chimed in that it was expat whining, condescending, oh, and liking this cartoon means that you’re a racist.

Gary Patrick Norris said: “Let me give non-Seoul, not Korean people a quick explanation. There are many foreigners in Seoul living in two neighborhoods north of the river that have become expat ghettos since the war, Haebangchon and Itaewon. Lately and spurred on by the approaching closing of the Yongsan US military base in the city, the base geographically cradles the ghetto, Koreans have been returning to the neighborhoods, especially younger, hip, affluent Koreans. Not my crowd, but that’s who’s hanging out there. Young folks who want to be cosmopolitan in their tastes. Also, some Koreans just like to hang out and eat western style food, go figure.

The general sentiment in that expat community in the last eighteen months or so has been that Koreans are “taking back” the expat neighborhoods, both as consumers and as tenants or owners. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about it from the expats who’ve made a nice living here never having to learn how to live in Korean neighborhoods and never having to acknowledge the problematic history of the occupation of that part of Seoul. They treat it like it belongs to them.

I’m sure you can guess how Praise and I feel about all this coded whining about “our places” within the expat community. We loathe it. And this “comic strip” from Seoul Eats kind of sums up how many foreigners handle interactions with “Koreans”.

I put “Koreans” in quotes at the end there because clearly the author is not referring to actual Koreans. He’s referring to some group of intelligent consumers who choose where to eat for reasons, like he does, but who should be ashamed of themselves for not being the rather demeaning stereotype for Koreans that he prefers, the more typical way that so many foreigners refer to locals, that is as mindless consumers of cheap crap.

The thread on Seoul Eats’ forum has some mean-spirited baiting going on—two guys stirring up the most shit, playing up to some nasty yet comfortable rhetoric in the expat scene where it’s safe to do so.

–That’s what I put up on my blog with screen shots. I mean, let’s be honest, the unstated assumption for the Americans and gyopos who are making fun of Koreans who line-up in those neighborhoods is that they don’t know what they like because they’ll eat nasty, cheap pojang matcha food after drinking soju and beer all night. In other words, Korean tastes are ignorant, naive, immature, and fickle while the expat taste is just much more complex and is longing for the taste of home. It’s so patronizing and bigoted, certainly, but on top of it, let’s just get something precise: Americans line up for over-priced food in every city. New York, Chicago, Denver, LA, Portland, Seattle, Kansas City, etc, are all foody hells where idiots are willing to line up for over-priced food and then brag about it on social networks like Yelp. It’s disingenuous as hell to call out Koreans for doing it. WORSE, it plays into old-fashioned white supremacist rhetoric about Koreans and they way “they” see the rest of the world. So, KNOCK IT OFF.

Seoul Eats Lurkers: If you want to talk to me about your nonsense, come to my page and comment. No way in hell I’m joining your fucked up whine festival of FB page. I have a coupon for you. Let me tell you. Feel free to share this post or paste it into your forum.”


Don’t get me started on the equally patronizing desire to rescue Koreans from the colonialist expats.

This is some response based on comments on the Seoul Eats Facebook group that people are blindly pasting around.

Now, I’m a person who regularly enjoys taking a swipe at the denizens on Itaewon Island. They remind me of Manhattan Guy from Sex and the City (“The Freak Show”) in that they have no interest in what goes on outside their little bubble, which includes interacting with actual Koreans.

Itaewon has been changing HEAPS. I’m not all that upset about it. We’re getting some good restaurants. The new faces coming in are keeping these restaurants in business. Keep in mind that until a couple of years ago, everyday Koreans avoided Itaewon–were deathly afraid of it. It’s similar to the current attitude towards Ansan Asia Town. My wife used to work for a travel agency whose office was in Itaewon. She said she hated going to the office because she felt dirty. There was a stereotype of young women who went to Itaewon, and it wasn’t unslutty.

Vatos’ old location before the permaline

Thanks to trendy places like Smokey Saloon, Suji’s, and Vatos Urban Tacos, the word got out that Itaewon ain’t all that scary. One observation I’ve made over the years is that Seoulites love lines. Sometimes they’ll stand in line without even knowing what they’re standing in line for. Lines are velcro. One time I was at an expo with 30-minute lines to get one chicken nugget in a paper cup. A group of three people stopped to read a sign about an event starting in three hours. By the time they had finished reading, a 40-head line had formed behind them. One successful strategy I’ve seen employed is to make your business confines small so that a line is forced to occur outside your door. Then you’re golden. Lines are velcro.

(cc) U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive)

Like everything else in Seoul, gentrification smashed in rapidly. A whole section of the area behind the Hamilton Hotel was torn down to extend the road behind it. Buildings that had been there for as long as I can remember were torn down for new trendy bars. One of the oldest galbi joints in Itaewon recently was torn down for a franchise coffee shop. Even the Steff Hot Dog outside Itaewon Station, which had stood there stubbornly with no customers for over ten years (I seriously think it was a mafia front), has succumbed to the changing times.

(cc) Rachel Patterson

The main drag in Itaewon, though, is primarily a commercial district. Commercial districts change, and it only affects business owners. Over the ridge are the Haebangchon (HBC) and Gyeongnidan neighborhoods that are primarily residential where business are encroaching. These businesses catered to the local populace the same way businesses in a Koreatown cater to Koreans who live there. Some of those businesses (I’m looking at you, The Booth) caught that Itaewon trend fire. Forests of young south-of-the-river women dressed to slaughter marched up the dank alleys to line up at these places. Residents started complaining, but there wasn’t much that they could do. A well-respected expat who’s fluent in Korean and has a job speaking Korean all day–you know, the opposite of the Itaewon expat stereotype–told me recently that he can’t even go get a little breakfast on a Sunday morning because of the lines of trendzombies lining outside his local bakery. The residents of these areas are feeling like they are being pushed out of their little pocket that has the comforts of home. Because of this, the rents are going up, residential buildings become commercial buildings, and the people who made this Westerntown a Westerntown are having to move elsewhere.

It’s the Garosu-gil-ification of Itaewon (which we’re afraid is also about to happen to Hapjeong). A neighborhood in the vast monocultural culinary landscape exhibits some character, it becomes a hot spot, the corporate franchises muscle in, the original residents and businesses move out, and it becomes another monocultural culinary landscape. It’s not just western restaurants. It’s any type of restaurant area that shows any promise. Garosu-gil is now a street of Caffe Benes. Samcheong-dong, by Gyeongbokgung Palace, is just waffle cafes.

(cc) U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive)

It’s true that this happens all over the world. I think there’s a subtle but obvious reason this has touched a nerve with expats. You see, in comparably sized cities like New York, if an ethnic neighborhood goes yuppie, there are plenty other ethnic neighborhoods that still have character. There are other places to go. Seoul, for a city of its size and stature, has the culinary diversity of a small town. When I came here ten years ago, you had a choice between Korean food and McDonald’s. Great Korean food. But even my very Korean wife gets tired of the same thing. Gradually this has changed, sparked partly by what the foreign community in Itaewon has introduced to Seoul. The Burger Renaissance, the Pizza Renaissance, the Mexican trend, the kebab trend, the concept of brunch, the current craft beer movement–they all had their roots in Itaewon.

The ugly reason why easygoing westerners have become rabid dogs over this is that if Itaewon goes the way of Garosu-gil, there’s no other alternative. Basically there’s Ansan (too far out) and pockets of Hongdae and Gangnam. There’s no other culinary cultural diversity in Seoul. That’s the fear. Some of these expats have been waiting years, decades, for Seoul to get little authentic tastes of home and other countries. When they finally get them, they feel locked out. I don’t know if Korean food’s newfound popularity in the U.S. has caused a similar surgence of non-Koreans into Koreatown, but I can sympathize with how Koreans there would feel. (UPDATE: Read Doge Wallace’s comment below.) It takes a lot to live in a different culture, so psychologically people need something to root them, to help them cope with a form of cultural trauma.

(cc) Nicholas Nova

On top of that, non-Koreans have complained since the Chosun dynasty on how they always have and always will be treated like outsiders. There is a feeling of being locked out of the cultural matrix that can be both frustrating and liberating. I think in a lot of expats’ minds, they feel like, “Well, if Koreans won’t let us in, at least we have our own place.”

Their undercurring fear is that with this trendy Gangnam crowd, the most exclusive locking-people-out types, “invading” this longtime expat stronghold, they will also lock the expats out of their own small space. It’s as if a bunch of white bearded hipsters go into Chinatown and socially push out the longtime Chinese residents. And these hipsters don’t really get into Chinese food. They are into their orientalist concept of Chinese food, frequenting Panda Express over the mom-and-pop noodle shop. I think something similar to this happened in London. My sister and I were in London’s Chinatown, and it was all Disney-fied with “Welcome to Chinatown” signs and red lanterns. We were hoping to find some authentic Chinese restaurant, but most of the restaurants were full of white people. We finally ate at one of the few restaurants there where we were the only non-Asian looking customers, and I still remember it being one of the best eye-opening meals of my life.

In Itaewon, this crowd inhabits all those Hong Seok-cheon “My” restaurants (My Thai, My Noodle, My Chi Chi’s, My Chelsea) and restaurants that look foreign but fortunately aren’t sullied by actual foreigners. These restaurants are the equivalent of the tea from the Nutrimatics drink dispenser in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that is “almost , but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”

I would never go into a Korean restaurant that had no Koreans. Likewise, I tell my Korean friends and readers to never go into a foreign restaurant that has no foreigners. It’s not that Koreans don’t have a good palate. If anything, the Korean palate has gotten more sophisticated and diverse. If Vatos opened five years ago, I doubt it would have made a blip on the Korean foodie landscape.

An upscale Itaewon restaurant owner told me she has no complaints on the money Korean customers plop down for her food. But she frequently gets disheartened that they don’t “get” the food. They’ll eat the fancy charcuterie and down the fine expensive wine like shots of soju but think the sauerkraut is a garnish.

Yet another force that is strong in Seoul is the strength of fads, of image, of doing what the perceived “cool kids” are doing, of flouting one’s (or one’s daddy’s) wealth. Which is why the big joke among marketers is that if you want to become successful in the Korean market, raise the price. I’ve told the story of the food director in one of Seoul’s hotels who lowered the prices on the hotel’s exorbitantly expensive menu, and the Korean clients almost rioted in rage. Unfortunately, and you maybe could chalk it up to the quick sujebi-to-foie-gras rise of Korea’s noveau riche, overpriced means good.

Image is such an overwhelming priority, spawning the small cities of plastic surgery clinics and dangerously high household debt from people living in apartments that they can’t afford. Kids don’t play with other kids who live in smaller apartments. Even worse, mothers don’t let their kids play with kids who live in smaller apartments. Image is king. Perception is prince. And if going to a restaurant that’s trendy on the blogs helps your image, you’re going to do that. And make sure you take a pouting aegyo selfie doing so. A friend of mine observed years ago when Krispy Kreme was new, foreign, and yes, cosmopolitan, that she noted a gorgeous young woman step outside of a Krispy Kreme with a doughnut, make sure everyone saw her, take one bite of her doughnut, and throw it away. Stories like that lead to the conventional wisdom that the forests of Gangnam ladies forcing themselves into The Booth’s confines aren’t really there for the pizza and beer. I’ve made reservations at Vatos for women in the office who want to go there but can’t stand Mexican food.

For years we have continually seen the bad guys win while the good guys go out of business. That Koreans have finally stopped fearing Itaewon is a good thing. It’s great if they keep some of the good guys afloat and learn to avoid the foreign-in-concept-only shams. Diversity in taste separates the children from the adults. The expats are kneejerkingly worried that if the Gangnam forests consume Itaewon Island, there will be nothing left but a vast kimchi-red ocean.

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