The Controversial Foreign Restaurant Cartoon

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.”

(cc) Rose Ferrer

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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15 thoughts on “The Controversial Foreign Restaurant Cartoon”

  1. Absolutely spot-on, Joe. The fears over the fate of Itaewon and its environs are nothing to do with looking down on Koreans or ‘occupying’ part of Seoul. Instead, it is down to the well-founded suspicion that the arrival of hordes of well-heeled, overdressed and ill-at-ease Gangnamites sounds the death-knell of the only vestige of diversity that central Seoul possesses. Whislt other major cities comfortably entertain a range of cultures, Seoul utterly fails in this regard, and it is to its shame. What little cosmopolitanism exists has been grabbed inch-by-inch and was never given up gladly. It has been thanks only to the willingness of foreign ‘interlopers’ to risk their fortunes and their livelihoods to carve out this niche. It is a crying shame to see it lost to the ugly class-based oneupmanship of the arriviste crowd and the suffocating homogeity of corporate committee thinking.

    • “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.”

      Not even about Korean food. in Los Angeles, hipsters have taken over Silver Lake, Echo Park, and are now for the past few years have been moving into Koreatown. Rents have gone up, and in fact my landlord just gave me a notice over the weekend saying my rent is going up 3% again. This neighborhood used to be very Latino and Korean. Now I see about half the people walking around on my street are young white hipsters.

      I’ll continue to stay here, though. This is my hood. This is the hood that was defended by Koreans during the 1992 LA Riots when the city ignored the community. Even when the National Guard came in a few days later, they only went to protect Beverly Hills, and left Koreatown on its own. Many Koreans lost everything, some died. Koreans rebuilt it, and we will continue to stay here.

  2. The
    comic is pretty accurate about depicting the trend and the sentiment
    felt by foreigners in Korea. People have attached things to the comic
    that are not present in the comic.

    Saloon in Itaewon has gone through this cycle and is currently not
    great. The Brooklyn burger joint is a little well kept secret and is
    outside the Itaewon/Gangnam blog-spheres. Even with this advantage, they
    have started to slowly gain a line at off hour times, and prices have
    started to go up, while quality has remained the same, though I noticed
    the seasoning was lighter last weekend.

    real killer to Itaewon is that the government removed international
    free trade zone permits/zones from that location. The government WANTS
    that area to become more “Koreanized.” If Seoul was a donut, they are
    trying to fill that hole. I have had this expressed to me by actual
    people in charge of the planning/who are involved in land development.

    real things that people have not yet thought about are the
    international food marts, the black market shops (most closed now), the
    international supply like places for arts etc, the martial arts gyms
    that are not Korean martial arts, the cheap affordable clothing in
    western sizes, and the tailors who can hook you up with a quality suit
    at an affordable price. These things are going away soon, which means
    that even Koreans are about to lose out. The big guys (Korean and not)
    are about to not be able to buy anything our size anywhere but Songtan,
    and everything else is about to only be available online, at costco, or
    trying to get people back home to ship it to us.

    Those who think this isn’t going to change Korea outside of Itaewon, you’re wrong.

  3. “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.”

    Not even about Korean food, but I’m sure it has helped a bit. In Los Angeles, hipsters have taken over Silver Lake, Echo Park, and for the past few years have been slowly moving into Koreatown. Rents have gone up, and in fact my landlord just gave me a notice over the weekend saying my rent is going up 3% again. This neighborhood used to be very Latino and Korean. Now I see about half the people walking around on my street are young white hipsters.

    I’ll continue to stay here, though. This is my hood. This is the hood that was defended by Koreans during the 1992 LA Riots when the city ignored the community. Even when the National Guard came in a few days later, they only went to protect Beverly Hills, and left Koreatown on its own. Many Koreans lost everything, some died. Koreans rebuilt it, and we will continue to stay here.

  4. I live in a villa right on the main road of the booming trendy area. I just got an eviction notice to get out because my landlord has sold the building to commercial property. A cafe will be in my home within 5 weeks. I’m so angry I just want to escape Seoul altogether.

  5. The criticism doesn’t really address the main point, anyway: restaurants get more expensive, worse, and, perversely, more popular.
    But it’s not just foreign restaurants. Hapjeong isn’t really that foreigner heavy and what’s there hasn’t been there for long. I’ve already lost a couple of places to the phenomenon but they were run by Koreans and most of the customers were Korean. Plus, in the middle of Hongdae, Starbucks is now H&M. Most people don’t care about that, but it used to be one of the few recognizable Western features in the area. A few doors down a famous German bakery got gentrified out and became an Angel-in-Us. A lot of Koreans were quite critical of Lotte because of that.
    Basically, everyone hates being crowded out of their favorite places, and everyone hates a tourist.
    As Devil’s advocate, though. Isn’t it fair to say that Hong Seok-cheon has also had to carve out a bit of space for himself in one of Seoul’s most liberal districts?

    • I agree that it’s great that he’s carving out a place. But it’s also like he’s trying to conquer the place as well. And I have yet to come across an enticing review of any of his restaurants that didn’t involve actually meeting him in person.

  6. I would have to say I am completely on the fence about this issue. I appreciate that Koreans are opening their eyes to other cultures. And I also been known to comment on the Korean-ification of Itaewon. Many of us long term expats remember a time when you would almost never, if ever, see Koreans in Itaewon alone. But I also remember a time when we used to say that Itaewon was so seedy, that it sweated.

    There is this feeling of losing Itaewon, and upon reading this it caused me to think about how the things that I like are moving further and further back from the main drag.

    In a way it is good on Korea. Get out there and experience foreign foods and culture, even if it is only pseudo foreign. It continues to add to the growth Korea needs to have with its interactions with other cultures. I also see the foreign viewpoint that it was OUR neighborhood, and now its disappearing, and no, there will probably not be a suitable replacement, or at least for a significant period of time.

    I spent years in the countryside of Korea, and I guess lost a lot of the need for “western” things. My several times a month cheese runs have dropped down to several times a year. Things such as that. But living south of the river even, you see places to find western supplies. The NEED for Itaweon is not huge. But psychologically, I understand the need for a place that is OUR place and why the encroachment of pseudo-foreign restaurants and certain establishments (such as a club that made a lot of news last year) rankles on the senses of those who do find Itaewon to be their home away from home.

    Also…. Just adding this at the last moment. Someone mentioned Hong Seok-cheon. Don’t forget that there are other KOREANS, and ones without his means, that find Itaewon a safe place, and might be feeling just as displaced as the foreign population is.

  7. Most perceptive thing I’ve read about this. As an HBC resident I find it deeply irritating that there are lines to eat outside some of my favourite spots – Booth, Kkaoli Pochana, Casablanca and Baker’s Table. But if I were a restaurateur, I’m sure I wouldn’t be nearly so bothered.

    In the longer term, I am sure that it’s a good thing if Korean people are gaining a taste for craft beer, proper Mexican food and so on, because the number of such places are likely to proliferate. Yes, some of those places will be cheap and nasty knock-offs, but others will be a huge improvement on the status quo, so in theory everyone should benefit. But in the shorter term it will likely mean a lot of inflated prices, and if some restaurants become less “authentic” (whatever that means) then that will also be collateral damage.

    Either way, I think there is some sort of snobbishness and racism in the mix here – “Koreans don’t *really* understand proper burgers the way we do”, etc etc – but to some extent it’s the same irritation that people round the world express when hipsters take over their neighbourhood, which I think it not unreasonable. No-one likes a hipster.

    • Comic author here. I really agree with your points, especially in the second paragraph. It’s great that Koreans are finally starting to realize what good western food is (not Lotteria). Many of us have had the experience where we took a Korean friend to a great western restaurant, only for them to complain it’s too salty, too greasy or too (insert flavor). Those days are slowly coming to an end, thank god.

      And please don’t mistake this for “racism”, it has nothing to do with race. The very people who agree with this are ethnic Koreans who lived in the states or Koreans who have lived abroad. Fact is Koreans don’t know true western food like Westerners or the people who have lived abroad. It’s the same as many Americans not knowing true Korean food (or any other ethnic cousine) or people outside of the southwest not knowing “good” Mexican food.

  8. Love the article and the many parallels it has to so many other areas.

    A minor point when you wrote ” flouting one’s (or one’s daddy’s) wealth”, I think you mean “flaunting”.


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