Monday, April 14, 2008

Travelogue #33: A Spring Night in Hongdae

<---Travelogue #32: It's ALIVE and I'm eating it!?
--->Travelogue #34: The Living-in-Korea Photologues October 2007-April 2008

You feel it in the air, the electricity of a Saturday night in early April, the lively chatter between lovers and friends at tables by glowing gelato shops and Italian cafes. Koreans have partied through the long winter, but this night is different with its perfumed bustle of thousands of faces outside, looking for plans and making them happen in a buzzing city. It's springtime in Korea.

You feel it in the air.

The subway's crowded but at least I know where I'm going: Hongik University, the heart of Hongdae, one of Seoul's busiest nightlife districts. The first time I visited that area I was a Bambi innocent. (It was my third night in Korea, and the next day, instead of specifying Hongdae in this blog, I called everything I saw "Seoul." That was all I knew. Seoul. Big, bright, and busy. Everything Seoul.)

I'm riding solo this time, for my hagwon friends have gone to Jinhye to see the cherry blossoms for the weekend. In Hongdae I will meet a member of the Seoul Writers group and maybe a few of her friends. I don't know. I haven't met any of them in person. and Facebook are bringing us together, but until then, I got an hour and twenty six minutes to burn on the subway. I spend them with my hand clutched to those gymnastics grips, my body shaking with the the stop-go rattle-thump of the metro.

I also people-watch.

This man sleeps with his mouth open, and then awakens to thumb through a self-help paperback written in English. Meanwhile, a little boy in a jumpsuit is being slathered with devotion from every angle: an aunt playing peek-a-boo on one side, and a father pecking the kid's cheek with matter-of-fact affection on the other. Though they sometimes school them to death, Koreans love their kids and aren't afraid to show it. The next day I watch a few high-school boys who, rather than trying to look tough or cool, toss little plastic balls to a toddler who catches them with the folds of her billowy dress. The teenagers are dorking out for the sake of a random child on the subway. Cool. Very, very cool.

The Hongik University stop is alive with neon lights, a 24-hour KFC, and Koreans, Koreans, Koreans, Koreans, Koreans, and Koreans. "Looking for Jeri?" says a stocky white guy in a skull cap and iPod earphones. "Oh, hey," I say extending my hand. "Joel," he says, "I figured since you were a white guy and you were looking for somebody, you'd be Alex." Smart man.

Jeri appears shortly later, exuding a deadpan Wednesday Addams cool. It's the three of us to begin the night, and we walk manic streets that I still don't know too well, even though I saw them in October and December. The build-up-up-up infrastructure of Korea leaves me with the feeling that no matter how much time I spend here, there will always be something more to see, even if it's just one floor above me.

We find our way into Brickxx Bar, one of those candlelit lounges where you pass through a stairway and the mood tries subtle and mellow, but the place is noisy anyway. If you hookah here, you're on a clock: thirty minutes after your first puff, "Time's up" is not so mellowly chirped into your ear. Our threesome is joined by two fellows: one is Cormac, an Irishman. I take the obvious route and base our conversation around him sharing a first name with the author McCarthy and the fact that the movie Once was filmed in Dublin. This Cormac, however, doesn't care for No Country for Old Men or Once. How dare he. The second guy is T.C.: he's from Georgia, and he's still in his first weeks of Korealand. He's got a ponytail, and he reminds me of a magician.

In midst the leaning-over-the-table-to-hear-you conversations, I spot a stunning brown-skinned woman in a ribbed green tank top, her laugh effortless and enchanting even from across the room. She's Jasmine from Aladdin, except modern and real and God, she's beautiful by the candlelight and how can I talk to her? And who's that gelled-hair guy by her side? He's a dead ringer for Adam Levine of Maroon Five fame. Is that her boyfriend? I hope not.

Confession: I've recently been reading Neil Strauss' The Game, a 2005 bestselling memoir of one writer's metamorphosis from balding nerd into the world's greatest pick-up artist. If that sounds like fiction, it's not. Apparently there are underground organizations in every major city on the globe dedicated to systematic, scientific ways to do what I wanted to do since I was a four-year-old dreaming of a singing career: "make girls go ooh." Strauss' book reads like a rise-and-fall narrative without the fall: a shrimpy guy spooked by holding a girl's hand in high school becomes a swaggering man who can land any woman he wants. Nothing's out of his league, not even the phone number of a pre-Federline Britney Spears.

I don't want to be Neil Strauss and maintain ten concurrent girlfriends as he did, but I wouldn't mind adopting his swagger to talk to the Jasmine sitting over there. My opportunity comes when my new friends and I climb out of Bricxx and into the waiting night. It's simple really, The Game suggests approaching one of Jasmine's male friends. The indirect but effective way would be to ask them "What are you guys up to?" or "What's going on tonight?" Then I'd keep that easygoing smile and roll with it. But I chicken out. I don't say anything, and I let Jasmine get away to find her Aladdin. Luckily, the night has only started.

Oi is a nightclub straight out of Boogie Nights: you drop your shoes into a bag and walk sock-footed into a marshmallow-like cave of disco lights and pulsing techno.

You'll see some Koreans, but you'll see more ex-pats, either barefoot and dancing, or else nursing a drink in a cooly cavernous corner of the club. I can't think of a more ideal place for a conversation with a stranger; after all, both of you got something in common, mainly the whole "this place is different, huh?" connection.

I make just that kind of connection with a girl named Simu by the bathrooms, for these are no ordinary bathrooms; they require an acrobatic low-bend through a plastic-ruffled door for entry. Chit-chat between us begins easily and earnestly. I shake her hand loosely. I never know how to shake a girl's hand. If my grip is too strong, will she think I'm overcompensating? If my grip is too weak, will she think I'm a pushover? I know I know, not very Game-like of me.

Simu is pretty, her eyes twinkling like those of high school class president who can talk chipperly with the jocks and the nerds. "You live in Gangnam?" I say. "I hear they have got good Western food there." Like that, her face hardens into full did-you-just-say-that mode. "Western food!?" she says, shocked. "Um, yeah,western food."

What's wrong with western food?

"See you later," she says, disgusted, scampering away with her friends into the blinking lights of the dance floor.

I committed a fatal sin. To this girl, chicken fingers and hamburgers must be on par with Osama Bin Laden.

Later, T.C. the magician convinces me to take the dance floor. With his hands he rubs circles into the air, a la Michelangelo's wax-on wax-off routine in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze. "Nobody in the world knows where you are right now," he tells me, "you can do anything! You're in South Korea!" He's in his Korea honeymoon stage, but his enthusiasm is nothing if not contagious. So what if that girl hates Western food. So what if I don't say a word to Jasmine.

I start to dance. A bespectacled Korean girl appears in front of me, shaking her shoulders and her hips. "This your first time in Hongdae?" she asks. "No," I say. She disappears into the arms of her might-be-boyfriend, or at least the guy she's currently smooching on the cheek. Nearby a blond girl dances like she's on hallucinogens. She looks like Sarah Polley from Go. I shuffle my feet in her periphery but her eyes are glazed. The music bleats intergalactic rhythms. Oi is hard to wrap your head around unless you're right there, swaying under its kaleidoscope of lights and sounds.

Ska 2 is a more traditional nightclub, but since it charges no cover, we march through its doors into melange of Koreans and ex-pats shaking it to the trill of Kanye and Michael Jackson. "Join us," shouts a cute Korean woman in the shadows of the floor and I do just that. Her friend wears that coy look on her face, the kind that says we-have-a-secret-to-giggle-about-later. Because it's hot and sweaty, my shirt is slightly unbuttoned, and maybe I give off the I-ain't-trying vibe that attracts ladies like Soon-Mi. I learn her name leaning close to her cheek, once, twice, and then again. The loud sound system is an enabler for our mouth-to-cheek contact. She smells good. She's a designer. I'm a teacher, or a "sung-sang-neem," I say in Korean. She repeats my pronunciation, bemused.

And then we kiss.

Now, I'm not that guy, and I've never been that guy, the one who escalates an innocent dance with a stranger into the climactic moment of a PG-13 romance. But the moment happens, and I let it happen, and I enjoy it happening.

Jeri looks at me suspiciously, as if to say I am that guy. Soon-Mi and I find ourselves hanging by the bar. "I like music!" she says with fervor. We swap phone numbers, and then Jeri drags me back into our group.

Might I be playing the Game, after all?

The hours creep deeper and deeper into the night but the crowds don't thin. With the clock ticking towards 5am, we find ourselves in Tinpan Alley 2, squeezed into a loud, smoky corner on vinyl stools, where those around us are either passed out or making out and Kanye is still screaming "STRONGER, STRONGER!"

I'm comforted amid this crunked craziness with the wall of CD covers to my right: Third Eye Blind, Fastball, Ricky Martin, and Jamiroquai. The music of late-90s Americana, my middle school years, is proudly promoted on the walls of a Hongdae club. If I was the sentimental type I would start crooning "How's It Going to Be?" to the bartenders. But I don't do that. Instead I buy a drink at 5am, a drink I don't need, a drink I neglect to drink. This place is still loud, so we decide to take things to somewhere quieter and more intimate:

Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The KFC across from the Hongik University subway stop is packed. The subways start rolling again in fifteen or twenty minutes, so many in transit have come here for a literal feeding frenzy. On my way to the restroom I spot two cute girls. Two cute girls at a KFC at 5:30 in the morning. They must not have a problem with Western food.

"Hi, how's it going?" I ask them. I don't detect a note of surprise in my own voice, which I would have suspected usually. Earlier I said I'm not that guy who kisses a strange girl on a dance floor. In the past I would also say I'm not that guy who approaches a random group of people and starts an unprompted conversation. Maybe it's because of the electricity of this spring night. Maybe it's because I feel a certain confidence in my slow crawl towards independence. Maybe I'm still growing up, maybe I'm still changing. Maybe all of us label ourselves this guy or that girl without really understanding that we have the capacity to become somebody a little bit different than who we expect to be. Who knows? Maybe we'll end up in the exact same place as we began.

The brunette is from Switzerland, the blond is from France, and their friend, frowning like a supervisor, is an Asian guy from Argentina. They go to a nearby international university and they're playing a geography game with pencils and a pad of notebook paper. The brunette even asks me if I know some river that starts with the letter M. I don't, but I'm flattered that she asked me. The girls don't have numbers, but the guy does. I get his digits, and say goodnight to them, and maybe see you later.

After a chicken sandwich I'm underground. Long subway back. A few glimmers of skylight and it's blue.

The world is asleep or hungover.

And I'm going home.

<---Travelogue #32: It's ALIVE and I'm eating it!?
--->Travelogue #34: The Living-in-Korea Photologues October 2007-April 2008

Related posts:
Travelogue #4: I Got Seoul, But I'm Not a Soldier (My first night in Hongdae)


Steph said...

Wow Alex, I think this might be my favorite post you've written since you've gotten there!

Anonymous said...

I can actually feel the magic of the night in your writing in this post! Awesome!


Anonymous said...

Just like Jan, I can feel the excitement in the air, the feeling that anything can happen..As always, amazingly descriptive writing,Alex.

Anonymous said...

Smart,funny,irresistibly readable!!!

Celulite said...
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