It’s good to finally see some positive images of Itaewon, a place where those familiar with it know is one of the most interesting, fascinating, and simply fun districts in Seoul. Of course, for many Koreans, Itaewon has always been a place of fear, although not really for any good reason.
Yes, there were a couple infamous murders there, but no more frequently than any other place in Seoul, and contrary to sensationalist media reports, the crime rate amongst both American GI’s and the general foreign population is still below that of the Korean population, in every category. In short, neither GI’s nor English teachers actually deserve their negative reputations, nor does Itaewon, the neighborhood with which both groups are associated. Like both foreigners and the neighborhood of Itaewon, there are so many positive aspects that outweigh a few bad apples, but the Korean media never focuses on that. The reputation both have earned comes from a very distorted point-of-view.
What both foreigners and Itaewon actually represent is a cultural fear, of outsiders, of rapid change, of the unknown. And for that, Itaewon, like foreigners themselves, is like a cultural lightning rod for anything and everything viewed as bad in the popular Korean imagination.
But the reality is that Itaewon has always been a welcoming home to those who live on the edges of Korean society, from foreigners to prostitutes, gays and other social outsiders, for anyone who wanted to be outside of the oppressive gaze of Korean society. In that way, Itaewon has actually been a social safe haven for all who wanted escape the prying and judgmental eyes of their peers. It’s like a cultural “Casablanca.”
There has always been a beautiful freedom about Itaewon, from the times when the rest of the city closed after midnight and went underground, but night clubs, restaurants, and noraebangs in Itaewon remained open without apology, to even now, when people are free to dance, meet people of different cultures, and have their own personal adventures outside of the stricter, ritualized playstyles of the general Korean culture.
Those who know, know that Itaewon is one of the most unique and wonderful cultural mixing zones in Korea, on a level rarely found in other countries. It’s not just American, or Korean, or Russian, or Japanese, or Nigerian, or Canadian, or Indian, or anything else. It is a free mix, unique in the world. Those who know, like JYP, and many others, all played here in the secret hours of the night, when we sang to our hearts’ content, and yes, also danced in the streets.
Itaewon is not dangerous, nor is it a threat. People here are largely friendly, smile at one another easily, and are open to difference. Those who fear this place are usually those who don’t know it, and are those who fear the Other, as well as freedom itself. For everyone else, in a society built on stress, competition, and social policing, Itaewon has always meant freedom, in more ways than anyone can express in words.
The two young ladies in the pics represent just that kind of freedom, as I bumped into them on a warm summer night as they were enjoying an animated conversation, which was full of laughter and humor. The atmosphere of the picture is simply not what one might find in Shinchon or many standard Korean play places, as mentioned in the song from which I made the title of this picture. To me, and many other people who love Itaewon, the mood of this picture and of the entire neighborhood is one of freedom, one filled with life, levity, and laughter.
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