Perhaps I have really bad body odor, but these days, I mostly eat and drink alone, sitting in completely empty restaurants and cafes, like right now. This casual yet elegant joint is called Ottchill. It has solidly built wooden chairs padded with homey cushions. The two baristas are young, attractive and courteous, and they’re here to serve me, and me alone, for the next hour or so.
Only the music sucks, predictably. Aggressive, urban and earnest, it corrodes your self consciousness, sociability and even heritage with a relentlessly moronic English, mostly. You’re living through a sonic hell, nearly whenever and wherever you’re among others, and even alone if you’re weak willed. It’s a global virus. What a waste.
On a subway platform, I just bought for 80 cents a Snicker-like chocolate bar called Ghana. Something is not kosher here, so we must alert the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center and every Holocaust museum director, worldwide. There must be six million of them, I reckon. Just because it’s brown, nutty and cheap doesn’t mean it should be associated with anything African! A boycott is definitely in order. All flights from unwoke South Korea must be barred immediately!
I’ve been in Seoul eight days. I had to come, especially since the price was coronavirus affordable. My one-way ticket cost just $109, plus $18 for a checked luggage. I have extra stuff because I’m homeless. Like a turtle, I must carry everything as I move. I’m a bag gentleman.
I got out on one of the last flights from Hanoi, just hours before the Vietnamese decided to quarantine all passengers arriving from South Korea, thus ceasing all flights between the two countries. I had fully anticipated this scenario.
I have a closet-sized room in Myeong-dong for just $24 a night. It has heat, wifi and its own toilet, and there are hundreds of stores and cheap restaurants nearby. A subway station is a quick scramble away from the guest house’s door. I have a tiny window with opaque glass panes, so there’s no sky or skyscrapers to gaze at. I even have a fridge, but it doesn’t work.
When I pointed this out to the manager, the young man said, “Most of our refrigerators are second-hand.”
“So they don’t work?”
“No,” he shrugged. “Maybe ten years ago.”
What I’m in is basically a capsule apartment, of the type widely available in Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. Even smaller than the American efficiency, none has a kitchen and most don’t even have a porcelain throne. Mine, though, is elevated, so I’m on stage, so to speak, for each humbling performance. Anyway, a goshiwon apartment costs around $300 a month here, and tenants don’t just have access to a communal kitchen, but usually even unlimited cooked rice, kimchi and sometimes even noodles, so starvation is not an issue.
The poorest Koreans can’t even squeeze into a goshiwon. Around Seoul Station, the misshapen homeless droop on steps or trudge down sidewalks, past greasy spoons, chain cafes, bareboned poolhalls and grimy window displays of prosthetic limbs. The station itself is grand and sparkling. Nearly all men, these down and outers nudge coins into the cheapest coffee machines. Battered by frigid winds, they rub their hands, sneeze and hack out viruses. With less than a thousand street dwellers, Seoul’s homeless problem pales compared to most cities, however.
To be pure, you must say no to just about everything. Think convents. The first Korean quarantined herself. She was a bear.
The son of God, Hwanung, wanted to be human for a change, so he went down to Korea, where he met a tiger and a bear who also wished to become solipsistic, narcissistic, self-pitying and eternally lonely bipeds with a laughable taste in clothing and everything else. “You can become human,” Hwanung said, “if you stay in this cave for one hundred days and eat only mugwort and garlic.” The tiger couldn’t hack it, but the bear turned into not just one gorgeous babe, but Hwanung’s wife, and together they’ve spawn a great and enduring nation that has given to this shamefully ungrateful world Goryeo celadon, kimchis as side dishes and the Korean Zombie, etc.
Even after Japan had opened up to the world, Korea stayed shut in, thus it was labeled as “the last of the hermit nations” by William Elliott Griffis in 1882. Now, North Korea is the world’s most hermetic society, which it justifies with an ideology, juche, that stresses self-reliance in all spheres, from economic, political, self-defense to diplomatic.
As for South Korea, it is remarkably homogeneous compared to other advanced nations. In Seoul, there are whites, blacks, Turks and Arabs in Itaewon, and there’s a smallish Chinatown in Daerim. Vietnamese and Thais are here, but they don’t form distinct neighborhoods. An hour away in Pyeongtaek, 30,000 American soldiers are stationed, and in nearby Incheon, there is a huge, theme park-like Chinatown, plus Filipino sailors nursing beers in their own club, but in Greater Seoul, you’ll rarely see a non-native away from touristic sites. There are no tribal groups in the mountains.
Just two weeks ago, I was in Si Ma Cai, Vietnam, where ethnic Vietnamese made up only 1% of the population, yet everyone was a native. Nothing like that exists in Korea.
Despite this demographic uniformity, South Korea is astonishingly cosmopolitan, for they’re open to just about every culture, without welcoming too many aliens. Seoul has a food culture to rival the best. Well, almost. If New York is a 10, Seoul is an 8.5. Bitches who go on about not finding edible Ethiopian here haven’t been to Club Zion for lunch, so just shut your trap, awright?
It is cold and dark, and I don’t know where I am, or what I’m doing, so I walk. Like everyone else, I wear a mask, not because I fear imminent death, but because it would not be nice to infect anyone here with whatever I already have. I turn into an alley, because why not? Suddenly, I see five white people, dead for centuries: Pope Paul III, Queen Elizabeth I and three others I can’t identify. You tell me, smart ass. It’s a Five Alls pub. In England, there are still some left. Momentarily finding a purpose, I enter.
It’s only slightly brighter inside. At the short bar, a beefy biker is parked in front of a row of lick her bottles: Fireball, Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s, Captain Morgan, Jagermeister, Tiffin Tea Liqueur, as well as the more obscure Black Nikka from Japan and Sobieski Vodka from Poland. It’s just a neighborhood joint, where a pint of Guinness costs just 7,000 wons ($5.87). Although three cats feed right on the bar, they never knock your drinks over or stick their furry heads into your food. I can hang.
It’s Five Alls’ menu, though, I want to highlight. Among the rather extensive offerings, it has Canadian poutine, German curry wurst, British sausage and mash, Irish lamb stew, Swedish meatballs, Italian mushroom risotto, Spanish calamares a feira, Indian beef keema, Okinawan taco rice, Japanese meat sauce doria and American buffalo wings. In case you these are just garbage versions, I had the $6.71 taco rice, and it was fantastic, something I wouldn’t mind as my last meal before being shot or hanged.
Any foreign population that would happily scarf poutine or curry wurst must be Mother Teresa tolerant and forgiving, more open than a progressive border or maybe just insane.
Five Alls’ music selection is also noteworthy, for it favors blues from 60+ years ago, ragtime, stride piano, jazz vocalists, and rhythm and blues from the 60’s. I focus as Dinah Washington belts and growls, “I’m an evil gal, don’t you bother with me / I’ll empty your pockets and fill you with misery / I’ve got men to the left, and men to the right / Men every day and men every night / I’ve got so many men, mmm, I don’t know what to do.”
Although both Korea and Japan have made a sustained and comprehensive effort to modernize and Westernize, South Korea may have gone even further than its neighbor. There is very little traditional architecture left, and most tellingly, more Christians than Buddhists here. Walking around, I see almost no Buddhist temples, but churches everywhere. With their thin spires, many merely occupy the top floor of a commercial building, then you have the mega churches. Large or small, almost all are hideously ugly. South Korea leads the world in cosmetic surgery, and the most popular procedure is to make one’s eyes seem larger.
Unlike in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or even Japan, you don’t see South Koreans wearing anything but Western clothing, and the palette tend to be dark, most often black. Even before this coronavirus crisis, the ambience on any Seoul subway car is decidedly funereal, and even grimmer, actually, for everyone is sepulchered within his own cyber world. Two weeks ago, I was at a weekly market in Can Cau, Vietnam, where tribal peoples wore their colorful best to go shopping, but that’s barbaric, dude. A highly cultured and civilized man must always appear like a coffin bearer or occupant.
Perusing photos of Seoul from the 1960’s, I see little traffic, beat up buses, men or oxen pulling heavy carts, cattle on streets and women with babies strapped to their backs, or with baskets on their heads. Now, Koreans make good cars, excellent smart phones and the second most ships in the world annually. They erect monster skyscrapers for foreign countries, such as the PNB 118 in Kuala Lumpur.
Koreans have paid for this progress with the world’s second longest workweek, one of its highest suicide rates and weeping children in cram schools, but it’s all worth it, for no one has subscribed more to the forward religion.
My first exposure to Koreans was in Saigon in the early 70’s, and I remember being impressed by how well-built and confident looking the ROK soldiers were. Now, I see feminized Koreans, preening or with flowers in their hair, staring at me from many Seoul ads. As Korea gains more muscles, it celebrates its sissy side, but a return to old school arrangements, virtues and taste is coming, I think.
Has the bullet train towards the future been derailed by the coronavirus? On February 24th, Anatoly Karlin boldly wrote an article titled, “Corona Will Kill Millions & Crater the World Economy,” yet on March 2nd, Israel Shamir weighed in, “There is nothing to panic about, said Trump about the Corona, and he is right. Corona is a mental virus of fear, not much else. We have a sterling proof: the Diamond Princess liner had been marooned in the ideal, for virus, circumstances of single ventilation system. Many people had got the decease, but only two persons, aged over 80, had died. No children became sick. Apparently it could be dangerous only for people over 60. There was no reason for panic at all.”
Although they’re both super smart, only one can be right, and we’ll find out soon enough, perhaps by Opening Day. Batting ninth, here’s my lunging whiff: if the coronavirus wasn’t serious, China would not have shut down its economy for over a month, thus affecting every other economy on earth. Even if millions of people won’t die, this crisis has already been very disruptive to the daily life of billions, especially if they’re just trying to make a buck to survive another day.
In Si Ma Cai, Vietnam, I talked to a woman who sold banh mi sandwich for just 64 cents each, and she was seriously hurting, because Vietnamese schools had been closed for weeks, and students were her primary customers.
If it wasn’t serious, Vietnam wouldn’t have stopped all flights from South Korea and China. These countries aren’t just Vietnam’s top two sources of tourists, but foreign investments.
Another morning, another empty Seoul café. On a wall, there’s a Styrofoam board with over a hundred loyal customer cards, but I drink alone, thanks to the coronavirus. Nearly every shop in this underground mall is also empty. Normally, it would still be packed on weekends.
Unlike China, South Korea has not shut down entire cities, so Seoul is still at work, with its subway cars somewhat filled, and many people are still eating and drinking out, but business is clearly way down. It’s awkward to stroll past so many brightly lit yet empty stores, with their proprietors idling outside, looking anxious.
With 7,041 coronavirus cases and 47 deaths, South Koreans are trying to function more or less normally, but already they’re being banned or restricted from entering 95 countries! Borders are suddenly shut, and if this pandemic intensifies, more nationalities will be grounded or, worse, quarantined. With harsher policies adopted by governments, citizens will become more exasperated and angry. Much ugliness will ensue.
In hip Seogyo-dong, there’s a handwritten sign taped to a restaurant door, “Chinese NO entry / NO China,” and as an afterthought, in smaller script, “Sorry!” Such a display is still rare, though.
Nearby, there’s a two-story bar and café, Blackjack, which opened just over three weeks ago, mere days before the coronavirus crisis hit South Korea.
“Bad timing, Jack,” I said to the owner.
“I know,” he chuckled. “I ask God, ‘why?’ When I first opened, people were queuing outside, to get in.”
After finishing law school, Jack moved to Las Vegas, where he stayed for six years. Repatriating, Jack opened an English language academy, which did so well, he launched Blackjack. Now, both of his businesses are suffering.
Many firms have demanded their employees stay home as much as possible after work, so no evening English classes even, which companies normally pay for.
His waitress, Chris, was a stewardess for Eaststar. She’s tall, slim and strikingly beautiful. Recently, Chris applied at Korean Air. Certain of getting this job, she told Jack she was quitting.
“She told me too soon! Now, Korean Air won’t hire anyone.”
Peak travel is in our rearview mirror. “God wants her to stay with you, Jack!”
“She doesn’t listen to God.”
Blackjack is decked out with Victorian furniture and framed prints of 18th century Europeans, mostly aristocratic. He’s certainly laid on the gooey cheese. Over the counter, there’s a sign, “You Only Live Once / Enjoy This Moment with BLACKJACK.”
For a while, it was suggested the coronavirus would only kill Chinese or Orientals, but Iran’s official death toll is already 107, with the real figure likely much higher, and Italy has 197 coronavirus deaths, with 49 dying in the last 24 hours.
Italian schools are shut, soccer matches are played in empty stadiums, entire towns are quarantined and cities have gone quiet and empty. A growing list of countries are also banning travelers from Italy.
On March 3rd, I got an email from Alitalia, “Linh, non smettere di volare!” [“Linh, do not stop flying!”]
The desperate ad continues, “THE WORLD KEEPS TURNING, WE MUST DO THE SAME! We are born to travel, discover, love, dream and follow our passions. Doing all this means we haven’t stopped growing, or enriching ourselves with new experiences and most beautiful places, or being free.”
The economic fallout from all this is already enormous, and it has just begun. Perhaps we’ve also reached peak freedom, not that it was all that free for much of the world.
It’s evening in Seoul, but the bright lights still beckon. Strapping on my mask, I will march outside.