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Korea Blog: The Coronavirus Breaks Out in Itaewon, the “Gays-and-Foreigners” Seoul Neighborhood Celebrated in a Hit Netflix Drama

They say you can find anything in Itaewon. To find Itaewon itself, you need only head toward the very center of Seoul, right next to the old United States Army base. To orient yourself within Itaewon, you need only know three landmarks: “Hooker Hill,” “Homo Hill,” and “Halal Hill.” Though unlikely to appear on an official map of Seoul, those place names hint at the variety of pleasures on offer in Itaewon and almost nowhere else in Korea, at least not in such high concentrations. Visitors come with desires for exotic cuisine, foreign-language reading material, plus-size clothing, and specific varieties of companionship (paid or otherwise) not easily satisfiable in the rest of the city. Just as one can pass a night in Los Angeles’ Koreatown that feels like a night in Seoul, one can pass a night in Itaewon that feels like a night in Los Angeles — a city that, at its best, offers the world in microcosm.

Young Koreans in search of international good times increasingly find them to Itaewon, which now ranks among Seoul’s top date destinations. (Not long after I first met my girlfriend, who went to college in Canada, we went to Itaewon for a taste of Korea’s most credible poutine.) That may surprise those who know other urban areas that have developed next to US military bases, places where a “date” seldom involves dinner. And indeed, the longer a Westerner has lived in Seoul, the more likely that Westerner is to have vivid memories of Itaewon decadence and depravity (whether or not they’re willing to recall them). As recently as the 1980s, such long-term expatriates have told me, the neighborhood really was majority-foreigner, and most of the Koreans one encountered there after dark were, to varying degrees of legality, on the job. But after September 11, 2001, the curfew the US military imposed on its bases, including Seoul’s Yongsan Garrison, leaving Itaewon’s nocturnal economy with no alternative but to attract a Korean clientele.

Today Yongsan Garrison is gone. After a prolonged relocation process, the US Army has as of last year left Seoul for a new, $11 billion camp in the city of Pyongtaek. It leaves behind in Itaewon the other societally indigestible bloc that has, over the past few decades, come to define the image of Westerners in Seoul: English teachers. To the same degree that Korean students “studying” abroad spend their nights and weekends partying in the Koreatowns of the West, Western college graduates who come to Seoul for easily landed jobs in its English “education” industry spend their nights and weekends partying in Itaewon. They may well also run their errands and even live there, attracted by the ease of the area’s lingua franca, a ragged “global English” spoken not just among Westerners and Koreans but Southeast Asians, Middle Easterners, and denizens hailing from every other region of the world besides.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.