A tale of two cities: Ansan and Itaewon
Ansan, the ‘Multicultural City’; Itaewon (though technically not a city), the ‘Western Town’. What distinguishes them as "foreigner" areas in an otherwise largely homogenous Korea?
I head first to Ansan, an hour’s journey from Seoul by train. Most migrants reside at Wongok-Dong, ‘The Borderless Village.’ Along a narrow lane, glass storefront windows are crowded with signage in English, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, Thai and Bengali. They are selling Sichuan chili, curry powder, sambal paste and phone cards - cheapest rates, maximum talk time and money transfers - lots of money transfers. The crowd is slowly moving along this lane, branded ‘Multicultural Food Street.’ A Christian group, all dressed in orange, is distributing pamphlets. I hear Mandarin everywhere. The steam clouds rising from stacks of Chinese dumplings set the mood. Ansan’s Wongok-Dong is not a global village but a Chinese village.
I meet Park Jungan from the Migrant Community Service Center. She tells me that of the 761,000 residents in Ansan, 7.6% are foreigners, as opposed to the national average of 2.2%. Migrants from 78 countries are represented here, but over 70% of them are of Chinese or Korean descent. The rest are primarily Uzbeks, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Russians, Filipinos, Nepali, Thai and Sri Lankans. Park explains, “Koreans are used to a homogenous society. But we need foreigners for the three ‘D’ jobs – dirty, dangerous and demeaning. We help migrants assimilate by organizing sports and cultural events, providing multilingual counselling services, conducting language classes and running a shelter for migrant women who run away from abusive husbands.”
Around the small town, elderly Chinese men are playing chess, cards or Jianzi. Many have gathered at the town square to listen to a city official’s speech. I ask two Nepali men listening attentively, “Do you understand Korean?” “No,” they smile. “We are just killing time.”
A group of 10 Bangladeshis are going to Seoul Mosque. I speak with a man named Habibur. After asking where I am from and where in Bangladesh my parents come from, he asks me what migrant workers always ask, “Are you looking for a job here? I could get you in touch with someone.”
After I explain that I am not, he switches track. “I have been here for eight years,” he says. “They won’t let me stay here anymore after this term ends. Can you get me a job in your company in Singapore?”
His friend Arif asks, “Brother, are you a Muslim? Not a problem. We are all brothers sharing the same language.” His voice turns extremely civil. “Life is not too bad here. But sometimes other Korean workers shout at us. I think they say bad things.”
I bid farewell to them and head for the Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon. Big blocks of restaurants greet me with tables covered in long white sheets. Shop names are all in English. Some storefronts imitate Victorian or Art Deco facades. Young Korean couples are posing every other minute for selfies. This is their local Western fix.
On the main street, men in American army uniforms are looking for bargains. Korean men from the tailor shops, which form the backdrop, are asking all, “Do you want a shirt made for you?”
A Chinese tour group, guided by a yellow flag, emerges from the subway station. The tourists dutifully go through the tiny cubicle shops along the pavement, all selling the same items that infect all touristy places: socks, caps, souvenirs and witty t-shirts. A whistle blows, the flag stops and turns around; the Chinese tourists go back to the underground world in unison.
Roy, an English teacher from Sacramento who has been in Korea for over 10 years, explains, “Back home, you can’t get by teaching English after paying all the hundred taxes. And in California, they keep bringing in laws to turn teachers into paupers. No wonder English teachers are an abundant species in Korea.”
He comes to Itaewon every weekend. “You should come here as a single. There are great clubs in this area, and Koreans are very friendly, if you know what I mean,” he winks. No problem of assimilation here then. “Not at all,” he laughs. “During the day, you join them for treks, and during nights they join you for a bumpy ride.”
But this enchanting world is lost as one walks up the hill from Itaewon. Distinctly Arab, South Asian and Malay faces are idling against shop walls. Hijabs on mannequins, a Pakistani travel agency, a Turkish kebab dig, a Malay restaurant; I can see the minaret of Seoul Mosque. The Bangladeshis I met in Ansan are distributing pamphlets about Islam from the mosque to any occasional Korean who drops by to take photographs. Outside, an elderly Korean woman is visiting every shop and asking the shop owner in English, “Where are you from?”
One shop owner inevitably hesitates, “Korea.”
“Don’t say that, you understand!” says the Korean woman. “Say what you are - a ‘Pakistani.’” Enraged, she walks away to the next store. I run for cover.
Originally from the north-eastern province of Assam in India, writer, traveller and photographer Shivaji Das now works as a management consultant in Singapore. He is the author of ‘Journeys with the Caterpillar: Travelling through the Islands of Flores and Sumba, Indonesia. You can follow him on Twitter @ShivajiAuthor, or visit his website at www.shivajidas.com