If you live in Korea, and you haven’t been to Itaewon, it is just a matter of time before you will end up there for some reason or another. Itaewon is in the middle of Seoul close to where the American Military base, Yongsan, is that is closing. There is an Itaewon subway station on main street, and so it is easy to find.
As you walk down the streets of Itaewon, it is not like other parts of Korea. Yes, there are Koreans and the Korean language being spoken. And yes, like in other parts of Korea, English is popular, but you can walk down the streets and hear people speaking Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, and several other languages. If you are a foreigner and looking for something from home, if you can’t find it anywhere else, if it is in Korea at all, you can find it in Itaewon. If you want to sample food from around the world, you can find it in Itaewon. If you want Korean souvenirs, you can find them in Itaewon.
To begin with, there are restaurants from all over the world in Itaewon. You can find Thai food, Mexican food, American food, South African food, Indian food, African food, Turkish food, etc. etc. Some of the restaurants stay, and others pop up and then leave. It seems some of the American restaurants we used to go to aren’t there anymore, and it may be because the Yongsan Military base (an American military base) is closing. Today, we were able to go into the Dairy Queen in Itaewon close to the subway stop and eat Blizzards. There used to be a Taco Bell where the Dairy Queen stands, but it is gone. However, if you still want Mexican food, walk down the side street, and you will find a good Mexican restaurant. As in other places in Korea, Baskin Robbins is always there. When we had American food in Itaewon, I have eaten at McDonalds, Burger King, Subway Sandwiches, and even Kentucky Fried Chicken. Burger King is no longer there, and there is a pancake restaurant in its place. I didn’t see Kentucky Fried Chicken today either. Besides all the foreign restaurants, Korean restaurants are also nestled among the businesses.
Besides restaurants, you can also find many import shops. The one that has been there the longest is called Foreign Food Mart. If you are walking down main street from the subway, walk on the opposite side of the street from the Hamilton Hotel and turn left at the Turkish Kebab place at the first right hand corner from the subway stop. Go up that street, and you will find the Foreign Food Mart after the Foreign Food Restaurant on the left hand side. I have a friend who worked there a long time. It is run by Muslims, but it is the largest import shop I have found. I have bought many things there that I can’t find in regular Korean shops like corn meal, oatmeal, Ranch Salad Dressing, dried pinto beans, etc. etc. When I couldn’t get tortillas at EMart or Home Plus, I found them there. There are interesting things from lots of different countries. Today, my daughter and I got something cold to drink there, Coca Cola Zero and Dr. Pepper. I only know two places in Seoul where you can find Dr. Pepper, and this is one of the places. When our friend worked there, we used to visit him every time we went to Itaewon, and he gave us a coconut flavored drink from the Philippines.
Besides the restaurants and import shops, many ATMs sit along the streets as well as places where you can change foreign money for Korean money. There are businesses that help foreigners and Koreans who want to marry one another. Some shops sell international phone cards for foreigners to use to call home. Itaewon is made to serve foreigners. You can get passport photos. Special real estate agents cater to foreigners.
(If you aren’t sure what these pictures are, click on it, and the description will appear. The businesses here cater to foreigners.)
Every time I need to buy a gift for an American, I remember Itaewon. As you walk along the main street of Itaewon, there are many stands that sell Korean type souvenirs. If you go into the Hamilton Hotel, the adjoining store which is huge has an extraordinarily large import shop, and if you go up the escalator in that store, you can find a place that sells English DVDs.
Another important thing you can find in Itaewon is large sized clothing. Most foreigners are too big to buy clothes in a Korean shop, so these shops cater to foreigners. I have bought clothes in several of them, but I don’t do it often for fear of being disappointed. Many of the clothes are cheaply made, but expensive. The store owners take advantage of the customers as far as I am concerned, but there isn’t much I can do about it except fly to American to get clothing or learn to order online.
There are special stores that cater to larger people.
Tailors have also set up shop in Itaewon. I have a friend who lived in Korea for a long time. He was an American, and taller and broader than everyone around. However, he was always dressed in really sharp suits and looked like a million dollars. I asked him about it, and he said he had his suits made at a tailor’s shop in Itaewon for $200 a piece. I had an interview once, and I thought I needed something special to wear, so I went to a tailor in Itaewon. I got one of those $200 suits, but I ended up disappointed. I am a woman, and my figure is not like anyone else’s, and the tailor didn’t take it into account. Usually, if someone is big, they are big in the tummy, but I didn’t realize the tailor wasn’t taking into account that I was made different from others women. My bigness is not in the tummy, but in the bottom and the legs, and when he got finished with my pants suit, the pants were big and baggy in the tummy and too tight in the legs. Perhaps they do better with men’s suits than women’s suits.
Today, we also stopped in at a favorite place. It is called “What the Book.” It is a book store with only English books. It has been around for a long time, but the location keeps changing. It is now in the third location since we began shopping there, and it has grown from a small shabby room full of unorganized shabby second hand English books to a big nice bookstore with both second and and new books in English. The third location is on the street that intersects with main street at the subway station. If you want to know more about what is there, read my next blog.
We also stopped by another place we like. It is a Turkish bakery. They sell baklava and Turkish delight among other things. When holidays come and we want to eat something special, we like to buy things there. You can find Turkish delight at Home Plus, a big chain department/grocery store, but the Turkish delight at this bakery is over the moon better! When you eat this Turkish delight, you can almost understand why Edmond in “The Lion, the With, and the Wardrobe” sold his brothers and sisters out to the witch for Turkish delight.
Unfortunately, Itaewon is the place with the highest crime rate in Seoul. However, we never go there after dark because the crime in Itaewon usually happens after dark. Itaewon has a seedy side. Lots of bars and pubs line the streets. I have heard there is a gay bar there somewhere, but I haven’t seen it, but today, we did see a sign about a transgender bar. If drugs are being sold, which usually doesn’t happen in Korea, unfortunately, the most likely place to find them is in Itaewon. I have been with sweet young Korean women who went to Itaewon to go out to eat, but they were scared to death to stay there when it began getting dark, and we have also taken up that policy.
I have also seen English speaking churches in Itaewon. The English speaking church I attend is close to Itaewon. However, religiously, there are more than just English speaking churches there. Once, I was stopped by someone speaking Spanish trying to invite me to a Spanish speaking church. I am not Hispanic, but I have learned through the years that some people mistake me as Hispanic because I am an American of part American Indian and European heritage. Luckily, when they approached me speaking Spanish, I understood, but not because I am Hispanic. Koreans love to send people handing out pamphlets for their English speaking ministries to Itaewon. I have heard there is also a Mosque in Itaewon, but I have never seen it. It must be on one of the back streets.
As you walk down the main street of Itaewon, you need to look down at the sidewalk. You might learn something. Every so often, there are plaques on the side walk representing different countries, and “hello” is written on each one in the language of the country represented.
Korean producers, talent scouts, and modeling agents also walk down the streets of Itaewon looking for foreign talent. I know a woman who was approached in Itaewon and ended up on TV. Today, a guy with a microphone walking with a guy with a camera approached us and asked if he could interview us, but my daughter decided she didn’t want to give them any time, so we walked on.
If you walk down the street that intersects with the main street in Itaewon right at the subway stop in front of Hamilton Hotel, you will find a large number of antique shops. I wonder with as small as Korean apartments are how they fit all that fancy furniture into the apartments. This stuff is also so expensive I wonder how anyone could buy it, but it is beautiful. Besides furniture, there are also many other unusual things to see in these shops.
If you are a foreigner in Korea and haven’t been to Itaewon yet, if you don’t end up there for some reason, it will be very unusual. There are so many reasons foreigners to /go to Itaewon, but I do caution you to stay out of there after dark. You don’t want to end up arrested or drunk. Enjoy the foreign restaurants. Find the souveniers you are looking for. Enjoy the English book store and the import shops, but use your heads and don’t get in trouble. And by the way, taking the subway there may be the best way to go. When I first began driving there, we parked in the parking lot below Hamilton Hotel, and it was outrageously expensive! However, I learned from an African woman that there is a small parking lot on one of the backstreets that is quite a bit cheaper, and we use it.
The only problem with it is that lots of people are learning about it, and we almost didn’t get a parking space today because it was so crowded. Enjoy being a foreigner in Korea!