Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about this.
Imagine, just for a moment, all the trouble I might have spared myself in this life if I had learned to say those words when I was younger. (Be honest, is there anyone who knows me who doesn’t have at least one story about me saying or doing something highly inappropriate?) It seems so out-of-character for me to suddenly be so concerned with conversational right and wrong. And yet I have to be honest, dear readers: I really wasn’t sure whether I was going to tell you about this particular adventure.
But, I’m already writing (and you’re already reading), so I guess there’s no point in holding back now. Ladies and gentlemen, two Sundays ago a friend and I went out in search of a red light district. For the record – and this needs to be said upfront – neither of us wanted a date with a prostitute. Not that it matters anyway. The vast majority of them don’t take Western clients. And I was running short on cash…But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is, like the boys in Stand By Me who go off in search of a dead body, we were simply curious about what we might find.
For me, this curiosity stemmed from reading a chapter in Sheridan Prasso’s The Asian Mystique that outlined the sex trade in a number of Asian countries. When I started reading the part about Korea, I just couldn’t believe it. Hookers? In Korea? No way! This country seems far too conservative for that. (Prasso’s book said essentially the same thing, acknowledging that Korea is a lot more morally old-fashioned than, say, Thailand.) I had to see it for myself.
So, after a bit of Internet research (Google search phrase: “red light districts in Seoul“), my friend and I were off to a place called Cheongnyangni 588, which was supposed to be right next to the subway station.
Our first hour of searching took us down a number of streets where we saw a few obvious brothels, but nothing truly shocking or noteworthy. “You know what we’re doing wrong?” I asked. “We’re looking for it. I bet if we just start wandering around we’ll find it by accident.” And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happened. We had lunch, we turned up a street we hadn’t seen before, and suddenly there it was.
Here’s how it works. The girls stand around in little rooms made up to look like beauty salons or bedrooms. Some of them sit with their legs and high heels exposed. Some of them stand in front of mirrors, pretending to brush their hair or put on make-up. And some of them just stand boldly in the doorways, making it obvious that they’re up for anything. I was struck by how attractive a lot of them were (definitely not what you expect from prostitutes) and the fact that they were actually Korean and not Filipina, Thai, or Russian. When a guy walks by, the girls knock on their windows to get his attention. Or sometimes the guy just approaches them and tries to strike a deal.
Laugh if you must, but none of them paid me or my friend any attention. Only a few made even fleeting eye contact. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of that old Rodney Dangerfield joke: “I went to a hooker and asked for a good time. She said, ‘Not on the first date.’ I tell you, I get no respect.”) But this was nothing unusual. Like I said, most of them don’t take Western clients. There’s a belief among Korean men, you see, that only Westerners carry venereal disease. If a girl goes with a foreigner, she risks losing the bulk of her customers.
All in all, it was an interesting afternoon. And the next day, when people asked what we’d done over the weekend, we just grinned and said we’d done a little window shopping. 🙂