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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A tale of two cities: Ansan and Itaewon – migrant towns in Seoul, Korea

One is known as the ‘Western Town’; the other is being branded as the ‘Multicultural City’, as is typical of Korea, a country a little short of tourist attractions. One is the favourite residential area for the expats, the high-flying foreigners, and young Korean couples looking for a quick western fix. The other is not anyone’s favourite, but the residential area for a big number of migrant labourers who work at the several factories located in the area.
Approaching Ansan
 I take the 1 hour long subway from Seoul Station to Ansan, the ‘Multicultural City’. As soon as I get out of the subway station, I see three Pakistani men posing at various spots and taking pictures of one another. Some Christian groups have set up small booths where they are blaring pitches in Korean to attract converts. I go through the underground passage where vegetable sellers have spread out their uprooted gardens. Three Indian families are shopping together; “Do you have any onion?” they ask the Korean ladies who understands them.

Ansna- playing Jianzi
Ansan Streets
Ansan streets

Ansan streets
The heat of the action is at Wongok-Dong, nicknamed ‘the borderless village’, where most of the migrants gather. Along a narrow lane running parallel to Bubu-ro street, all the shops are catering to them. Shop-front windows are filled with stickers in English, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, Thai, and Bengali. They are selling packets of Sichuan chili, curry powder, sambal paste, and phone cards, lots of phone cards, best rates, cheapest rates, maximum talk time. I see Money Transfer, lots of Money Transfer. Sound boxes outside try to talk to me in Mandarin. On the pavement, some of the wares have spilled over - plastic piggy-banks, oversized jackets, cheap shoes, and a solitary dog placed on an Aluminum tray on a bench, neatly skinned and cut, its head still intact. Nearby, live Asian Carp and catfish are being sold in foam baskets.

Ansan Shopfronts
People in big numbers are slowly moving along this lane, being branded by the city government as ‘Multicultural food street’. Everyone is speaking in Mandarin. After all, rather than being a global village, Wongok-Dong in Ansan is more of a Chinese village. The highlights here are the two big Jiaozi or dumpling stalls whose softly aromatic vapours have set the mood. I approach one to ask for six dumplings and she handles me the whole steaming tray to take inside and find my own way to chopsticks, soya sauce and a plate.

Migrant Comm. Svc. Centre
I meet Ms Jungan Park from the Migrant Community Service Centre, a unique attempt by the Ansan government to assimilate foreign migrants. She provides me with all the statistics. In this town of over 761,000 residents, around 58,100 are foreigners constituting 7.6% of the population as opposed to the national average of 2.2%. People from 78 countries are present in Ansan but more than 70% of the migrants are Chinese of Korean descent. The other big groups are Uzbeks, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Russians, Filipinos, Nepali, Thai and Sri Lankans. Ms Park explains, “Korea has long being a homogenous society. So the activities of our centre are needed to make them accept foreigners whom we need for the 3D jobs – Dirty, Dangerous and Demeaning. We organize sports and cultural events for the migrants which the Koreans are also encouraged to join. Among many other things, we also provide counselling services in multiple languages, organize language classes, and run a shelter for migrant women who have run away from abusive husbands.”
Chinese men playing chess

Dumpling Stall (Chinese)
I walk around the small town. A group of young Christians are making last minute preparations for today’s campaign. They are all wearing orange t-shirts. Soon, they branch out handing out pamphlets to anyone looking like a foreigner. Elderly Chinese men have formed groups of four and are playing chess or cards. Many elderlies have gathered at the small town-square. A town official is making a speech. Some programs to celebrate multiculturalism will follow soon as costumed performers wait beside the podium. I come across two Nepali men listening attentively to the official. “Do you understand Korean?” I ask. “No, we don’t,” they smile, “We are just killing time. There is nothing better to do around here.” Nearby, a bunch of four middle-aged Chinese men and women are playing a game of Jianzi that was competing with the official event for crowds. A fat man was approaching everyone passing by to pitch a packet of ginseng.

Ansan streets
I meet a group of ten Bangladeshis on their way to the Seoul Mosque. They are in good spirits and are facing the usual challenge of travelling in a group, getting the entire flock to think alike at the same time. I catch Habibur, who had been positioned on standby till they could sort out matters. After the typical questions about where I am from and where in Bangladesh my parents came from, he asks me the usual questions all migrant workers 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, “How easy is it to get in to Singapore? I have been here for eight years. They won’t let me stay here anymore after this term ends. Can you get me a job in your company?” 
Ansan Streets

Arif, who had been left behind a bit, catches up with me. “Brother, are you a Muslim?” he asks, “Not a problem. We are all brothers sharing the same language,” his voice turns extremely civil. “Life is not too bad here for us. But sometimes, the managers and other Korean workers shout at us. I think they say bad things. But today is a holiday and we are going to the Seoul Mosque for the first time.” Other men from the group gather around me and we again share details about our origins. “Stay well, brother,” they bid me farewell.
Itaewon Cool
My next stop is Itaewon, the ‘Western City’. Big solid blocks of high-end restaurants greet me with tables covered in long white sheets. Shop names are all in English and of course there are the familiar McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, etc. Some shop-fronts imitate Victorian or Art Deco facades. Young Korean couples are walking the cobbled roads, posing every minute for selfies, making the world stop or walk around them. In the cold, a young Korean man wearing just a t-shirt, an elaborate hairdo and a smoke, is moving around from one door to another without purpose. Outside a convenience store, four British residents have set up two tables to eat their warmed up noodles and are talking loudly, “It’s f**ing expensive here,” says one. “Yeah, especially for housing,” says another. “Yeah, that’s a f**ing problem, you can’t save f**ing anything here.” Their complaints fade as I come down this cobbled street into the main lane of the Itaewon market, a favorite tourist haunt.
Itaewon chic
Men wearing American army uniforms are looking for a bargain. English teachers, an abundant species in Korea, are walking in both directions. Korean men from the tailor shops which form the backdrop of these streets are asking me again and again, “Do you want a shirt made for you? A pant may be?” They lose memory like goldfish and the same people ask me the same questions again when I take the walk back. A group of Chinese tourists guided by a yellow flag have just risen from earth, from the subway station. This is their hopping stop and they dutifully go through each of the small cubicle shops placed along the pavement, Korean wallpaper paintings on their walls, all selling the same items: socks, caps, souvenirs, and the same witty t-shirts that you get anywhere in the world. Whistle, the flag stops and turns around, the Chinese tourists go back to the underground world in unison.
Itaewon style
I catch up with Roy (name changed), an English teacher from Sacramento who has been in Korea for over ten years. “I didn’t plan to stay so long. But back home, you can’t make a living teaching English after you have paid the hundred taxes. And in California, they keep trying to bring in laws to turn teachers into paupers.” He comes to Itaewon every weekend, “You should come here as a single. There are such great clubs in this area and Korean people are very friendly if you know what I mean.” No problem of assimilation here then. “Not at all,” he laughs, “During the day on weekends, you can join the aunties for treks and during the night their daughters can join you for a bumpy ride.”
But this glitzy world changes suddenly changes as one walks up the hill from Itaewon. There are more Indian restaurants, but they have lost the fortress like appearance of the ones in Itaewon. Back comes the oversized jackets inside and outside the shops. People with distinctly Arab, South Asian and Malay faces are just idling against shop walls. Hijabs on mannequins, Pakistani travel agency, Turkish Kebab dig, Malay restaurant, I can see the minaret of Seoul Mosque already. I meet again the group of Bangladeshis from Ansan. They have taken the pamphlets about Islam from the mosque and distributing it to any occasional Korean who drops by to take some photographs. Outside, an elderly Korean lady is visiting every shop and asking the shop owner in English, “Where are you from?” The shop owner inevitably hesitates and answers, “Korean.” “Don’t say that, you understand! Say what you are, a Pakistani,” enraged, she walks away to the next store. I run for cover. 
Seoul mosque - Itaewon

Hijabs outside Seoul Mosque

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