Perceived as a Prostitute on the streets of Seoul
Last winter, after work one day, I changed into a black hooded sweatshirt, skinny jeans and Converse—nothing that, I thought, would attract much attention. Setting out for the grocery store, I grabbed my purse and a reusable shopping bag.
I reached a crossroad near the elementary school where I work, and a middle-aged man in a pin-striped business suit stared at me across the street. I didn’t find it unusual—I am a blue-eyed, light brown-haired, white girl living in a homogeneous Korean neighborhood. As I walked past the man, he casually flashed an open wallet neatly lined with crisp, green 10,000 won bills. I glanced at the pristine wallet as I walked by, quickening my pace and thinking, I probably teach his fucking children.
That was not the first time I was mistaken as a prostitute in northern Seoul. In 2009, mere weeks after I arrived in Seoul to study at a Korean university, I was invited to a friend’s performance downtown. When it ended, I agreed to meet a handful of exchange and Asian scholarship students at a Chinese lamb restaurant near our dorm. It was nearing midnight and I had no idea where to find the specific restaurant, so I called Lee, another exchange student.
I waited at the crossroad with a flimsy umbrella, trying to protect myself from the mid-March downpour. The closest side street was lined with run-down buildings. Despite the rain, each small door was open a crack, and strands of tacky beads hung from the entryway, similar to the beads I hung from my own closet in sixth grade. An older Korean man stumbled towards me, wearing a black business suit and carrying a sturdy umbrella. He mumbled something in Korean that I couldn’t understand.
“Umm, I’m meeting my friend,” I said in broken Korean, the result of a Korean crash course I took in the states before arriving, not retaining much of anything.
“Friend?” he said, pointing to himself.
I stepped back. My heart pounded as I scanned the area realizing no one else was in sight. Where the fuck is Lee? I thought. I’m gonna kill him. I glared at the man and took my phone out of my purse, dialing Lee’s number. The man eventually stumbled away, but my hand continued shaking as I gripped my phone.
Before these incidents, I obviously knew that prostitution existed in Korea, but I never particularly thought about it. I didn’t know about the Russian, Chinese and Filipina women working in Korea on “Entertainment” visas, and I certainly didn’t know about how culturally acceptable it is for married men to visit brothels in collective groups. I learned when I returned to Korea in 2011 to work.
Korean companies, as well as schools, often have work dinners where all the employees must attend and are pressured to drink. Due to the importance of age and conformity in Korean culture, employees must show respect to their boss at all times, and sometimes, bosses will buy their male employees sex at the end of the night. I was shocked to realize that this practice even exists at some elementary schools when my co-worker admitted that he was once invited to join. A friend of a friend also mentioned that he was dragged along to a karaoke session to witness a prostitute blowing each of the men in the same room. They asked him if he wanted a turn.
One day at lunch, my co-teacher claimed, “Japanese men are so terrible; they all cheat on their wives.”
Although this assumption was highly sterotypical, I responded, “Well, I heard that lot of Korean men cheat on their wives too, but with prostitutes. Especially the older generation in which their marriages were often arranged.”
“But prostitutes are just for one night and there is no love. Japanese men cheat on their wives with women that they are in love with.”
“But that’s still cheating,” I argued, from my inherent Western point of view.
“Many Koreans don’t see that as cheating.”
Thousands of businesses are involved in the illegal Korean sex industry, including specified massage parlors, motels and private karaoke rooms. Business cards advertising women are constantly scattered along the streets, casually thrown by male employees on motorbikes. Also, these businesses subtly advertise prostitution with two parallel, rotating poles with red, white and blue candy stripes. After learning about this symbol of prostitution, I noticed that a set of barber poles were secured next to my apartment. I wondered where these prostitutes were working. Could it be in the basement of my building, through that shortened black door? Could the real estate office be a cover-up business?
Six months ago, after having gone to the movies, my friend Alex, who was couchsurfing at my place, and I got off the subway and walked along the dimly-lit streets in my neighborhood. There were piles of trash on each corner along with splatters of puke from drunk ajeosshi, middle-aged men, leaving their after-work dinner parties. There were rusted neon lights flashing on old buildings, advertising karaoke and 24-hour hangover soup restaurants. We were hungry. We walked to Lotteria, a Korean fast-food burger chain that’s even worse than McDonald’s.
I saw a young woman walk out of Paris Baguette, a chain of baked goods, holding a packaged cinnamon bun. Good choice, I thought. She was wearing 5” stiletto sandals with booty shorts and a leather jacket. Her bare legs shone as white as the moonlight as she walked towards a tan van that looks as though it has roughed a few minor accidents. A man slid open the door and waited impatiently while another man sat in the driver’s seat. The windows were tinted.
“Look, that’s a prostitute,” I whispered rather loudly to Alex.
“How do you know that? Lots of Korean girls dress like that.”
“Because there are two men waiting there for her. And, come on, Korean girls aren’t dressed like that at midnight in March. It’s cold and no one’s on the street.”
“Don’t stare at them. And stop yelling.”
Alex and I got take-out, and by 12:15, we arrived home. As we walked around the corner of the suit store, we avoided stepping in another pile of splattered puke. The street was quiet. The lights were off, except for the swirling, striped, twin cylinders. I saw the giant tan van parked in front of my apartment; it was slightly lopsided due to its size, half on the sidewalk and half off. I realize that it was the same van I saw every night after coming home between midnight and dawn—transporting the stiletto-wearing, cinnamon-bun holding young prostitute outside of Paris Baguette. I glanced at the black door adjacent to my building’s front door, which was slightly ajar. I’ve always seen it closed.
My brief encounter (and fascination) with Korean prostitution is one cultural barrier that frustrates me, and as a woman, I’ll never know exactly what happens behind those beaded curtains. Although prostitution is prevalent throughout the world, being perceived as a prostitute for merely walking through my Korean neighborhood in broad daylight makes my blood boil. I have not chosen this profession, and I feel disrespected by men who assume, based solely on my physical appearance, that I have. I’m sure other Western women with lighter features can sympathize with me, such as my friend, blond-hair and blue-eyed, who once opened her door to a middle-aged Korean man asking her, “How much?”
It’s true that many women have chosen this way of life, such as the group of prostitutes who doused themselves in gasoline and threatened to set themselves on fire when there was a major crackdown in one of Seoul’s red-light districts last year, and I do not view them as victims. But I am convinced that the majority have not chosen this, or have chosen it as a last resort. Numbers of Southeast Asian and Russian women have been trafficked here and many teenage runaways have fallen into the system. I wonder about the girl who walked out of Paris Baguette. What’s her story?
I realize that I am a foreigner, residing in Korea by choice, but still I wonder, where should the line be drawn for what is acceptable and what is not?
*If you are interested in reading more about prostitution in Korea, refer to The Grand Narrative, a blog that delves into issues regarding Korean feminism, sexuality and popular culture. For articles specifically about prostitution in Korea, click here.
-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.