February 2, 2007

A not entirely uncommon experience in Seoul, as you go sauntering down the street with your fellow millions, is to have an ajuma (middle aged woman) shove some sort of advertisement in your hand. Sometimes, it’s just a flyer for a nearby store or test-taking school. Other times, it’s something on the seedier side.

Of course, seedy is in the eyes of the beholder. But… let’s just say… if anyone handed these things out in the States, there’d be a special on Fox right quick.

Here’s where the common claim of Korea being an “extremely conservative nation” breaks down. Granted, in some ways, Korea is very conservative, in the most general sense of “letting the status quo be.” But when we get to specifics, and certainly in terms relative to the norms of the United States, the general claims of “conservatism” don’t fit just right.  Take for instance, the pleasures of the flesh. The U.S. is generally called “liberal” and Korea, “conservative.” But, in terms of the commercialization of sex, and I don’t mean using sex to sell things, I mean selling sex, the USA has nothing on Korea. Though officially against the law, the skin trade in Korea is rampant. I can list 6 places off-hand where I’ve heard (ha ha cue the laughter) you can procure special service: massage parlor (마사지), regular bar (바), “tea room” (다방), room salon (룸사롱), barber shop, “singing club” (다란주점). And these are all the unofficial places – where a thin veneer of innuendo still operates. There are also full-blown prostitution districts, where women are put on display. A like so:



Then you have the “playing cards” that get strewn all around the neighborhood. They feature a comely vixen, half-dressed, bodacious and asking “Do you wanna play?” It comes with a name and a phone number. I’ve seen the thugs that come strutting through our family neighborhood, ciggies dangling from their faux-tough posing mugs, just strewing cards left and right, like so many rice seeds on an early spring field. I hate littering, hate it. I hate littering of prostitution cards all the more so. So, though I won’t go out of my way to do it, I’ll sometimes just follow behind and pick them up to toss in the nearest bin. I’m no prude, but seriously…a time and place, people, a time and place.

Okay, so, back to my story. I’m ascending the subway stairs the other night, and an ajumma with a great big smile (what are you selling?) greets me and shoves something in my hand… oooooo…… candy (trust me, those are two little hard sour balls in there)!


Yummy. Everyone likes candy! And pineapple too! Uh, wait… ajuma! What’s this?


What tha? Ewwww…. that’s not a candy store! It says “Turtle – Massage – University Co-eds.” Open it up, you get a map to the location and the following:

One hour’s pleasure….

  • One hour of happy chatting [dang, which is it, massage or chatting? the story begins to unwind so quickly!] with a 20 year-old co-ed!! Special Service!!
  • Enjoy the uniqueness that only these girls possess. GROUPS WELCOME
  • No additional fees. Even a meager $60 is o.k.!!
  • Reservations possible. 02)xxx-0514

from. turtle stress clinic.

I do have stress, but I don’t think it’s quite “turtle stress” yet. I’ll translate some more Buddhist poetry instead.

Anyways, that’s a glimpse of what passes for normal on the streets of Seoul.


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