Itaewon Freedom

This one had taken longer than she had expected. Ara glanced around the motel room. The faded pink wallpaper had chipped in new places, and as she surveyed the damage her eyes eventually bumped into the hanging clock; she shook her head. It was already 4:30AM and she had squandered her time on a cheap customer, a mere boy of around 18 who was now struggling to get dressed in the corner of the room. The boy was flustered, his fingers darted around his clothes, unsure of which button to land on first, and his awkward poise and averting eyes made it clear that he did not want Ara to watch him. Ara, of course, couldn’t care less about the worries of a bashful teenager, and as she watched the boy fling his jacket on, she silently decided that this would be her last shift for the workday.

The boy now held his backpack by the straps, and teetering on his toes, glanced questioningly at Ara. She gave a half-hearted gesture towards the only door in the room, and as the boy began to leave she gave him a quick but charming smile—cheap or not, she had to secure her customer base, and a little kindness never hurt, especially for a teenager whose insecurities were large enough to make him resort to her services. As the door closed on the boy’s heels, Ara slipped back into her dress, and texted a quick check-out message to Ms. Kwon before sliding out the inconspicuous fire escape that led down to the motel parking lot. There were a few cars in the cramped lot, the light overhead was dim and finicky, and the neon sign that read ‘GO Motel’ cast frenzied tints all over, but Ara never had trouble spotting her blue BMW near the exit. As she placed herself in the front seat and started the ignition, Ara amused herself with fantasies of falling in love with the awkward boy, who would then grow up to be rich, and whisk her away to some fantastic place: maybe Guam. The humor in thoughts like this never grew old, and she giggled as she drove the car out of the lot.

The drive home was short, and she parked in her usual spot by the dumpster before entering the modest apartment complex. It was a faded concrete building that was modified from a local library, and the former study rooms now provided housing for young students preparing for college entrance exams and people working various temp jobs across the breadth of Seoul city. Ara didn’t interact much with her neighbors, and they didn’t seem to mind her either. People kept to themselves in this complex, as it was merely a provisional solution to most of its inhabitants. Any bonds created there would surely amount to little or nothing in the future, and so Ara felt no discomfort in disregarding and strutting past her next-door neighbor, a disheveled female student, who was smoking on the walkway that led to their doors. As she fidgeted with the keys and unlocked the greening copper door to her cubicle, she remembered a time when she would have been greeted with the smell of warm food and the sounds of her family. There was no melancholy to her reminiscing, just a few matter-of-fact images in the periphery of her thoughts.

In her youth, Ara had lived with her parents and older sister, Areum, in a high-rise apartment complex on the southern bank of the Han River. Naturally, when she resorted to sex work, she kept her parents unaware, but her sister was quicker to catch on. Areum was studying to become a nurse, and when she noticed how Ara, a supposedly unemployed college dropout, consistently returned home later than her own interning shifts at the local hospital, she began to harbor suspicions. Ara was never fond of her sister’s meddling in her affairs, and she often had to bide her bubbling frustrations at the dinner table when Areum would try to interrogate her in front of their parents. In other, less exposed moments, Ara would take to the solitary confines of her room, and either out of shame or irritation, avoid much sought-after conversation with her sister.

On one particular night, pent up emotions spilled forth onto the dinner table when Areum, in a shaking fit of tears, accused Ara of selling her body. How could you dare to soil the body given to you by mom and dad, she had sputtered, do you not feel guilty for the lord that protects our home? All of us. Working til’ we shit blood, trying to support the family. Support you, for you. And here you are wasting it all on this disgusting— thing. Ara was stunned speechless, and yet a cluttered storm of anger and disappointment was fit to burst when her father calmly interjected: What are you talking about Areum? That kind of thing is illegal now. Didn’t you see the news? They outlawed it a few years back! It’s all a thing of the past, he chuckled, your sister must be stressed from all the work at the hospital, right Ara?

Ara could never forget her father’s face when he had spoken that night. He was smiling right next to her at the table, but he looked as if he were hiding in the corner; he looked small and cowardly. From that point in time, dinner conversations resumed their usual composure, but an unnamed pressure settled in the back of Ara’s mind—they knew—they all knew, and a part of her wished they would just say something. She noticed that her interactions with her family became increasingly brief and ridiculous, satirical even. So when the pressure quickly built to unbearable levels, and a few years later, when Areum moved out to live closer to the larger hospital, Ara had taken the first chance she had had to follow her sister out the door.

And as she stepped through the door, nearly a decade later, into the hastily repurposed library cubicle overlooking the northern bank of the Han River, she harbored no harsh feelings. The room was sheathed in warm, yellow wallpaper, and as she entered the space she was greeted with the gentleness of the woolen carpet on her toes, and the musty smell that always settled with summer in the city. There was a small kitchenette directly before her, straddling an exposed shower in the corner, and a quaint blue futon against the opposite wall. A small window awkwardly punctured the space above the futon, through which Ara could just barely recognize the silhouette of the Lotte tower in the dawning sunlight. She slid out of her dress once again, and took a quick shower. Afterwards, she drew the curtains of her small window to obscure the morning sun with a kitschy print of the Paris skyline, and with water still clinging to her straight black hair and naked back, dropped into her futon.

Ara had initially planned to quit the sex industry after moving out, but after a year or two, she was struck with the reality that there was little a solitary young woman without a college degree could offer in her city, except that which was always in demand. Ara remembered her confusion when her sister had accused her of wasting the family’s hard earned money. In the first place, when she had dropped out of college due to her parents’ financial instability, it was the guilt of burdening her family that had dragged her into the city’s underworld. As a child, her parents had always prioritized excellence, and had promised her money in the bank for her hagwons, books, materials, and college. When that ceased to be a reality, Ara had felt an insufferable guilt that somehow she had squandered the time and money that was put into her upbringing—that she was the cause of her miserable circumstance. Throughout the years, that guilt had festered and developed into what was now a sort of resigned pride: Pride that she had become excellent in her field; Pride that she was now the leading breadwinner of her family, out-earning both her sister, a nurse at the Seoul General Hospital, and her father, who clung to the lower rungs of a toy manufacturer; Pride that after her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her money was paying for most of the treatment.

The buzzing of her phone under the pillow roused Ara in the late afternoon the next day. It was Ms. Kwon calling to let her know that she was on call in the evening. Ara sprung out of the futon, and without pause leapt across the room, past the unused kitchenette, and into the shower. Afterwards, she threw on a simple white summer dress, and with her hair tied up in a dripping bun, rushed into the tepidity of the urban sunset. The walk to the local subway station was short—she wouldn’t be needing her car today—being on call meant that she had no clue where she would end up by the evening’s closing, and Ara didn’t want to risk leaving her car overnight in the lot of GO motel. The rush hour crowd irritated her and sweat held the dress pressed to her back as she descended down the steps into the subterranean arcade. Fluorescent lights spilled onto the marble floor and made glistening islands of gum, which Ara dodged as she swung past the rotating bars and onto the platforms. Three stops and a flight of stairs later, Ara emerged from Itaewon Station Exit 3 into the night.

The road at which Ara emerged was placed on a hill and palpably quiet, with just a few burly American men occasionally strutting up the sidewalk. Ara followed this road up the hill for two blocks, and then turned right into a narrower, steeper alley, in which she was greeted with the sudden din of nightlife. What seemed like a hundred different languages echoed off the narrow buildings into her ears, and patrons of all ages and colors shuffled upon the packed sidewalk, laughing, drinking, and smoking under the psychedelic reflections shed by backlit-billboards and tacky neon signs. A group of Americans were singing by the entrance of a bar, Korean teenagers were cackling through their cigarette smoke, and French men were sitting on the curb with their vapes, exhaling the aroma that Ara adored. She then continued up the rowdy hill, and turned into yet another alleyway that was darker and more reserved in its signage. The third store to the left had a blinking orange neon sign that read, “GO Motel”, and Ara stepped through its opaque double doors and down the tight staircase.

The “GO Motel” was a three story complex with rooms across the first through third floors, and a juicy bar that operated out of the basement. The bar itself was unassuming and modest, and Ara walked in to a rather conventional atmosphere. There were dim, lukewarm lights suspended from the ceiling panels, illuminating the haze of cigarette smoke that hovered above the clientele. There were three men at the bar nursing their drinks and glancing at each other. Two of them seemed to be companions, but there wasn’t much conversation that broke the deep jazz tune that saturated the air. Ara walked past the bar, greeting Minho, the bartender, with a quick smile and a nod before entering a door in the back corner that read ‘Employees Only’ in English. Ara emerged into the sterile fluorescents of a dressing room, where two other young women were chatting in front of the mirrors.

This room was the ‘base of operations’ for the lucrative business run by Ms. Kwon, the matron of the place, who was now busy attending to the makeup and hair of the two younger women. You’re late, Ms. Kwon mumbled, as Ara took her seat next to the two women and began to apply her makeup. The women waved, giggling and saying good morning sunshine as Ara smiled and rolled her eyes.

The woman directly to the left of Ara was Ha-Rim, a twenty-eight year old beauty that had entered the industry eight years ago after her failed singing career. She had never gone to high school, and had dedicated most of her youth to auditioning for several different talent agencies. The production company that finally cast her at age eighteen frequently forced her to sleep her way through the business. Ha-Rim gladly obliged to those demands in order to fulfill her long-held dreams of fame. Before she knew it, she was being sold at jaw-dropping prices to Japanese and Chinese diplomats, and when her singing career ultimately crumbled, she was forced to depend on the darker fame that she had cultivated as a product.

Ha-Rim in turn sat across from Chong, a Thai immigrant who had settled in the city. Ara was not aware of Chong’s actual age, but her best guess lingered in the mid-twenties. Chong was slender, dark-skinned, and confident, as if she had never lost the childish poise she had when her parents first sold her into the Thai sex trade. Her eyes were large, reflective, and curious, like an almond shaped pond, and she had always been well liked by the South Korean customers in Thailand, from whom she picked up bits and pieces of the language. By the time she was a teenager, Chong could speak Korean fluently, and when a certain businessman decided he would purchase her and forge her travel documents to bring her back to South Korea, her language had been integral in the process. After a year or two though, her owner became disinterested. He cast her into the Seoul streets, and she had made it to the place where she could do the only thing she had done well since childhood.

Ms. Kwon herself was the relic of a darker past in the Korean sex industry, and nothing could shake the respect and sorrow Ara held for this woman. Even as she slowly curled Ara’s hair, Ms. Kwon stood with a bent dignity, sixty-four years resting on the curve of her back. Ms. Kwon had overseen the business at GO Motel since its opening in the early nineties, and many girls had passed through her careful management in the time since. Before the GO Motel, she had been yet another product in the industry. In her twenties, the Korean military government under Park Chung-hee had enlisted her as a diplomatic tool in order to ameliorate US-Korean relations. In her youth, the government pressured and propagandized poor women like her to serve their country by pleasing the American soldiers and diplomats. Pay was incomparably meager back then, and after years of being the leverage for political bargains, Ms. Kwon had gathered enough money to leave the profession.

Instead of abandoning the industry, though, she had used her money to set up shop near the Yongsan American Military Garrison, in the booming cultural melting pot of Itaewon. Ara could not fathom Ms. Kwon’s intentions in remaining as a matron in the industry. Perhaps it was pity for the younger generation of women. Perhaps it was resignation. Perhaps it was the lack of another option. Whatever the reason was though, Ara was constantly thankful for the old lady’s work, and as she finished up her hair, Ms. Kwon patted her on the head and said softly, beautiful.

Ara was luckier than all of these women, and she held a reserved relief in her heart for the good fortune. Ms. Kwon and Chong, and Ha-Rim to a degree had little to no choice in their past and current careers. For Ara, however, this occupation had come with a conscious choice that she had made for herself after months of consideration. For Ara, this lifestyle was her way of living, and not merely a survival tactic. For Ara, this lifestyle, the GO Motel, and the men, were deliberate. This was her freedom.

That beautiful image in the mirror was something that Ara was willing to fight for, and in the past year, the need to defend her freedom had increased significantly. Amongst rising accusations from international human rights organizations, the South Korean government had recently initiated a systematic removal of sex businesses in Itaewon. However, it remained that the heaviest consumers of the sex industry were the very same government officials whose hands were now tied to a foreign and unwanted initiative, and therefore the removals were half-hearted at best. Conspicuous businesses in Itaewon were uprooted, but no further preventative measures were ever taken, and many workers had simply relocated to poorer, darker areas of Seoul’s urban web.

Due to those unprecedented government actions, many of the women and men who remained in the Itaewon industry, including Ms. Kwon and her girls, had felt tremors in their established lifestyles. Just the week prior, Ara and Ha-Rim had joined their fellow sex workers in a sit-in at the Seoul Station Plaza. The hundreds present at the sit-in were clad in white shirts and hats, fighting for their rightful place in the South Korean workforce. Many were fighting for the continuation of their livelihoods, for their lives truly depended on the matter. Most of them wore facemasks to preserve their anonymity, and although their chants were muffled, they were loud and poignant. We have the Right to Work! We have the Right to Live! Some women held pickets and placards with pleas to the government. Ara had carried a sign that read, I have chosen my lifestyle. I am Happy. You have no right to take it away.

Many of the protesters that day had worried that mass media would expose their identities, and that their businesses would be targeted, but that had turned out to be an optimistic concern. The event was not aired in any major mass media outlet, and the protests simply remained in the obscurity of personal accounts and insignificant blog posts. In one way or another, the voices of the sex workers had been hushed, along with the very reality of their existence. Ara couldn’t hide her disappointment as she scrolled through the Internet on her phone—the Seoul Station protests were nowhere near Seoul’s trending topics of the month. Seeing Ara’s frown in the mirror, Ms. Kwon patted her on the head once again and sighed, even if they all cared, none of them would understand. It’s alright Ara, we just have to fend for ourselves.

Ms. Kwon then hobbled over to an old desktop computer placed on a little table against the back wall of the dressing room. After staring intently at the screen for a moment, she looked up at Ara and motioned towards the back door, your car’s here, she said, and you know to call Mr. Park if anything goes wrong right? Ara gently nodded, put her phone in her purse, and tiptoed through the door out into the familiar flickering of the motel’s back lot, where a heavily tinted black sedan stood in waiting. The driver, Mr. Park, was one of the four security personnel employed under Ms. Kwon, who in instances like this also undertook transportation. He jostled his large, muscular frame out of the drivers seat to greet Ara with a bow and to open the back door for her, and she slipped into the cool, leathery air of the vehicle.

Mr. Kwon would always tell the girls stories of the few years he had served as personal security for the Korean Minister of Labor, and how he had decided to leave the toxic working conditions. They were bad people, Mr. Park had said, you lady’s are much more pleasant to work with, and I actually want to protect you. Now that his new job was to protect the girls from their clients, Mr. Park often got the satisfaction of punching unruly drunkards in the face, many of whom were the same government officials he had once reluctantly sworn to protect.

The car carried Ara out of the huddled lights of Itaewon and into the surrounding darkness of the American military complex and closed embassies. After wading through this dim silence, the sedan penetrated the boundary of the Han River and onto a colorfully lit bridge. Ara could see the blinking of many such bridges above the water as the blackness of the river shot into the horizon. They seemed like light bulbs strung across the night sky, and their image barely shifted as the car darted across the smooth asphalt. Mr. Park took a quick right onto an exit ramp soon after landing on the southern bank of the river, and thereafter came to a stop facing a small but magnificently lit hotel. The sign read, Riverside Hotel, in posh golden cursive.

A moment later another black sedan pulled up behind them, and Mr. Park promptly exited and walked towards the newcomers. Ara watched through the rearview mirror as a sharply dressed, white, middle-aged man exited the passenger’s seat to greet Mr. Park. Ara guessed that he was some foreign diplomat, and prayed that he was American—they always paid an unnecessarily large sum, the excess of which went into Ara’s own pocket. After a short exchange of bows and a lengthy conversation, the man handed Mr. Park a thick envelope and entered the rotating doors of the hotel as his driver pulled away into the parking lot. Mr. Park reentered the car and to Ara’s delight, took a while to count the money in the envelope. Room 36, knock before going in, he’s paid for two hours but he wants a few minutes to himself first, he told Ara as he shrugged and slid the money in the glove box. After waiting for another five minutes, Ara opened the car door and strut into the hotel, where she was washed by the golden lights of the lobby.

She walked straight past the front desk, took the elevator up to the third floor and stopped in front of the door marked 36. Ara paused for a moment and pre-wrote her alert message to Mr. Park, ready to send at a moment’s notice. Her high-heels sunk into the red tessellated carpet that covered the hallway as she stashed her phone in the front pocket of her purse. She then knocked on the door, waited a beat, turned the doorknob, and entered the room as gracefully as she could.

The sharply dressed man she had seen outside was now standing in the middle of the room, between the queen bed and the minibar. He was half dressed and wore a confident expression, but there was guilt in his stance and anxiety in the empty bottle of wine by his feet. Ara took a moment to bow, then slowly moved forwards. The man was rather plain without his garb. His hair was short, golden, and neatly brushed to frame his rotund face, which carried a drunken tint that contrasted his transparent, grey pupils. He blended in effortlessly under the cozy lights of the hotel lamps, between the white linen resting on the bed, the faded gold wallpaper, and the beige carpet. As Ara continued to walk towards him, he raised a hand and motioned for her to stop.

His eyes began at her forehead, slid down her cheeks, around the curve of her shoulders, and rode down the folds of her dress, inspecting her as if to spot a defect. He paused his search at her feet, then abruptly shot his gaze back up into her eyes, then asked DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I’M SAYING? DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? Ara did not respond, and so the man switched to a heavily accented Korean, my name is Sean, what is your name? Ara remained silent. You must not like talking much, well I’m okay with that, I guess that could be fun too.

The man walked forward and caressed her face in his shaking hand, wrapped his other arm around her waist and clumsily turned her back to the bed. But I’m more of a romantic. I bet. I bet I can get you to talk to me by the end of my time tonight. The man reminded her of the boy she had met the night before, and the thought filled her with confidence and a humorous pity. He began to lean in for a kiss. In response, Ara quickly placed her finger on the man’s lips, stopped him a few millimeters away from her own, and swung him around so that he was now pinned between the bed and her body. NO KISSES, she whispered.

Jae Shin