I can see a twitch in the corner of her mouth. “Wear whatever makes you happy,” she says.
The excessively trendy women of Seoul intimidate me. Pale and reed-thin, with their long, glossy black hair, denim miniskirts and knee-high, three-inch boots, their tops screaming with designer names, their faces hold a slightly bored, too-cool-for-school look. “In a few months, you’ll look like them,” one of the school’s Korean teachers told me two weeks ago while we sipped soup.
“I can’t imagine that happening,” I said, slurping fat noodles from my chopsticks self-consciously. Five days later I bought a pair of fake Uggs.
M and I walk back to the school, where we meet up with E and A, two East Indians from Canada who have been living in the country for a year.
“I like your coat,” A says right away, and tugs at the sleeve of my white bomber’s jacket (the label is Ben Sherman, if you must know). It has a removable hood lined with fake-fur, and is the trendiest thing I’ve ever owned in my life. I picked it up from Ross the day before I left California, anxious over the hellish winters my parents warned me about. To my surprise, about 75 percent of Seoul girls have one just like it.
Our new friends take us to a small bar in the city’s fashion district, where they are familiar with one of the bartenders. “Do you mind if we smoke?” E asks. M smokes constantly (in spite of the ugly looks we get from natives when we’re in the streets), so I shrug it off.
I order a Guinness (nine dollars!) and A gets a Heineken (seven bucks), and I know we’ll hit it off right away. Even though most Koreans are thick with racist slurs (as a light-skinned Asian, I have yet to experience it, but other foreigners are not so fortunate), these self-proclaimed “brown girls” are still upbeat about their stay here.
As they sprout off advice and encouragement, the differences in their personalities is quickly apparent. E is cool and collected, genuinely enjoys her job in spite of her paranoid and money-hungry employer, and knows the best, inexpensive clothing shops. A is more gregarious, bursting with enthusiasm and eager to invite us to their town (which is twenty minutes from where I live).
They’re both computer programmers from Edmonton and have been best friends since middle school. E decided to teach here out of a desire for travel and adventure; after a few months A’s mother encouraged her to go so E wouldn’t get lonely. They both have a good circle of foreign and Korean friends that they would like to introduce to M and me. Within minutes of receiving our drinks, I’ve accepted an invitation to join them in next month’s skiing trip.
The “Z” bar is foreigner-friendly. All the bartenders have their English nicknames stitched on the back of the black, laid-back uniforms. As every visitor enters, all the employees bow and shout warm greetings.
Ariel, who is good friends with E, sends us a complementary plate of nachos; an hour later she brings us chocolate sticks. Another bartender shows us a card trick (A trumps him with an even cooler one), Ariel brings us a game, and soon after she learns I’m not Korean she brings over their best-looking employee and tries to hook us up.
The next table over is celebrating a birthday and two bartenders dance and chant adorably, waving firecrackers around with the largest smiles on their faces. Unfortunately, the b-day girl is drunk and sleeping in her boyfriend’s lap. Nonetheless, the party gives me a huge slice of their pineapple cake.
But the highlight of the night is the much-talked about cocktail show. Part juggling act, part martial arts, the smallish room is filled with cheers as every bartender (who spends hours a day practicing before the bar opens) flips bottles, rolls them off their shoulders and back and occasionally drops one or two. My excessive hollering and drunken seat-dancing earns me the prize of the night, pretty blue drink.
At one o’clock A and E make plans to take us to Wal*Mart (my inner suburban weeps with joy) and show us their city’s mall, which they say is leagues superior to the one we have here. For the first time in two weeks, I receive a real embrace before we depart–the shock of it nearly melts me in A’s arms. Warm with alcohol and intoxicated with thoughts of the next day, M and I walk back to our apartment.
So maybe I’ll never be able to pass off as a native. But I’m beginning to think I can really live here.