Friday, January 30, 2015

Diamonds, Gold and Gossip in Itaewon.

Most South Koreans have one of a handful of last names, Lee, Park, Kim, Moon, Shin or Han. In 2008 I found myself living in Seoul through my husband's job. Although I didn't enjoy it at first, I ended up meeting  lot of interesting characters and anyone who thinks Seoul is a boring city must just be a boring person themselves because it is actually unbelievable how much is actually going on! Of course there are many cities in the world with a fantastic amount of things going on and many may have a lot more than Seoul.

 Here is a little tale about one of my encounters in Seoul.

Namsan Tower


There was no excuse for saying you were bored there because there was always a club to join or an art class to take or just coffee with an Expat friend in Itaewon. In my first 2 years there I joined as many clubs as I could and had learned to cook Spanish and Korean food, make dim sum, arrange flowers, fold napkins, you name it I took a class in it!
One of the best ways to entertain yourself is to make as many friends as possible in the Expat community and amongst local people. The area we lived in is called Itaewon where many of the foreigners from all over the world congregate. It is home to Yongsan Garrison, the biggest US army base outside the USA, Transgender clubs, a mosque, a red light district called "Hooker Hill", foreign reastaurants, clubs, bars and hotels.
When my son came to see us in 2012 he described Itaewon as "tacky" but I would go further and say it was downright grungy but that's what I found so charming about it! You could walk down the main street in Itaewon and sample cuisine from any corner of the globe, buy designer jeans for afew thousand KRW, buy diamonds, gold, Chinese clothes and jump on a bus, subway or taxi to take you anywhere in Korea! You could also hear every language on the planet being spoken by the bustling crowd congregating on the street around the make shift stalls of street vendors selling roast chestnuts , sweet potatoes, rice cakes or fishcakes.

One day when I was meeting some of my British Expat friends I discovered a jewelry shop on the high street which specialized in diamonds, gold and gossip.  While socializing with Expats who had lived in Seoul for a while, many stunning and unusual items of jewelry were worn and upon enquiry, Mrs Kim's name was mentioned so one day I went  to see where these beautiful items were from.
It was the owner of Kim's Jewelry who would go on to make my stay in Seoul so interesting. We will call the owner Mrs Kim although that wasn't her real name but it could also be any of the names above that I mentioned and it was in this jewelry shop that so many interesting stories, encounters and revelations occurred.
I came to understand that she had been in business almost 30 years, starting  out small, then she expanded and had now become one of the most popular jewelry destinations for foreigners. Kim's Gold even had their own work shop where you could get things made, remodeled and repaired. Everyone from the Filipino maids to the Ambassador's wives were amongst her clients. The array of stuff was so alluring that I found myself absolutely entranced by the glimmering gold, gems and designs. Another interesting coup by Mrs Kim was that she would sponsor every major foreign event that was held in Seoul so she would get new foreign customers almost every year.
Gwangwhamun at night.

The shop was not disappointing and the jewelry was so enticing that I soon found myself there every week and even though I couldn't buy something all the time I still went regularly. The store owner was so warm, inviting and charming that she would make me warm drinks of Korean citrus tea and Korean Maxim coffee and just lull me into buying some thing which started out small.
 I also solicited her good will when I raised about $7000 for Korean charity for the Seoul International Women's Club and she gave me a massive donation of about $500 donating just as much to the British Association and the American Women's Club as well as the Australia and New Zealand Women's Club.
Later on we seemed to become really good friends and I genuinely felt affectionate towards her as we exchanged stories about our lives, our children, our husbands and when I became obsessed with Korean dramas we discussed those. I would tell her about my travels  around Asia, Europe, the USA and England. I also loved the jewelry I bought there and treasure it to this day. Many have admired my necklaces, rings and earrings that my husband and I bought at that shop in Itaewon. Once when my husband went there to buy a ring for me she thought she would have a joke with him and showed him a ring that she said was "as big as my face"and lead him to believe that I really wanted me to have it. Eventually she showed him the ring I really wanted but we had a laugh about the monstrosity he almost bought from her!
 It was a place where many personal information and stories were exchanged. So during my years of living in this place in Itaewon it became a sanctuary where I would swap stories with Mrs Kim in the process of buying all kinds of beautiful jewelry. American soldiers would come in and tell her stories of  love, infidelity and pain. Many personal details were exchanged  along with many laughs. I felt very close to my jeweler friend. Secrets of painful things I was experiencing were divulged. I was not the only person I believe that had these experiences or this particular experience because I heard about many other stories too about people who had left Seoul already but some was just gossip about current customers.
About a year and a half after I left Seoul a message appeared on Facebook from an acquaintance questioning me about a very personal matter. I am still wondering whether it was heard from the expat community or whether my indiscreet confessions to my jewelry friend had come out. I prefer to believe it is just the rumor mill and not the gossip mill that may have come from behind the glittering gold and diamonds in Itaewon. I will always remember my friend in the best way possible where she comforted me in my time of loneliness and need of a friend in a foreign country where I found myself by chance.

Kimchi pots

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