"The best present I could ask for is just to be in America," a 24-year-old-U.S. army man tells me at Friends Bar. He holds his head in one hand, and a Corona beer in the other. After five months of training in the Midwest, he spent only 30 hours at home before flying to Seoul to join over 30,000 other U.S. military personnel here who, for the past five decades, have helped deter North Korean aggression.
This non-commissioned officer, with four others under his command, hasn't seen his family for eight months. But he did get their Christmas present, and loves his Play Station III.
Friends Bar does its best to make him, me, and countless other Americans feel at home. It’s one of many Americana establishments in Itaewon, a district of Seoul that butts up against the large U.S. Yongsan Garrison. In Friends, a huge American flag drapes one wall. Stacked-up Amstel Light boxes engulf another. And beer streamers crisscross the ceiling.
The clientèle here is almost entirely American, save for a few Korean women scattered about in the corners. The Americans sport Red Sox baseball caps, Bronx hoodies, and cowboy hats. They throw darts at boards, play pool, and bet on American football matches while a medley of heavy metal and Kanye West blares from the speakers above.
For one blonde twenty-year-old girl, it's not enough. Feeling homesick she says, "Let's go to the southern bar!"
We agree, and leave for a dim-lit bar that plays exclusively U.S. country classics. The walls boast life-size cardboard cutouts of crooning beauties. There's a confederate flag chopped in half hanging rather curiously behind country band album covers. Beer paraphernalia covers everything else.
I turn to my American companions and say half-jokingly, "You've got everything from America here.”
"No, man," comes the response, drunkenly serious. "You’ve got what we all want: freedom." A young soldier grasps my shoulder for emphasis, and support, chugging beer from a cowboy-hat-shaped mug and spluttering, “You can go home anytime you want. You can be in American anytime you want…We’re stuck here."
Throughout the night, I hear this refrain again and again. I am free. They are not. Part of it is a fact of military life. They have to trim their hair and report for duty. I don’t. But part of their complaint is larger. It’s about their responsibility to act as U.S. representatives here in South Korea -- a country with a complex relationship with America. They're never as free as I am.
Freedom for these soldiers is both the desire to grow their hair and to rid themselves, just for a while, of the responsibility of having to represent the U.S. around the clock. It's only one of many strains. Some will head to Iraq soon, others Afghanistan. There it will be different; it will be war.
It’s 3am here. I make my way back to my grey, windowless room for the night, pushing through a throng of South Koreans in muted winter clothing. The dozen or so revelers eye me curiously for a moment, and then return to laughing and smoking. I know I stick out, just enough to feel it. But this crowd won’t invite this lone American to join them, like it might have in the Philippines or Pakistan.
I’m not an object of curiosity here, like I was in these other places. Maybe five-decades of a large U.S. military presence makes Americans a bit less fascinating. Or maybe it’s the relative prosperity of the place. Whatever it is, being American here makes you stick out just enough to know it, but not much more.
Add to this the responsibility military personnel face, when missteps make national news. Even when we feel alone over the holidays, we can never lose ourselves as another anonymous member of the Korean crowds. We’re always a bit American here; and we’re always a bit lonely.