I still don’t know how it happened. One minute I’m sitting at the bar in The Local having a few Friday night cocktails with a friend after my happy decision to stay in the next night and avoid all the Halloween madness, and the next thing I know I’m on a bus to some obscure little town to go partying on a US Air Force base.
I grumbled a bit, accusing my kidnappers of being manipulative and taking advantage of me when I was all tequila sunrised, but secretly I was quite excited to be going off for an unexpected adventure instead of staying at home like a sensible adult. And at least I still avoid the Halloween parties, I said in satisfaction as the bus sped along towards Gunsan. Erm, yes, about that… said a guilty-looking kidnapper.
And so it was that I ended up going out for Halloween after all. Still, I had a legitimate excuse for not having a costume (“I was tricked into being here” worked just fine), and the Air Force guys had apparently had their big Halloween party the night before, so I wasn’t the only one dressed like a sane person.
It was my first time on a military base, so it was all quite exciting. For those who are not aware, the United States has something like 30,000 (I think) troops stationed in South Korea, for ‘protection’ against the north. Roughly a third of these are Air Force, in two different locations: Osan Air Base (near Seoul) and Gunsan Air Base (on the west coast). Although I was aware of the US military presence, I’d never met many of them, being from a militarily insignificant city, myself. However, as one of my friends has been dating an Air Force guy, I found myself suddenly launched into a sort of Little America. With soliders. Lots of soldiers. In uniforms.
The base – although on the Korean Peninsula – is technically American territory. You can only get in by surrendering your passport at the guarded gate, and even then only if you have someone who is willing to sign you in and accompany you. Once you’re in, you’re in America. Like, really!! The currency changes to US dollars, you can wear your shoes indoors, you can’t just smoke anywhere you like, and even the electrical power sockets on the walls are American, so you’ll need an adapter for your Korean iPhone charger. I found all this pretty cool. It’s quite a novelty to take a bus ride to America for the weekend!
What was very intimidating to me, though, was the fact that everyone around me was American. It’s weird – you’d think I’d be used to feeling like a foreigner, but for some reason it really threw me. I no longer even notice my foreignness when I’m the only non-Korean in a packed subway carriage… but sitting in the smoking area outside our friend’s apartment, surrounded by Americans, I felt extremely out of place. They were speaking English, yet I somehow felt even more different from them than I do from the Koreans. Maybe it’s because we should be more alike, yet there are actually a huge number of cultural and linguistic differences. The accents sound really strong and confident to me; the people seem cooler and more sure of themselves. They make jokes and references that go over my head, and use slang I don’t understand. They have a bond and background that I don’t share.
And of course, all that was on top of the fact that sightings of women on the base are fairly infrequent, so our group was already drawing a lot of attention! I definitely felt very conspicuous.
However, I kept my head down for a while, hid behind my friends, had a few drinks, and ended up having a great night. My foreignness turned out to be a good thing, as my accent was an instant talking-point. One of my friends said she overheard someone at one point telling his friend about the girl with the Irish accent in their midst. I felt sort of important! ;)
We went hooch hopping. Until this weekend, the only hooches I knew about were the alcopop drinks and the big dog from that Tom Hanks movie, but these hooches were bars. There are no ‘real’ pubs on the base, so they seem to have set up their own. Some of them are little more than garages with a bar and a pool table and a few patio chairs, while others are a lot more elaborate. There’s no set price for the drinks, either – in a couple of the hooches, they just asked for “a donation” for each drink. In another one, they took 10 dollars, gave us a stamp on the hand, and let us order as many drinks as we liked.
Our Air Force friend marched us in an increasingly merry band from one hooch to the next, until I eventually found myself sitting under a tree in the early hours of the morning with a group of uniformed guys, Jesus, and some sort of robot. Not my usual weekend… but it was definitely a nice change!