So it’s my last night here in Korea. I decided to leave Jeju and come to Incheon where, I once thought, the city’s Chinatown held new opportunities for some great market photographs or architecture. I was, I guess, hoping for some Chinese temples where I could snap a few shots of the animals cresting their eves or a dragon greeting me at the entrance. Maybe I was expecting lots of commotion as bustling streets flowed with people moving goods and foodstuffs around with a sense of navigation that westerners can only stand back and gawk at. Or perhaps I was hoping for some food that swelled with the heat that comes off it, food that you don’t have to crack open or cook yourself.
Alas, there was nothing. Or perhaps I should say, there was nothing worth taking photos of. Drab and somber, the entire area looked more like it was the outskirts of something much more interesting. Its grimy streets and heavy overcast gave it a feel of old timey poverty just before a dustbowl was set to come in and put to rest any fleeting images of holding on to the last few drumbeats of an economic heartbeat. It seemed like this was the place that was bashed with North Korean gunfire back in 2010. But even that place was not far from here. Only about 30 kilometers or so.
At any rate, I followed what I thought were Lonely Planet’s directions for a motel near the subway that I would take in the morning to get to the airport. But after walking way too far with all my gear, I finally just used my visual knowledge of reading Korean signage and found a motel across the street from a pizza joint and down the block from a subway entrance and called it a night. These two landmarks represented what my will had been ground down to; food and the quickest way to exit this country. I’m certainly not regretting my time here. It just seems like, now that the end is right around the corner, I may as well get it over with.
Anyway, apparently in my learning of Korean advertisements, I could read enough to know that the sign said “motel.” But clearly I hadn’t learned what the text for “love” was. When I checked in, I thought that it was odd that they owners didn’t give me a key to my room. They also kept asking me in Korean if it was going to be just me in the room. I kept saying that I, alone, was going to be sleeping and needed a key to protect my valuables. But they were simply not happy with my response.
Before I go on, I think it would be better if I explained just what a “love motel” and its purpose is. Now, normally one would simply think, ‘Oh, well it’s obviously a cathouse and there’s nothing more to think about it.’ But, like most other things here in Asia, it has a deeper meaning and purpose. And, make no mistake, its meaning and purpose follow lines to a source that hold no bearing on whether or not the western world would approve or even understand that logic.
A love motel can be rented by the night or by the hour. A man can get a room alone, wake up with a woman and never feel shame from the owners as he’s checking out. The owners of these establishments generally offer a woman to single men checking in and can suggest a man for the single ladies. A love motel is a place most often occupied by actual couples. But it can also be used as a discrete meeting place for strangers.
In America, it undoubtedly seems a little strange that a couple would check into a hotel for one night – or even a few hours. It might also come off as odd that the owners might have some say in the eventuality in the population of each room’s occupancy. It may also come as a huge shock that these motels have resident “lovers” who, from birth, have lived there to pay off their parent’s debt as sex slaves. But then again, there are many things that Americans will never understand about what goes on in this strange corner of the world.
As the tradition goes in most parts of Asia, it is expected that the children, once married, move into the house of the husband’s parents. It’s also expected that the wife becomes, for lack of a more polite description, a slave to the parents – fulfilling chores, errands and other demands. Keeping in good with a family that demands strict adherence to a very conservative lifestyle, then, becomes an everyday challenge. Sex, therefore, is a bit of an uncomfortable item which brings a lot of stress to the already difficult nature of a new marriage.
Love motels sprang up out of the resulting need for privacy in these new relationships in the turning of the world’s traditional ways. These motels were first used as places for dating couples to spend anything from a few days of relaxation to just a quick visit between their busy lives. From there, of course, the Asian culture of why-can’t-we-have-everything-we-want came into play and they started to gain popularity for other types of visits. And as for the lifetime resident lovers; well, that was a tradition long preceding the invention of the love motel.
For thousands of years the ideals of Buddhism played into the perpetual cycle of reincarnation and parents thought once their daughters were born when they were expecting a boy, it was their karma giving them the requirement of payment for their ills in previous lives. So giving up their daughters as payment for this karma was the right thing to do. Their daughters, in turn, were taught their life of sexual servitude was them paying off their karma as well – otherwise, why would they have been born as the payment of their parent’s karma?
It makes a lot more sense once you have been living in Asia for a while and can understand the mentality of all the intricacies of what goes along with the absolute and unquestioning belief in rebirth.
So there I was, being probed by the owners of this motel and the lady starts moving her hands through her hair. I had no idea what this meant until some time later. But once she was satisfied – though not very pleased – knowing that I would be staying one night, alone and not be in need of anything “else” from them, she came up with her price and charged me for the room.
Once checked in, I dug out some cash and went across the street to the pizza place for edible, non-seafood that I didn’t have to break the shells off of or barbecue myself. On the way, though, I kept wondering what the lady meant when she was combing her hands through her hair. And it eventually came to me. She was asking me if I wanted a woman for the night. Then all the other mannerisms came into understanding as well.
The couple were upset that I didn’t want a woman because they could charge me more for the room. They were displeased that I would only make them money on the room when, ultimately, this was not the kind of place where they only charge for the room. This also explained the delay in coming up with a price for the room – essentially an overcharge. And they didn’t give me a key because they wanted me to ask them for the key every time I wanted to enter the room because they didn’t want me hiring a woman from the street or from the little paper advertisements I would see taped up to the underside of steps throughout the alleyways all over the city. That was the competition. And for these elderly, Asian pimps, that’s just not the kind of place they run.
Since having been back in Taiwan, I have done more research into this and have talked to natives who indicate the benefit of short-term motels is much greater than having to put up with the prying eyes and ears of older, more traditional parents who would just as soon have their daughter-in-laws doing back-breaking work than to spend their nights corrupting their respectable son’s sensibilities. They also confirmed that the majority of the love motel’s use was limited to these situations rather than for the sex-shops they’d more easily become reputed as being.
Nevertheless, my last night in Korea did little more to put me at ease but ultimately summed up all my experiences in that amazing country. No matter where you go in Korea, you’re sure to find yourself in one inextricably unique situation after another as you navigate the intricate web of peculiarities of everything from traditional Hanok Villages kept in the old ways complete with dances to entice the soil’s richness, to parks dedicated to phallic splendor.
Stay tuned for my last blog on my Korea trip and a toast for things to come.