Why are you here?

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Why are you here?

They come in just about every shape, size and color. No, they're not the stars of "Sesame Street," they're Seoul's expats.

Some travel from Australia to paint while others fly from Dublin to manage Irish pubs or to do one of 100 other things. Many, however, are in their 20s or 30s and planning their next move before their plane even hits the tarmac at Incheon International. For all their differences, there are certain common types.

There are the American soldiers, big, buff and unavoidable in the bars of Itaewon. There are the English teachers, carrying fantastic visions of oriental adventures as they postpone the real world. Then there are the young professionals, getting their kicks in Asia before jetting back home.

These depictions are, of course, gross generalizations that lump thousands of foreigners into nice neat catergories and exclude thousands more. These groups, however, do outline three distinct lifestyles in Seoul and represent the common impressions, or wrongful impressions, that outsiders often have of these strangers running around in camouflage, business suits and flip flops.


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THE SOLDIER


Sergeant Brian Ellison lives in a comfortable flat in Hannam-dong, but unlike most Seoul apartment complexes, military police officers walk the grounds with loaded M-9s 24-hours a day.

Compared to the typical expat landing spot, Seoul is a completely different city for the soldiers stationed here. They wear fatigues instead of suits, do push-ups along with paperwork and have a 1 a.m. curfew on weekends.

The biggest difference in life behind Yongsan's barbed wires, however, is all of the American amenities. "I think it's different for us because we still have a part of America here," Sergeant Ellison, 28, explained as he bit into a french fry. "We're dependent on the Army and the Army takes care of us. We wouldn't ever have to leave the base if we didn't want to."

Or change currency. Only U.S. dollars are good on U.S. military posts, whether you're buying a few games at the bowling alley or a box of Stove Top stuffing. If it wasn't for the Navy Club's Korean waitresses, you might not even know Yongsan isn't in the States. Thick southern drawls and oversized Fubu jeans are just two items on a long list of familiarities that make the base a comfy American bubble in the heart of Korea's capital.

Seoul serves as more of a backdrop than a home for army personnel like Sgt. Ellison, who still eats more Cheetos than rice. Korea is considered an undesirable assignment because of the "high operations tempo" and vast cultural differences, so as a reward for coming here, many soldiers get to choose where they'll go next. In the meantime, there's often little desire to venture much further than Itaewon.

Like most soldiers, Seoul is just another stop for Sgt. Ellison. He left Fort Hood, Texas in November 2000 to come to Seoul and in January he will move again, this time to Germany. No matter where he goes, though, he'll always be buffered by pieces of America.


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THE TEACHER



Korea means at least one of three things for the average English teacher in Seoul -- mad cash, mad travel or mad adventure. And time usually brings a fourth element -- mad confusion.

"If you don't have a set plan of where you're going to go or what you're going to do [after you leave Korea], the vast majority of people come back," explained Angelique Saunders, 25. "I don't think that anyone knows how long they'll be here."

She's one of them. Ms. Saunders first came to Korea in September 1997 with three Canadian friends. After her first year, which she spent in Daegu, Ms. Saunders returned to Canada. Six months later, she came to Seoul. Now she's on her way home again, but she'll be back before the end of summer. Exactly what she'll be doing, however, is another issue.

"I think that a lot of us get stuck here because it's so good," she explained. "This is the place where you make money. We can go out, eat out whenever we want and still have a pocket full of money."

For some, that money goes towards student loans, for others, travel. A few disciplined souls save. The point though, is that there's a lot more money to go around here than there would be back home, especially when you start teaching private lessons at 35,000 won per hour.

But earning the money isn't always so easy. Many English teachers have a love-hate relationship with their job and with Korea itself. Most come right after college and few have been to Asia before. After fighting with elementary school children over articles and prepositions all afternoon, there isn't much patience left for cultural exploration, even for those with the best intentions.

But then there's the money. And the chance to backpack through Cambodia. And the uncertainty of what comes next. And then the chance to renew your contract. And one year in Korea turns into two or three or ...


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THE EXECUTIVE

Samir Mahdi faced a choice after college graduation; serve in the French military or work abroad for 16 months with a French company. His answer came easily; he boarded a plane to Seoul in November 2000.

Mr. Mahdi, now 25, passed up Milan and Madrid in favor of Korea's capital city, which offered the young banker a bit of excitement and an opportunity to explore exotic Asia while fulfilling his patriotic obligation.

In between trips to China and Bali, he does lunch with his Western clients, chats with his new Korean girlfriends (as in girls that are friends) in his Itaewon villa, and sips Italian wine in Apgujeong's posh bars. Then there are the parties.

"When you arrive, you're never alone because there's always a party," he said, Seoul looking over his shoulder through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Hyatt lobby.

He has not forgotten, however, why he came here or what lies ahead. He usually gets into the office around 10 a.m. and stays into the early evening, often after many of his Korean colleagues have left, taking care of business.

"We're sent for a purpose, we're working," he explained, sipping an espresso. "We don't have the same way of life in Korea as other expats."

Mr. Mahdi and the majority of his friends are only in Seoul for a few years, if not a few months. After Seoul, he'll head back to Paris before moving to London for two years to develop his finance background. The brevity of his stay in Seoul discouraged him from learning more than basic Korean or fully engaging with the culture, which he finds horribly inaccessible for anyone who can't speak the language. But that hasn't kept him from having fun among the lights, sounds and motions of Seoul.

"I think that Europe will not be as exciting as Korea," he said, his dark brown eyes shining. "For sure I will come back to Asia."

by Daniela SantaMaria

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