Prior to coming to Korea, I had only used public transportation on rare occasions, and then only for their novelty (bear in mind that I grew up in a state that doesn’t even have one subway line). In Seoul, however, public transportation was an integral part of my daily life. I had no car, and while taxis are rather inexpensive in the city it’s prudent to exercise a bit of financial caution when one can.
Every subway system has its fair share of crazy people, but what makes Seoul’s crazy commuters unique is that many of them sell things. You know that you’re about to witness a hustle when you hear an obnoxious, generically Asian song emanating from a clearly outdated boom box. A man in a brightly colored suit will then set up camp in the middle of the car, bow to his fellow passengers, and tell them about the great new CD/Cell Phone/MP3 player they can purchase, without the inconvenience of having to search for it in stores. People will then proceed to actually purchase these items.
My favorite crazy Korean subway passengers, however, are by far the angry “halmoni (할머니),” or grandmother, and “ajumma (아줌마),” or middle aged lady. Because of the Confucian history of Korea these individuals are necessarily recorded a great deal of respect, whether willingly or begrudgingly. Usually this privilege is understood to include a duty to treat those younger than oneself well, but occasionally it is abused. An ajumma, I have heard it said, has four elbows (including their shoulder blades) that they employ while making room for themselves.
In many ways it seems that the time period between tending rice paddies and paying cab drivers has been too short. Many Korean quirks can, in my opinion, be attributed to treatment of one’s surroundings as one’s home and one’s countrymen as neighbors. Often times this results in a great deal of kindness towards strangers (foreigners included), but perhaps just as often it results in a tendency to push one’s weight around the way one might do with a child or younger sibling
While en route to meet a friend one afternoon, I had the misfortune to sit next to a particularly ornery “halmoni.” She was yelling loudly at the people around her, but not at anyone in particular. Trying to listen to my Ipod, my trustworthy and loyal friend throughout my first year in Korea, I was perturbed. I was not sufficiently perturbed, however, to do anything other than roll my eyes. Eventually a pretty girl of about twenty, unaware of the maelstrom into which she was entering, came and stood in front of her. The halmoni, apparently unafraid of a personal injury lawsuit, kicked her! She actually swung her stubby little leg out and kicked her. The girl walked away, and still nobody said anything.
As a foreigner I am able to somewhat circumvent the rules regarding respect for one’s elders, though I rarely exercise that ability. A friend of mine ten years my senior, for example, allows me to address her more informally than she allows her boyfriend. Sometimes when I address older Koreans informally they assume that it is because I have simply made an error, Korean not being my mother tongue. Most often this is the case, but occasionally it is on purpose. In some ways I consider this free reign to be a responsibility. And so when the halmoni kicked the young girl and continued her verbal torrent I turned to her and said, in her language, “Halmoni, shut up (할머니, 정말 시끄럽네요).” She did, if only out of pure shock. The rest of the car seemed to have trouble holding in their laughter, and in an attempt to save face she gave her seat to someone standing, stating that she didn’t want to sit next to me. Nor I you, ma’am.
Korea is a country where bad behavior is acceptable, regardless of age, as long as it is the product of alcohol. Perhaps living in a university district my view is a bit skewed, but I think that is reasonable to claim that Koreans drink a fair amount. And although I have on occasion seen wives look on with exhaustion as their husbands play yet another drinking game, the general consensus seems to be that drinking is just another (occasionally humorous, occasionally less-than-humorous) part of life.
The drunken ajosshi (아저씨, middle-aged man) on the subway is certainly a comical character, although one more comical in retrospect than in the present. The distance of time is necessary to forget the rotten smell of soju on their breath. Occasionally the distance of time is also necessary to forget the rotten smell that has obviously resulted from their failure to bathe with soap and shampoo.
To pass the time and avoid staring at people on the subway, I would often bring along note cards with Korean words and their English definitions. Admittedly, I would on occasion try to position my note cards such that a pretty girl might see them and be impressed that a foreigner was trying to learn her language. Once, while coming back from Gangnam, the main entertainment district of the city, I noticed a cute girl staring intently at my note cards. I turned and said to her, “Do you have to learn English too, miss? (아가씨는 영어 공부를 좀 하는 것 같네요)” Caught, she laughed and struck up a conversation.
Unfortunately, I had also attracted the attention of a drunk ajosshi. While I was
flattered that he thought so highly of my physical appearance (“handsome boy!”), I could have done without his insistence on rubbing my face to prove this point. All the soap in the world could not convince me that I was going to be properly rid of his smell at any point in the near future.
Thankfully the ajosshi did not know any English. Usually when they have a fledgling knowledge of the language (anything past the ability to say “hello” is considered sufficient), they will say something to the effect of “U.S.A.? Okay!” I just nod and smile, knowing that they are just trying to extend a warm greeting to a foreigner, an act not to be taken for granted while living abroad.
On occasion, however, it can be obnoxious when someone insists on having an English conversation. They might want you to be their English teacher, or they might just want to show off their hard-won English speaking abilities in front of the hoi polloi. My usual response is to say that I am from Spain (this approach can backfire, I might add. I know of one individual who used to tell people on the subway that he spoke Russian, until one day the individual who approached him turned out to be fluent in that language).
I’ve also encountered a great deal of kindness on the subway. As in any country, the proper thing to do when sitting and an elderly lady is in the vicinity, is to offer her one’s seat. In Korea, however, it is common courtesy for those women to then offer to hold one’s bag for the duration of their ride. It’s not always helpful; most of the time I don’t carry around a heavy bag, and if it is truly heavy I don’t want to burden the lady with its weight. But it is a nice gesture, and one that leaves me with a pleasant feeling.
The subway is a place of extremes. Some evenings, when it was particularly crowded and noisy, I would look around and see nothing but faces to hate and a culture to despise. It is easy to pin frustrations on the people around oneself, and when living in Seoul, that includes some fifteen million individuals, about half of who seem to be riding the subway at any given time. Thankfully there was Sindorim, the station at which everyone on line number two exited. Late at night I would almost invariably have the car to myself and three or four other individuals for the remaining few stops. Riding over the Han River at night, with the lights of the city ablaze and the dark water still and quiet, it was difficult to be but so angry at that old bitch.