If I were to ask you: Which city is bigger? Mexico City; Mexico, Tokyo; Japan, or Seoul; South Korea? What would you say? Before you answer, you might want me to clarify. Does ‘biggest’ mean in terms of population? By land area? Or both?
Let’s look at the numbers:
Mexico City, Mexico
Area: 1,485 km2 (573.4 sq mi)
Population: 8,851,080 (2010)
Area: 2,187.08 km2 (844.4 sq mi)
Population: 13,010,279 (April 1, 2,010)
Seoul, Sorth Korea
Area: 605.25 km2 (233.7 sq mi)
Population: 10,464,051 (2010)
As you can see, Mexico City gets beaten out by Tokyo and Seoul for both population and land area. Tokyo has 3 million more people than Seoul, but those people have much more space. Seoul has a population over 10 million people (25 if you count the entire metropolitan area). All those people live in a land area about one-fifth the size of the state of Rhode Island. Yep, that’s where I live.
Everyone packs into cramped spaces all day. Rich families of 5 live in apartments (not houses, who has space for a house here?!?). Their apartments are the same size as my two bedroom I had back home. If you have less money, then your clan lives in a tiny one-bedroom or even studio.
If you think Black Friday crowds at Best Buy are maddening, that’s just your typical Sunday at e-mart (minus the tents lined up outside and pepper spray wielding idiots). SIDENOTE: Good Lord, please NEVER put cans of pepper spray into the hands of ajummas!!!
At first, my naïveté told me that the Koreans must have a strong sense of community, a wonderful understanding and respect for each other that allows them to share such a small space. I found it endearing and resourceful that they tried to create the smallest footprint possible. It was kinda cool how much they were able to cram into tiny spaces, like real world Tetris. But once the honeymoon phase was over, I discovered that’s all bullsh*t. The culture is rushed, everyone is in a hurry; everyone is in everybody else’s way; and ‘survival of the fittest’ is the name of the game.
Sticking with the evolution metaphor, I have come to realize there are three phases (all that start with the letter ‘P’ because I love alliteration) that one goes through when transplanting in Seoul: Patience, Persistence, and Pushing.
- Phase one: Patience When I first arrived, I was like this. I always wondered why all the pushing and shoving? Why are people in such a hurry? I took my time, let everyone pass and just spent my time waiting checking out my new surroundings. I enjoyed being the calm among the chaos. But then, I missed trains or couldn’t get off at my stop because I just got lost in the shuffle. Or I just needed to be somewhere and couldn’t get there without moving to phase two.
- Phase two: Persistence In this phase, I learned to stand my ground and not let others push me out of the way. It was the only thing I could do to make sure I didn’t have to wait for the next train, the next elevator or the next taxi. Koreans will cut you off at the pass if you let them. They don’t seem to have either the awareness or the ability to wait for you. With this many people, it’s more than likely a survival mentality. By being persistent you won’t lose your place as often but you might still get cut off, especially the more you come into contact with the ajummas (Korean grandmas). They are some of the most self-righteous people in the world and they don’t care what you think- they are getting where they are going and if you are in their way they will gladly move you aside. When in Rome. . . phase three.
- Phase three: Pushing Take a cue from the ajummas- throw dem ‘bows! Ajummas, are revered for their ability to get where they need to go. They have lived here all their life and have mastered the art of doing whatever it takes to make it through a crowded area. It’s a bit strange at first but there are times it really seems necessary. My boyfriend walks to school everyday, so he is not as well versed at the workings of the commuter trains in the morning. So, I couldn’t help but laugh when he told me a story after a job interview that required him to take a commuter train and how he felt like a baby being ripped from the womb. The train was jammed full of people and since no one was exiting the train at his stop he was stuck in the crowded group. He tried to move, but there wasn’t even enough room for him to signal to someone that he needed to get off. Just before the doors closed he yelled “Yeogiyo!!!!!” (excuse me, sort of) in Korean and an attendant on the platform yanked him out of the train. I told him next time he’s gotta just push. I have multiple battle scars from my days on the train (I have been a commuter for about 6 months now) and the only way to get on or off at times is to push.
Some folks (myself included) will go through a phase between persistence and pushing that I call Politeness. In this phase, you attempt to learn how to properly say ‘excuse me’ in Korean. This phase doesn’t last long (at least not in a busy place like Seoul) as you soon realize you could as well be speaking Swahili and these people wouldn’t get out of your way. So, “Push, or be pushed!”