[Seoul Survival Series] Burst that bubble!

This eerily, empty bus is a rarity in Seoul.

This eerily, empty bus is a rarity in Seoul.

I was so happy to have a seat for my 30 minute subway journey that I didn’t mind the lady’s purse resting on my leg or the man’s elbow digging into my arm while he played anipang on his phone. For a time, I didn’t even notice. As if I had been desensitized to the concept of personal space. Seoul will do that to you.

Growing up in Minnesota, many people are very conscious of their personal space and others tend to respect it by not invading it. One of the best examples is riding on public transit. I remember riding the light rail from downtown after Vikings football games. The stop is just outside the stadium and so people crowd the tracks like hungry animals to a food trough. When that train comes, people don’t really rush on instead they casually gather inside and grab a seat at lesiure. Then, when all the seats are taken, people only crowd in the large, open spaces of the train car. They don’t line the aisles or try to squish together. I remember being in what I thought was one of the most packed trains I would ever see after one of those games, but I would have had enough room to rehearse my mime routine. If I were a mime.

Let’s compare that to Seoul. First of all, it doesn’t take a special event or gathering to be a part of a large herd of people on a train. It might happen at 3pm on a Tuesday. It doesn’t take long before you have an ajumma push you or elbow you to get past when you are taking more than 2 seconds to start shoving on the train. Then there is the first time you get to enjoy a rush hour subway ride with a dozen of your newly closest friends like you all are sardines in a can. I remember standing there with someone’s ass in my front like we were grinding at a club thinking they should have bought me dinner first.

A lot of ex-pats get upset at this. They don’t understand how everyone can be so pushy, so impatient and seemingly so disrespectful of each others personal bubble. I’ll admit that for me too, it was a little overwhelming at first. Intimidating even. I came to an understanding early on, that this is just how things are done here. Just like you get kimchi with every meal (seriously, I’m surprised that Korean McDonalds doesn’t have kimchi on the menu). Just like you are encouraged to hug and kiss your students. Just like I have to stop whatever work I’m doing to stand up and bow when the president of the company walks by in the office. I may not fully understand it; but I respect the culture enough to play along.

It’s also possible to learn the patterns, apply some logic and avoid as much of the chaos as possible. For example, I know that when I get on the bus in the morning I want a seat on the right side in the aisle to make it easier to get past the hundreds of people that will cram onto the bus at the next stop. Then, when I get on the train, should stay close to the doors I got on because all the stops until mine open on the other side and by hanging back I avoid the rush to the exit. Much like a rubix cube, it seems impossible to solve, but people have been solving it for years before you.

Now, I push with the best of them. We aren’t doing it to be rude. We don’t mean for you to fall over onto the person’s lap in front of you. We just wanna get on this train because there are no more trains on the board and we’re already late for work.


4 thoughts on “[Seoul Survival Series] Burst that bubble!

    • haha, sorry to hear that Christine. I think it’s certainly possible to have a perfectly acceptable negative reaction to the situation although I think some have an overly negative reaction which is actually what inspired this post. Check out Shawna’s comments below, I think you’ll find them as fascinating as I did.


  1. When I first visited Seoul in 2009, my friend Zach warned us that we needed to be prepared for how crowded it would get, especially on the subway, and how people may push and shove. The three of us visiting, at the end of the visit, said, “Really, that’s not so bad.”

    But that is because China is so much crazier. It’s more like a mosh pit, whether you are on a bus, walking somewhere near shopping malls, or trying to get to the front of a so-called line (no one waits in line, they all push to get to the front…). Google “crowded buses in China” and it will be amusing. I’ve seen buses not be able to close the doors because people are so crammed in, the door won’t shut. I’ve heard about what it’s like to be on a subway in Tokyo where people have to be shoved in by staff with sticks so those doors will shut. It’s like that but everywhere in Chinese cities, basically. Sardines in a can, totally like you describe, and then you push to get off when it’s your turn. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck riding public transportation.

    Also, the lack of personal space is quite similar. I’ve heard foreigner teachers in Korea talk about students basically standing right in their faces to talk to them. China is the same way, too. I got used to being bumped into in China since there were people everywhere. But even when there weren’t, like on campus, I once saw a Chinese couple go out of their way to come over and bump into a group of us expats who were standing off to the side of one of the entry points to the campus. We weren’t even in the middle of the pathway.

    Personal space, distance, aka what we call in the field of intercultural studies, proxemics, is certainly fascinating. Back in the US we do have our personal bubbles but some people are “close talkers” and don’t seem to understand the cultural boundaries we have there. Those who do that are joked about. But we think it’s weird and don’t really understand that no personal space is normal in some places. Here in Thailand (at least in CM…BKK may be different) there is more personal space, which is refreshing. I like not getting bumped into or rubbed up against, etc. If it happened though, I wouldn’t be phased anymore. I think that’s partially why I think China makes a good “boot camp” before moving elsewhere in Asia. I think all of the stuff that would bother me here in CM just doesn’t because in China, it’s far, far, far “worse” when you compare it.


    • First of all Shawna, thank you! You always offer such a refreshing perspective to my posts. Your comments are always thoughtful and articulated responses. I appreciate it so much, so again I say- thank you! 🙂

      So interesting about China. It sounds familiar during rush hour in Seoul. I’m glad it’s not quite as bad as Japan. I like the idea of it being a boot camp. It builds character. Metaphorically speaking, it helps you learn to fight for your place. Make sure that you practice being a little pushy to get where you want to go. It can apply in one’s professional life as well as on their commute to work.


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