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.