Thursday morning I arrived at Jamsil station just as the train doors were about to close. I knew that I probably couldn’t make this train, so I began walking down the platform towards the front where I imagine it is less crowded on the next train that will come flying down the line for me. But the doors still haven’t closed and I am walking past a set when I see a big huge space. It calls out to me, “Danielle! Look, there’s room for you! No squeezing or pushing required.” And I lightheartedly jump into the train and say, “Thanks, space.”
The first three stops went rather well— no one mistook me for a wall to lean against or the girl who couldn’t dream of anything more grand than to be pressed against them for the duration of her journey. It was kind of tough when people wanted to get off the train, but I rotated sideways and sucked in the belly to let them past and it seemed to work. But between Sports Center and Samseong, the train began to slow down and came to a dead stop in the tunnel. I could see my reflection in the glass of the doors. It appeared as though I had been born with not one, but two sets of ridiculously bushy and unkempt eyebrows. There was an announcement over the loudspeaker that was gibberish to me. Thoughts of being trapped in the tunnels and all the horror stories I had heard about masses of people dying in the subway darted through my mind. I felt my spine tingle and my muscles twitch. But all the Koreans behind me seemed unalarmed from their reflections in the door. So I remained calm and dismissed all ideas of imminent danger. We waited a few minutes. There was another announcement I couldn’t understand. (Dang, I’ve got to learn Korean, and how!) At this point everyone got out their cell phones and began to text furiously. So, following suit, I sent my colleague a message that said I could possibly be late because I was sitting still in a tunnel with at least four more stops to go.
Little did I know that while I was in the tunnel waiting and growing ever more impatient, the platform at Samseong was rapidly filling up with people also waiting and growing ever more impatient. At 6 of the stops on my second train, the doors open on the right. At Samseong the doors open on the left. I was thankful for this because it meant I wouldn’t have to move in order to let others on. My nice space that had seemed so inviting was closing in around me. Finally the train starts up again and we jet towards the station. I am standing in my space, minding my own business, thinking how lucky I am to have hopped on this particular train, even if it was delayed a bit. And WHAM! I am making out with the door. All those impatient people on the platform have vowed that they are getting on this particular train no matter what. And they have shoved, elbowed, and shouldered their way through those doors and into this car, causing the people behind me to push me flat against the doors. The man behind me has his arm over my shoulder and pressed against the side of my face so that he can reach the door in order to hold himself up. A woman’s shoulder is making very good friends with my ribs. Someone is standing on half of my left foot and I can’t turn my head because I am busy cleaning the door with the sweat and oil from my face.
At the next stop, all the people who shoved into the car from the left side at Samseong wish to get out on the right side. So as the doors open, I am thrust out of the train onto the platform as the car spills its guts. The crowd propels me to one side and on top of a Korean girl waiting to get on the train. She pushes me off her, saying something I cannot understand, but she communicates her indignation despite the language barrier. I am driven back onto the train by the mass behind me and jostled so much that I say, “Oh my God!” and everyone in the train turns and stares at me. I have broken Metro Golden Rule #1: You must not speak unless absolutely necessary, and certainly not into thin air, your comments directed at no one in particular. For two more stops I look at my feet and seethe.
I have no recourse. I cannot change an entire nation’s thinking on Metro etiquette. At the same time, I cannot bring myself to fall into line and follow this unspoken Underground Code. I can make a habit of taking my shoes off before I enter buildings; I can learn to enjoy kimchi and wield chopsticks; I can try to sit on the floor at restaurants, ignoring the fact that my right hip always hurts and ends up causing my foot to tingle and then go numb; I can remember to always find the eldest person in the house and bow and say hello to them first; I can even begin to learn the language and have hopes of mastering it somewhat someday. But I cannot assimilate in the case of Seoul Metro behavior. In this way, I will always be a foreigner, no matter how hard I close my eyes and wish I was Korean.