I made this announcement to an apartment full of my friends last night as we were sipping sake out of tiny metal cups, taking advantage of the end of term lull to get a little drunk on a week night. Amidst laughs, an astonished friend thinking I had a secret Korean boyfriend that I was truly in love with, and a giggly whisper from my Korean co-teacher “You should talk to them first,” I told them about my afternoon ride to Myeong-dong.
On the Seoul Metro system, there are some simple but strict rules of etiquette: you should not talk on the subway, avoid eye contact (preferably by looking at the ground as opposed to fellow passengers) don’t blow your nose, and give up your seat to the elderly, handicapped, pregnant, etc.
Tuesday afternoon, I was reading a particularly hilarious passage in a book and let out a healthy and joyous laugh on the subway. I was immediately shushed by an ajumma and glared at by those in my immediate vicinity with the exception of one rebellious young man who made eye contact with me and SMILED. I smiled back and busily went back to reading, sheepishly glancing at his gray Converse sneakers and occasionally, bravely, his perfect cheekbones while wondering if he spoke any English and should I go sit next to him if that seat opened up…..
Although we never exchanged Anyeonghaseyos despite both getting off at the same transfer point, it’s exactly these stranger-to-stranger moments that make me love riding the subway. When we’re trapped behind a steering wheel, there’s hardly the opportunity to become absorbed in your reading or mesmerized by the glitter of the high rises reflecting back at you from the Han River or the smile of someone whose voice you’ve never heard.
Just two days before I was listening to Kesha while sitting between an ajashi and a monk playing with the camera mode on his cell phone. Several months ago, a Buddhist nun struck up a conversation with me about how she was earning her PhD in Western Philosophy then we each took an earbud and listened to music together before she got off at the Donggik University station. I met a Korean-American from my home state of Virginia when he inquired about open container laws after spotting my devilish friends and I drinking beers on the orange line, an older man who described himself as a “lifelong country music fan” that was envious I’d been to Nashville, and counseled an ex-pat who had just broken up with his partner to travel, amongst other characters.
Occasionally though, the subway etiquette fairy does not reward my constant breaches of her social contract and gives me a situation like I experienced post-camera phone toting monk. I was headed back from Itaewon’s What the Book store, a bagful of books on the Korean war, Indian travelogues, and a language book called Survival Korean, when a man came running on to the car just as the orange warning lights were flashing that the doors were closing…. he slammed straight into a tight crowd of standing subway riders, knocked one of them into the opposite door and when I dared to laugh at the debacle, around two dozen Koreans simultaneously turned to stare angrily at me like I’m the asshole.