As the train approaches, I ready myself for the morning pushing/shoving/elbowing ritual that makes Seoul’s lively subway system all the more vibrant. I am never without a newspaper. You see, I don’t actually read most of it, because it’s rubbish. Rather, it affords me with a light weight, easy to carry barrier which I can erect at a moment’s notice to provide a little private space between me and the other working stiffs who occupy the crowded morning train car. Though most of my fellow denizens put a strong and admirable emphasis on personal hygiene, one will from time to time, encounter males of a certain age whom place more emphasis on guzzling booze and stuffing themselves with garlic and fermented vegetables than they do on say, the taking of showers or the brushing of teeth.
It is upon chance encounters with these hygienically questionable individuals, that the newspaper barrier comes in most handy. The doors open, and as usual, no one gets out. Everyone is headed towards the center of Seoul, so the crowds in the train cars only get denser as we get closer to the center of the city. Really, if I’m being honest, the whole routine reminds me of prisoners taking a bus to prison. I’m about 12 stops from the center of Seoul, which means that when I board the train, it is usually not very crowded. Of course, all of the seats have long been scooped up by Seoul’s elderly, who ride for free, and occupy most of the seating -without ever getting off the train. I used to think that it was an urban legend; that old Korean people would literally ride the train in circles all day long, perhaps to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. This urban legend was recently confirmed by a trusted Korean acquaintance who told me “No, they really do ride the subway in circles all day. They do this because most of them have no income, and are living with their grown children. They don’t want to be a burden, or seem lazy, so they leave the house each morning, board the subway train, and ride it in circles all day long before going back home in the evenings. They don’t want to trouble their children by being in the house all day.”
It sounds like the Korean government could rid the subways of elderly, circle-riding freeloaders by simply providing warm community centers where they could exercise, watch TV or sit around at their leisure. Of course they’re too busy handing out subsidies to Korea’s criminally reckless taxi drivers, and providing free school lunches to spoiled school kids to give a shit about the elderly, aren’t they?
When the doors close and the train departs my station, I do my usual scan of the subway car. I never actually recognize any of the faces and for all I know, I could have been riding in the same subway car with the same people day in and day out without ever noticing or recognizing a single familiar face. In fact, maybe that’s all it ever is. Maybe the exact same people get on the exact same car every single morning, and none of us actually notice this fact or recognize one another. We’re all oblivious to it. Were too busy looking for the best place to stand, or pretending to check emails on our phones. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe everyone else is acutely aware of their surroundings. Maybe it’s “Oh, it’s looks like the foreigner got a new pair of gloves today, I wonder what happened to his old gloves?” Maybe they do watch and observe.
I don’t usually sit when I ride the train, because I like to have my own personal space, and I like having the freedom to move quickly if need be. Furthermore, I don’t like dealing with old people, who invariably, as the train gets more crowded, will start haggling younger passengers to give up their seats. Most Koreans avoid being haggled by old people simply by closing their eyes. If I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Others glue their eyes to their smartphones, and put on earphones, whether or not they are actually listening to anything. This also tends to discourage would-be seat hagglers. It’s those who aren’t doing or looking at anything who are the most vulnerable to seat haggling by the elderly.
The one benefit to having a seat is that you don’t get smashed when the doors open and close during the morning commute. Sometimes the train cars are packed so tight that people actually have to get out of the train in order to let other people out, and then they all pile back in. This means that you effectively get shoved around during both the exit and the entrance process. Those sitting simply close their eyes and block it all out, counting down the stops to their final destination.
Lately, I’ve made a habit of rooting out potential seat-leavers on the subway. While there’s never a seat available when the train arrives at my station, I’ve become intensely aware of the body language and eye movements displayed by people who are about to get off at the next station, thereby giving up their seats. If you can identify such individuals quickly, you can move towards them and stand in front of them in order to snatch their seat as soon as they stand. The problem with this is that members of Seoul’s Elderly Subway Seat Syndicate have also finely tuned into this secret library of body language and signals, and you’ll find yourself competing with them (fiercely in many cases) to jockey for a spot in front of a potential seat-leaver.
Now, if you can learn to memorize the faces of the people who share the morning train with you, you can make an effort to memorize where they get off. If they get off before you do, you can stand in front of them and snatch their seat as soon as they stand up to leave the train at their stop. If you are not good at memorizing faces, you can try to memorize school uniforms, company pins, or even hand bags of people who get off at various stations before your final destination.
If you pay attention closely, you’ll notice that people who fold up their newspapers are usually about to get off. If you further observe, you’ll notice that as soon as someone does this, an elderly Korean person usually sprints over to where they are seated so that they can grab the seat. They’ve picked up on this subtle “I’m-leaving-my-seat-now” piece of body language. Other warning signs of a potential seat-leaver include clearing one’s throat, or putting away one’s smart phone. As a general rule of thumb, someone reading a newspaper is more likely to exit sooner than someone reading a thick Harry Potter book or university text book. People tend to look up, at their wristwatches, or out the window right before they give up their seat to exit. They may also fix their hair, brush off their pants or skirt, or straighten their neckties before standing up to exit. The key is to wedge yourself off to one side of the potential seat-leaver so that they can only go in one direction after standing, while at the same time using your body as a shield against other potential seat-snatchers. This block-and-slide maneuver works every time.
By observing these subtle tells, I’ve been slowly and subversively defeating Seoul’s elderly subway seat snatchers at their own game. Fuck you, I paid for my ticket and I’m going to sit. As the train approaches my stop, and just to fuck with people, I give no hint whatsoever that I’m about to stand up and leave my seat. I keep my eyes closed and pretend to sleep right up until the train stops. Then I quickly get up and push through the door, causing a kind of subway seat-snatcher power vacuum and sometimes all out melee among those jockeying for my seat.
If there’s anything you need to know about Seoul’s elderly subway seat snatchers, it’s that they are vicious, brutal motherfuckers with only one single, solitary life-end goal. They’ll push you, shove you, punch you in the face, elbow you in the rib cage, or even try to trip you in order to snatch a seat. I’ve seen them head-butt and chest-bump each other over a seat until someone finally calls security. I’ve seen an ajumma throw her handbag three meters through the air and onto a seat in an attempt to claim it. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen an old person run or sprint in Korea, is when they are trying to snatch a seat on the subway. You will literally observe them at the peak of their physical activity during this time. You could steal their wallets and they wouldn’t run nearly as fast as they do when they are pushing/shoving/fighting for a seat on the fucking subway.
I arrive at work feeling a lot more refreshed having sat down for the entire journey. I started working part time as an editor at a publishing company two months ago. It was more of an impulsive decision than anything. Too much time at home, combined with a dip in business revenue had me searching for a way to both spend my time and earn some extra money. If the first two months of work are any sign, I’ll probably end up regretting it. Or, I’ll learning publishing from the inside out, and then open a competing company next door to the one I already work at. Who knows.