Members of Seoul’s working class wore faces of iron-clad determination while trying to negotiate for themselves a tiny standing space on this morning’s subway commute. Many Seoulites, being avid thrill-seekers, choose to commute by car even when the streets are covered with fresh snow as they were today. Of course, those with a firm grip on reality wouldn’t go anywhere near a Korean road with even the slightest bit of ice on it, as the regular lack of common sense displayed on Korean roads is amplified several fold once it snows.
One of the keys to surviving in Korea long term without going completely native or bonkers is to recognize that everything around you is either comedy or tragedy. Don’t take anything seriously, but rather, spend your time pondering which of the above two aforementioned categories each of your observations falls under. Riding the subway is both comedy and tragedy, depending on how you look at it. Watching as two groups of people clash while trying to enter/exit the subway at the same time is a human comedy. It’s a kind of predictable entertainment that one can count on. One could also look at it as a form of tragedy, like those who repeat the same action again and again, expecting different outcomes each time. Societies around the world differ in their need for stringent rules/laws, and I tend to think that the Koreans operated under oppressive regimes for such a long time, that naturally they scoff at the idea of rules being imposed on them today.
Some societies, in situations where rules are lacking, will impose social protocols upon themselves, and will enforce these protocols among fellow members of society. For example, nobody forces American school children to line up at drinking fountains and wait their turn. They are told that this is what people do in a polite, democratic society. They will enforce the line-up rule even when teachers are not around. Those who break the line-up rule may be ostracized or criticized by classmates. There is somewhat of a stigma attached to disregarding society’s behavioral norms. Americans, being the crass, overbearing individuals they are, will more than happily tell a total stranger “Hey, why don’t you wait in line like everyone else?” This right to equality and the democratic way is somehow encoded into their genetic databanks from an early age.
Then observe the Japanese, whom also have a strict and regimented manner of dealing with all social situations, however with somewhat of a Confucian twist. The Japanese are arguably the most regimented people on the face of the planet. They line up for the train single file, every time. No exceptions. They line up for the ATM single file, every time. No exceptions. They go out of their way not to offend or inconvenience those around them. However, if a person decided to cut to the front of the line and stand directly in front of the doors as people attempted to exit the train, not a single person would say anything to the offender. Instead, it is more of a silent stare, and perhaps a projected feeling of shame for having disrupted the peace of an otherwise well organized social interaction. The Japanese would probably view a subway queue hopper as someone with a mental problem, or someone who is socially retarded –both types of individuals to be avoided at all costs. Japan is a shame based culture, and those who disrupt the peace are viewed as having brought shame upon themselves.
Enter the Koreans, newly democratic, somewhat Confucian in their ways. Korea is also a shame-based society; however significant numbers of the populace have developed a mechanism whereby they do not experience shame outside the confines of their plastic box soviet style apartments. Inject a recent struggle from poverty, and a healthy dose of Christianity into the mix, and you have a place like none other in the world. Use the subway as your setting for social observation, and you have a mix of all socioeconomic groups mashed together. Add to this the fact that no basic, firm subway usage protocol exists or is enforced, and you have a kind of free-for-all clusterfuck of people trying to enter and exit the train car at the same time. You have members of the 21st century, modern in appearance and behavior, standing off to the sides of the subway doors in single file lines, doing their best to ignore members of the peasant/uneducated class who rush to the front and try to jamb their way through the door as people are exiting.
Further perplexing are the people who insist on both taking and making phone calls on the train, but whom instead of talking, actually shout and yell into their phones. I personally find it hilarious, while most tourists and expats find it thoughtless and vulgar. I think it’s comedic that someone would enter the confines of a small public place, like a subway car, and then carry on a telephone conversation at 120 decibels. To the outsider, these calls sound angry in nature, but in most cases the offender is going over a shopping list, or confirming an appointment at 120 decibels to the benefit, amusement or annoyance of everyone around them. One could find further entertainment in pondering whether these people shout because they are going deaf, or are going deaf because they shout as a primary means of communication. Could you imagine living in a home where the primary form of communication is shouting? It would be like living inside of a Korean drama, 24/7.
The problem with having good manners is that you either have them, or you don’t. You were either raised to be civil, or you weren’t. As an adult, it’s nearly impossible to learn or un-learn the things that most acquire in youth. Good manners are not like money; while you can potentially (and many have) walk directly out of the rice field and into a Mercedes Benz, manners are not so easily obtained. People raised with good manners operate as such without even thinking about it. Thus, one could speculate that those raised to be uncivil also act accordingly without ever thinking about it. Applying a single moral standard over a population that is so morally diverse is nearly impossible. Of course the only exception to this rule is that if you are a foreigner residing in Korea, you can expect that the highest moral standard will be applied to you at all times. If it’s you, the foreigner, talking on the phone in the train, chatting loudly with friends, or hopping the queue, someone will probably say something. This is perhaps the only universally applied rule.
For example, a 21 year old Korean woman was recently harassed by three American soldiers on the subway. What brought it on? She decided they were being too loud, and took it upon herself to walk over to them and tell them to be quiet. For long term Korea residents, the idea of a single female university student walking up to a group of older men on the train, and telling them to be quiet is akin to spotting a UFO or unicorn, or something. It’s almost unthinkable. But for western people living in Korea, you aren’t really part of society, and thus Koreans feel no shame in publicly trying to ‘correct’ your behavior regardless of your age, size or gender. Seldom do they consider the possible repercussions of walking up to a group of wannabe gangbangers, and telling them to be quiet. In this case, the repercussions included verbal and sexual harassment.
One has to ask, if it were a group of heavily tattooed Korean men being noisy on the train, would she have done the same? If it were a group of drunken businessmen in their 50’s, would she have done the same? Or would she, like many, have simply walked to another train car? She then tried to block them from exiting the subway car, and was consequently pushed out of the way. Some Korean men tried to detain the soldiers until police arrived. Would they have tried to detain a group of drunken Korean businessmen for the same offense? If a foreign person walked up to a noisy Korean on the train, and told them to be quiet, and was subsequently assaulted, would other train passengers go out of their way to detain the suspect? Highly unlikely, but thus is life under the highest of moral standards, selectively applied, only when beneficial to oneself.