Comedy, Tragedy and Subway Etiquette

expat2Members 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.

This entry was posted in Acting a Fool in Public Places, Getting Thrown Under the 니가 Bus, Korean News Stories, Korean Subway Brawls, Subway Brawls, The Expat. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Comedy, Tragedy and Subway Etiquette

  1. Slightly Logical says:

    If she did have the balls to act that way towards her fellow country men and was subsequently assaulted (physically, sexually etc), the police would laugh her complaints straight out of the station while scolding her and lecturing her on her ‘position’ as an ‘agashi’ in the Great 대한민국 society.

    If said country men were detained, a simple ‘I was drunk’ plea would have been more than sufficient for their release… closed.

  2. B8b8q8 says:

    I’ve applied the same double standard to overseas Koreans. Visit a galbi jib and you’ll surely find a half-dozen violations. Report ‘em to the fire and health inspectors. Running an illegal cab operation that advertises in the K-town daily news. Report ‘em to city hall. Running a daranjujeom with the pay-for-play girls. Call the cops and immigration.

    They aren’t a member of my tribe and simply don’t belong.

  3. Baek In-Je says:

    I was in Costco a while back. Koreans in Costco are all socially retarded. They stand in the middle of the aisles with thier carts. I said to an older Korea guy last week in panmal “Why? Why are you here?” They hover at the free samples, invariably at the corners of the aisles and block the aisle.
    A 40s something Korean was with his wife and another Korean couple. I passed his cart and my cart hit his cart as I walked past. He yelled at me: “Hey! You can talk to me! You can Talk to me!”
    “Oh, I can talk to you?
    “Yes! You can talk to me.”
    “Ok. Pyungshin.”
    He looked like he was going to have a stroke. I just laughed and pushed my cart away. 10 minutes later I passed them in another aisle. I mouthed the words “pyungshin” at him as I passed. It was a truely blessed Korean experience.
    my point being, that if I was Korean, he wouldn’t have said shit to me. But he sees a foreigner as an easy target. “Ajosshis ruin everything.”

    • GForce says:

      What do you think he meant by “You can talk to me”? Like you should apologize or excuse yourself?

    • . says:

      Fuck! How do you guys all speak this shit. Sounds like gobbledygook to me. What is panmal? And what does pyungshin mean? I’ve got a dictionary, but I can’t find these words. Was he talking to you in Han jibberish? What did he say? Not that I’ll remember it if I hear it again, just curious. How long did it take you to get fluent? And why the fuck did you waste that time one such a backward language used only by thieves, farmers, and whores?

  4. Tollerhirsch says:

    I agree completely with your comments about viewing life here as with comedy or tragedy. I think the comedy route is best as life here is frustrating enough. Driving from Itaewon to Seoul University this Sunday I saw six different accidents over eight kilometers. I started taking photos of this hilarity and wanted to send the pictures to add to this entertaining website. How can I post pictures or would email be better.

  5. Copperhead says:

    Don’t know how you’ve done it for so long, EXPAT.

    I feel like Agent Smith delivering his skull-crushing monologue to Morpheous in “The Matrix”…”It’s the SMELL!”

    Only trapped here for three more weeks, then back to the Police States of America for a Masters Degree and legal weed.

    Your postings have kept me and the wife sane. Be well!

  6. HungFarLow says:

    I was on line 6, with my iPod locked firmly into my skull and Arcane Legends on my phone ready to obliterate my 40 minute commute when some old guy starts shouting. This went on for several minutes. I took off my earbuds to hear what the hubbub was all about. Apparently people of Korean descent dared to board the subway without first learning adequate Korean language skills, so this old gent decided to correct them loudly enough so as to be heard in Pismo Beach. As edifying as it was, it went on for almost ten minutes. So, I leaned over (earbuds still in place) and thundered “joyonghapshipshiyo”…which is Korean for “Kindly shut the fuck up.” He did. Standing ovation.

    • . says:

      How the fuck did you have the patience to learn Korean? Fucking hurts my ears just listening to it let alone speaking it. Seriously why invest time into their barbaric tongue? Inquiring minds want to know.

  7. Baek In-Je says:

    Learning Korean at at least an intermediate level will increase your getting laid rate by at least 400%.

    • . says:

      How long did it take to get to an intermediate level? I’ve got to think that time could be better invested. There are enough Engrishee speakers to get by and when you strike out you can hit the red light. Better to know you’re paying for a whore than take a one in ten chance of dating one without knowing it. Not even going to get into the reasons for avoiding marriage with the Han. Fuckin feel sorry for the waegooks that fell for that. I’m not sure how they don’t add to the riddiculous suicide stats in the land of sparkling. Which brings me back to why spend time beating your brains out learning such a worthless language?

      • Baek In-Je says:

        It’ll be a continuous effert. But maybe 8 months with a few hours a day. You can do it alone, but get a cute girl with only double eyelid surgery as a girlfriend. Get a good book that shows you how to get intermediate quickly like “Speaking Korean Book I” by Francis Y.T. Park. Can you read hangul?
        You’ll want a certain level of fluency or you’ll kind of come off as retarded, having lived in a foreign country and not picked up the language. I knew a Canadien who couldn’t even pronounce the area she lived in properly after 7 years in the Land of the Moaning Clam. At the very least, learn how to swear at the Mongols. “Don’t touch me, what are you doing, why did you do that, dont cut in line, do you want to fight, lets go to my apartment, please take off your clothes”…these phrases will take you far.

  8. Someone says:

    At least, she was brave and the noisy US soldiers shouldn’t do it. They need to keep the Etiquette in public place. That’s basic.

  9. Lee Scott says:

    I shouted at a queue-jumper at costco the other day to little effect, but I did notice a Korean guy roughly 40 years old put the kibosh on a 60yr old guy who tried to slide in.

    As for pushing and shoving to get on and off a bus or subway, I’ve decided to play along. I call it “winning at being Korean.”

  10. johnhenry says:

    Expat: Where do you get the idea the soldiers won’t be punished? If there is actual evidence, then the Korean court will punish them. Note that the Korean civilian court will get that honor, an honor denied them for Korean soldiers who can only be tried by Korean military courts. If the Korean authorities relinquish jurisdiction and, again if there is evidence, then the US military will punish them via Article 15 or trial. If there is no evidence, then it’s all just a he said/she said thing.

    • The Expat says:

      I’m guessing that since the subway probably didnt have a CCTV, it will be he-said he-said. Plus what the newspapers report as ‘sexual harassment’ might not be considered as such by a military court.

      If the Klowns complain loud enough though, I’m sure the military courts will issue some sort of punishment.

  11. johnhenry says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, any soldier (US Army), Airman (USAF), Coast Guardsman (USCG) at all and any Sailor (USN) or Marine (USMC) not on sea duty is an utter fool if they accept Article 15 for something like this. A court-martial at least is a trial with a jury (unless the aforementioned person is also moronic enough to forego a jury trial) and appeals. US military judges are not in the habit of “appeasing the plebes” and certainly not for something with no evidence.

  12. johnhenry says:

    The reason I mentioned “not on sea duty” is because US military law has a completely ridiculous and unfair–one might even call it unconstitutional–provision that “Sailors and Marines on Sea Duty” cannot decline Article 15 proceedings, they cannot appeal the CO’s decision of guilt or innocent, and they can only appeal the severity of the punishment. That, in short, is a kangaroo court. A Court-Martial is not–at least not in the US military–a kangaroo court, thankfully.

  13. Gotta say, I’m guilty of this back home. I’m more irritated by a group of noisy foreigners (usually Koreans, as I went to an engineering school), whereas if it’s a drunk mish-mash of Americans I’m just like meh, drunks.

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