A Complex Slice of Life

I get on Line one of the Seoul Subway at Bucheon station at 5:40am on a Thursday.  There is only one empty seat and I take it.  To my left is an old man.  To my right are three young girls.  I notice that the girl to my immediate right is wearing a very short skirt.  They are very noisy and animated and seem to be bothering the other riders on the train, telling each other stories and sipping coffee-flavored milk noisily.  As for me, I have my headphones on and I’m studying for midterms.  As we approach Yeokgok station the girl next to me leaps out of her seat and runs to the door.  I notice that she is in fact not wearing a short skirt but what amounts to a nightgown.  She is heavily made up.  When the subway doors open, she chucks her empty milk carton out the door and runs to her seat before the door closes.

At this point everyone on the train is giving these girls dirty looks and I am fully expecting an old man to give them a harsh reprimand, but other than dirty looks, nothing happens.  The ill will towards these girls is growing.  The one furthest down from me starts telling a story in which almost every other word is ‘시발연’ and the people around me are groaning to themselves.  Then one of the girls gets a phone call from a guy she calls 오빠 but speaks very politely to.  They found a cell phone.  Was it that guy in the blue shirt?  오빠’s friend?  He’d have to ask him later, because that guy’s sleeping.  It went on like this. 

Then the girls started to get curious about me.  I  pretended not to hear as they talked about me.  First they looked at what I was reading.  ‘Oh, my head hurts just looking at all that English.’

‘Hey did you ever have a foreigner?’

‘No, and you know why?  Can’t communicate.’

‘What about “I love you.”‘

‘Oh yeah, “I love you!”  “I love you” is enough English.’

‘Talk to him.’

The girl in the middle, who was quiet up to this point, stepped up to the plate.  ‘Cutey!  Cutey!  Oh Cutey!’

I pretended to not hear them.  I looked around at the other people on the train.  They hated these girls.  At this point everyone around us was male and old school (Subway line 1, y’all) and I felt this sudden surge of empathy.  These girls were acting out.  Everybody hated them.  Nobody even cared enough to tell them to act right.  They were on their own in a hostile world, stuck with two options: face the world’s cold disapproving stare or ignore it completely.  In a grimy, miserable world where nobody cared about them except 오빠, where they were headed from Incheon to Uijeongbu at dawn, covered in makeup and half dressed because they were born in a country that makes whores of them, why should they care?

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~ by Joshing on April 25, 2008.

6 Responses to “A Complex Slice of Life”

  1. I liked the sudden change of perspective in the last paragraph. It was very unexpected, and made me realise that in a situation like that, very few people would try to look at thinks from the loud, obnoxious, teenage girls’ point of view. But when you do, who can blame them?

    On a lighter note, some vibe I give seems to inhibit people from talking about me on the subway, even though I have a shaved head that most Koreans in other contexts seem to find simply fascinating. On the rare occasions they do talk about me though, they seem to clam up when I begin listening to them, even though outwardly I’m still listening to my ipod or reading a book or something. I genuinely do think that Koreans have a sixth-sense for noticing when I’m paying attention to their conversations, and act on it subconciously!

  2. […] has been released in Korea. – Here is something I have never seen happen before on the subway. – Here is something I have seen and have happen to me before on the subway.  Of course its on Subway Line 1. – Update on Sexy […]

  3. They’re definitely acting out. In the classic sense. I used to work with kids like that at the alternative school, where they turn around suprisingly fast, relatively. Basically, they just have to be shown, for the first time, a responsible envrionment with adults in which the adults are not constantly scolding them and telling them they “can’t” or “you’re nothing” or some other form of constant negative.

    You hear it enough, well, it becomes true. And in my experience at the school, a lot of these girls are sexually abused, either by an older male relative or a stepdad. Or they simply go in this extreme direction as a way of rebelling — and given the ease in which you can mix burgeoning sexual curiosity with making a buck, say on the internet, well…

    You see how this goes. In an a way, I see it as Korean society being so rigid in terms of the lives of kids, it’s easier to rebel in prescribed ways. Curse, litter, date. Voila! Now, you’re a “bad kid” beyond hope! Now, you can look forward to being summarily kciked out of your school (as several of my kids had been, in middle school) and effectively ostracized and stigmatized by your elders. Turn your increased anger into increased efforts to lash out at this process. Rinse and repeat.

    Basically, our alternative school (which uses media to give kids something useful and later, marketable, to focus on and learn) had real counselors, with real backgrounds in social work (not homeroom teachers with a certificate) being extremely patient with the kids, until they realized that the adults were not going to yell at them and call them names, let alone hit them or worse. Some kids turn around; some don’t.

    One girl with whom I recently worked was a girl sorta like that. She chewed gum, thought she had sass, was loud, and cursed too much. And that was IN class. I could easily see her with her friends on the subway, egging each other on.

    But she took a love for photography for some reason, and she had an eye. Who knew? Well, that’s the point of the alternative school. For one kid, it might be photo; another video; another, tweaking pics in Photoshop; for another, 3-D animation.

    She was taking really bizarrely wonderful pics with her digital camera, and she was starting to get really possessive about using MY camera. Although handing this bouncy and too-carefree kid my camera and lens made me uncomfortable at first, she did treat the camera far differently than anything else, especially anyone else’s. She was ginger with it, and took time to take her bizarro-angle pictures with my wider lens.

    She wasn’t from a poor family, but from an average family that simply had been having trouble handling her. They bought her a camera, the same DSLR model I had, which I receommended she get now used, instead of the sparkly, newer-version of the same. She took too it, and is a photo nut last I checked (haven’t taught this semester).

    These kids can be helped far more easily than say, kids who are stuck in a subculture of drugs, gangs, guns, and other kinds of structural violence you see in the US. These kids just need to be provided an alternative path, instead of the “conform or die” path offered them in Korea. Unfortunately, the SSRO.net school I worked at serves about 10-15 kids at a time. That’s all they can handle, really.

    I’m glad you were able to see things from a broader perspective than the “punk kids! get off my lawwwwn!” many tend to see them from. And maybe someday, some of ya’ll would like to volunteer at a school like SSRO.net? Guarantee it’ll be rewarding, albeit sometimes frustrating. Caveat: the more Korean you know, the better. Not for the adults, but for the kids, who generally have no English, given that most of them aren’t exactly the Korean wunderkind you hear about in the NYT. Anyway, whatever — I’m sure that the help would be appreciated, especially from foreigners…expensive foreigners.

    Although it would be likely not actually resulting in the kid learning any English on a real permanent level, anyone teaching English there would be vastly appreciated. It would be a madhouse trying to keep the kids focused, but you’d have fun and actually get to know the kinda kids Joe talked about in the subway. And you wouldn’t be speaking all that much English, anyway. It’d be just sort of another “teaser” for the one kid who might latch onto it, or have the experience with a foreigner spark another mental connection or jumpstart an interest. Media activities IN English would also be fun…

  4. “In a grimy, miserable world where nobody cared about them except 오빠, where they were headed from Incheon to Uijeongbu at dawn, covered in makeup and half dressed because they were born in a country that makes whores of them, why should they care?”

    Korea is a country that makes whores of women? You’re really ignorant and that is sad considering the amount of education you claim to have.

  5. Korea is the country that did make whores of these young juvenile delinquents.

  6. js tele if you’re looking to defend Korea against bashers, you’re barking up the wrong tree: other than the gee-whiz first-year “this is way different than back home and golly, I love it!” blogs, the Joshing Gnome is about the most sympathetic and positive Korea blog I know.

    I appreciate the attempt to find sympathy for the girls’ situation — sometimes I’m charmed by the fun energy of young ladies laughing together, though when I’m tired it does grate on my nerves. Frankly, I’d rather be the person who ignores the hostile world completely than the one who lets it grind me down. Fortunately, those are not the only two choices available.

    Thanks for this post, JoeMondello.

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