Life is Unpleasant

Working in Gangnam and living in Bucheon, I have made it a ritual to get on Line 2’s Outer Circle Line (i.e. the clockwise line), take it to Sindorim station and transfer for the Line 1 express train to Dongincheon station and getting off at Bucheon station and take a bus home, typically leaving work between 6:30 and 7 and getting home about 80 minutes later.  I have made it a habit of avoiding high-traffic times and routes, but now I simply have no choice.  The trains that I take are packed with people, most of whom have had a long day at work and are on their way home.  Things like civility and manners, never incredibly strong here, go straight out the window, and it’s every man for himself.  One of the things keeping me sane is the music I listen to.  This week I leave work listening to the Arcade Fire and change to Belle and Sebastian when I transfer to Line 1.  Something about the driving beat of ‘Sleep the Clock Around’ that demands to be listened to above ground.

A note on these bands: I don’t know what you’ve heard, but they’re both great.  One of the greatest things about not living in your own culture is that you can enjoy things like music without being distracted by the hype, reputation, overkill and hyperbole that accompanies a topic so charged as personal taste in music.  I just get the songs without all the fame and fortune and everything that goes with it and that’s how I’ve always liked it.

Anyway, the squeezing in and scrumming off of subway cars has become a part of my life now.  I have finally abandoned the bars and handles and become an aisle man.  I roll on my heels to maintain balance during sudden lateral rocks and maintain a wide stance parallel with the train to deal with sudden braking and acceleration.  Everyone else is stewing in their own juices.  I’m surfing.

The last night I went out with some friends in Gangnam and came home along my usual route, leaving the Gang at 10 with my friend Jonas headed to Shinchon.  We both squeezed into the car,which was just as packed at 10 as it was at 7.  While we carried on an animated, slightly buzzed conversation, the people around us seemed to be annoyed by our loud English, as they are wont to do, but I didn’t bring it up to Jonas lest we lose our conversational momentum.  We were standing three people back from the subway doors.  The doors opened and people started pushing from all sides trying to make clear their intentions to get off.  I had people pushing towards me from the left, right and behind, and the guy in front of me clearly did not intend to make room for them to get off.  Mind you, Jonas and I are carrying on a conversation and I’m not giving this an incredible amount of thought, I’m just doing my best to let these people get out the door.  I push past the guy in front of me and out the door to let the people get out, and sort of without thinking about it at all I said to the guy ‘내리고 또 타시죠, 사람들 내리게!’ (‘Why don’t you get off and then get on again, so people can get off!’)  Having said it, I looked and realized that I had just inadvertently addressed the entire packed train car, with easily 25 people looking straight at me.  Jonas is unaware, not having heard me.  The guy I was talking to said something quietly, and I asked ‘huh?’ So quietly that I had to read his lips he said ‘됐어요’, ‘It’s fine,’ ‘It’s done,’ ‘Whatever.’  There are a million ways to translate it, I’m not sure which one he would have preferred.

We get back on the train and Jonas starts telling a story.  I am distracted by the fact that there are three conversations going on around us about what I had just done, with the most quotable notable being that I spoke Korean with a Gyeongsang Province accent (not sure where that came from).  I let Jonas know what had happened, noting that the guy I called out, now extremely red-faced, kept looking back at me.  I thought he must be really angry to have been shamed like that.  At the next stop when the doors opened, literally everyone anywhere near the door got out and let those leaving get off before hopping back on.  I had apparently shamed everyone.

I find that shaming people is surprisingly effective in that I am a white, to all appearances (and in fact) American person and the people here have this sick special way of looking up to America.  For example, I had a ten minute conversation at work about why maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to refer to ‘the US and other advanced countries’ since the document was going out worldwide and maybe other countries aren’t as comfortable with ‘the advanced countries’ undoubted superiority as Korea is.  I will always take the opportunity to showily pick up litter and throw it out if I see large groups of people ignoring it.  I relish the chance to out-polite people and then rub it in, hoping that if I rub hard enough it’ll stick.

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~ by Joe on May 15, 2008.

One Response to “Life is Unpleasant”

  1. I’m not so into The Arcade fire, but I’m totally with you on Belle & Sebastian. Been into them since some bandmates introduced me years ago. Especially all those EPs they did back in the day. (They’re less interesting now.)

    I’ll never forget hearing Sleep the Clock Around on the radio late one night in Jeonju. That, along with the “Uuuul-la!” song from that musical version of “War of the Worlds” by ELO are definitely the oddest [Western] things I’ve heard on Korean radio.

    Another benefit of living in a foreign culture is that you’re able to pick up on the weird nichey stuff without having to trawl through the dross of the mediocre, mass-media stuff.

    황신혜 밴드 and 어어부 프로젝트 밴드 being my two faves, with 삼호선 버터플라이 trailing behind. Of course, the latter did do some TV music, and is more well known, but the former two are widely scoffed-at by them young’uns who don’t recognize their genius!

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