Saturday, March 13, 2010

Happenings on a Subway

You'd think it would be impossible for so much found story to occur on one broken subway ride, but it can.

I’m taking the number 1 subway line north to my place tonight – a line that factors-in as my friend, Douglas’ least favourite for reasons which I shall not get into here, except to reveal that he much prefers the green #2 line because of its prescribed route through not one, but two of the city’s most prestigious women’s universities and the resulting eye-candy that accompanies such a trip.

A reason that I like the number 1 line is that my apartment building is built about 50 feet from an entrance to Banghak Station on the line in question. A reason I don’t like it is that the line seems to have the most randomly problematic tendency to stop while part-way through its journey: Apparently on a whim, towards the end of the night, the train will just stop, everyone will sigh, and everyone will get off and wait for the next train. This is accompanied by a preceding announcement (sometimes in English, Japanese, and Mandarin, and always in Korean) that “this is the last stop”. We all wait for the next train, hoping that it will be one that goes at least far enough for us to get off at our preferred destination.

This happened 3 times for me tonight. The train, which had been announced as going to a station well past my Banghak Station, stopped at a station about 8 stops before. Everyone got off. The next train along also promised a return home. We all got on. It went nowhere. There was an announcement stating, among other things, that the driver was sorry for the confusion. This would happen one more time before I actually boarded a train heading far enough North for me.

It was while I was reading a book, waiting for this second wayward train that I was approached. There were many people on the platform waiting for a train to actually go somewhere, so I was relatively surrounded when this man – maybe in his 50’s – fairly tall and decked-out in the finest “Black Yak” hiking gear - started pulling at my jacket sleeve – quite purposefully. From what I could make-out, he was angry with me. The few Korean words I did make-out told me that he thought I was a 미국사람 (an American), and that he apparently thought I was scum. I’m not interpreting wrongly, unless I’m wrongly interpreting his mistaken naming of my country of birth, his spitting at the ground near my feet, and the rather forceful and repeated downward gesture of his thumb in my face. Within seconds, it seemed to me that everyone around us was staring in my direction.

If you know me, you’ll know that I blush more easily than most. It happens almost on cue – in any situation where I allow my brain enough time to calculate the reality or even the promise of impending humiliation. I can go from zero to tomato in under three seconds, and that’s being generous. It’s gotten to the point that I don’t even need to think about humiliation, so much as an imagined instance of “all eyes on me”. There it is, and there I go. I was once called-out as an example by a theatre director after a dress rehearsal for being “the only one in the cast with stage make-up that looked like it had been professionally applied.” Of course, I had no make-up on at all – I was just stressed about the expectedly shabby practice run and my resulting rosey cheeks made me look like a properly painted board-trotter. Good for me.

So, while I was undoubtedly red-faced from this subway platform tirade, I somehow found the wherewithal to respond, properly, in Korean. I was able to say, “Ajushi – waegrae? Canada saram imnida” which roughly means “Mister – what’s wrong with you? I am a Canadian.”

Though the stress I felt at the moment, blurs the moment in memory all-together, I do remember two things that instantly buoyed my mood – the laughter of those around me, which I can only assume was in-line with the surprise of a jack-ass racist having egg on his face after receiving a coherent retort in his own language, and the nice man beside me who could only repeat the word “sorry” – in apology for his countryman who had chosen that moment to misplace his anger at the US – or at foreigners in general.

Whatever – despite the probable red face, I went back to my book. Again, I was tapped on the arm, but this time by a young lady who identified herself as being from the Philippines. She had seen the incident and I’m sure was doing her best, as a fellow foreigner, to make me feel better. Turns-out she was a missionary, and she had a couple of fellow missionaries with her. We had a nice conversation until her train came along. She remarked that I was actually lucky because people like herself, and other Southeast Asians do have a harder time here in Korea in general.

She’s absolutely right. I do recognize that, aside from the odd Yankee-baiting Korean, I as a white foreigner am generally afforded a certain level of automatic respect in this country that people like herself are generally not. Regardless, after this unfortunate confrontation with the hiker who likely was fueled by too much Maekoli (Korean rice wine), I was having a pleasant and friendly moment with three Phillippino women, surrounded by the collective energy of apology from all (or I can least assume most of) the Koreans who surrounded me on the platform, and these missionaries didn’t seem to either notice or care that I, until the interruption, had been engrossed Mr. Christopher Hitchens’ “god is not GREAT: How Religion Poisons Everything” and I didn’t seem to care, though I did notice, that they were missionaries – we were just four people finding a common experience of being foreigners in a country that isn’t always as welcoming as you’d hope, but is far more often than reported.

Once on the train, about two stops further on, as if on cue, four Miguk Saram (Americans) did get onto the train. They were hammered, and they were loud. One decided to put his headphones on the ears of an older man who was standing nearby.

“I am from Texas” he said in a slow and deliberate voice. “I am an American – AMERICAN.” “This is Jimmy Hendrix.”
“Ahhhhhh… I think I lost my fucking phone!” said another.

They weren’t being unkind, the old man seemed to enjoy their forwardness, and they weren’t causing a problem, but they carried themselves with an obvious swagger. I’ll even call it an outward sense of entitlement.

I wondered what our confrontational hiking friend would have said had he been here in this moment, if it would have served to reinforce a stereotype, or if he would have said anything at all.


Kid Atomic said...

Dude, that's pretty intense. I'm impressed you were able to retain enough composure to respond to him. It seems like a situation that could otherwise have escalated pretty rapidly.

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Yeah, I was surprised that I didn't just stammer away. I think I recognized quite early on what was happening and being that my comparative height here can make me a much more imposing figure than I can be back home, I simply turned and faced him and smiled when I spoke. I'm sure I was red in the face, but he simply backed off and said no more. I think I won the moment, but it did help to have lots of people around me. That's the thing about Seoul - the amount of people simply makes things generally safer than they would be back home. I hate to think about what it would be like for a Korean bookworm standing at Whitehorn Station in Calgary waiting for the C-Train with only a smattering of people around him - when a drunken man approaches and tells him to go back to his country - or tries to recruit him to join their gang. Safety in numbers - and in the fact that this guy was probably too drunk to even swing his hiking poles.

Jen Davies, MA, CDP said...

Wow, thanks goodness you've been working on your Korean! Poor Dave - he couldn't have picked on a wrong-er foreigner. But I suspect he wouldn't have had the guts to criticize those young American dingbats you saw later. Hope you're doing OK. I'd have nightmares for a week or two, the kind where you get to work and realize you had forgotten your pants...

Chris Taylor said...

Dave, you handled yourself really well. I remember getting spat on in Pusan, and my reaction was far less polite, or eloquent.

Still, sorry that it happened to you. Hopefully all the others who saw it won't make a similar mistake...?

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Thanks, guys - I feel like it could have been much worse. Most everyone there seemed to have my back.

I do have to say something that I neglected to mention in my post - that the Texans who boarded the train later on actually did apologize for their swearing and they apologized in Korean. Of course, they only apologized to the hot young female Korean who was standing across from them, which actually made her really uncomfortable. Classic.

Mr. Genius-Face said...

I think what you describe in this article pinpoints the reason I hesitate about a job in the foreign service. You could be a saint, and if an idiot preceded you, you're done.