Koreans don't move in straight lines—not mentally, not socially, and not culturally. If there's a circuitous, inefficient way to get from Point A to Point B, Koreans will find it. Although Koreans can be infamous for their bluntness (I find this especially true among Korean friends or with Koreans who feel sufficiently comfortable in their social superiority to talk "down" to me in a relaxed and brutally honest manner), they're also famously conflict-averse in situations that require a modicum of politeness. Hearing a direct "no" or "you're wrong" from a Korean can be a rare and precious thing.
But I'd like to concentrate on the physical manifestations of Korean indirectness, specifically in the context of just walking down a sidewalk, or a corridor, or along any other path or walkway. For me, even after nearly a decade in Korea, I still stubbornly assume that I can walk a straight line down a given path because my fellow walkers will abide by implicit and explicit rules of politeness, walking on the right side in a manner indicating focus, purpose, and a consciousness of one's fellows' need for personal space and smooth forward movement.
How silly, puerile, misguided, and utterly naive this assumption is.
The hazards of the Korean walkway can be taxonomized* into four major types:
1. The Stopper
This is the sort of person who, while walking right in front of you (especially in a crowded situation where such action is inadvisable), will suddenly stop in his tracks for no apparent reason. At that point, you must either plow into this person (which would be a form of cosmic justice, in my opinion) or do your best to swerve around and avoid collision. The latter option is an act of politeness that will go completely unappreciated, as the person now stopped in front of you has already demonstrated (1) his obliviousness to his situation, and (2) his total lack of care about how he might be making life difficult for people behind him.
Best recommendation: have a dildo at the ready to ram up the Stopper's ass in the ultimate ddong-chim gesture.
2. The Close-caller
Life in Seoul means crowds, and crowds mean weaving because, as I noted above, Korea is not a country in which people move around in an orderly, linear manner. Signs everywhere urge people: u-cheuk bohaeng (우측보행): walk on the right. Does anyone abide by these signs? I'd say perhaps half the people do. The other half can't be bothered, and it's that half that causes all the chaos. When I lived in Hayang, zigzaggy behavior wasn't nearly the problem that it's always been in Seoul, simply because there was more space in which to dodge oncoming foot traffic. I'd forgotten about that, but returning to Seoul has meant becoming reaccustomed to the nonlinear life.
What happens, though, on a nearly empty subway platform, when two people are walking toward each other, each with plenty of room to dodge the other? In my mind, the person walking the straighter path has the right of way. I have no trouble "holding my lane," so to speak, but many Koreans do. I'll be on that subway platform, walking from Zone 10-4 (the part of the platform at the back of the arriving train) to Zone 1-1 (the place where one boards the train at the very front), and inevitably, some lone person will be walking towards me. The platform is huge; I usually keep to the right to allow the other person to pass on my left with plenty of room. Instead, what happens is that the oncoming person will curve his path toward me and will brush by with inches to spare. I find this horribly obnoxious, but I normally say nothing. My theory is that Koreans, especially Seoulites, are so used to living in crowded conditions that they swoop close to other people, even when there's almost no one else around, simply to recapture that comforting, fetal feeling of being in a crowd, surrounded by warm flesh. Others are like magnets, and Koreans have an ovine impulse to hang together.
Close calls don't occur only in pedestrian-on-pedestrian situations, as any Korea veteran can attest: on an average day, you'll be almost-hit by any number of mopeds, motorcycles, taxis, buses, cars, and God-knows-what-else might lumber mechanically into your path. Once, I was riding in a car that my buddy JW was driving; we were tearing down a country road that intersected another country road in a large X; another car was speeding toward that same intersection, and instead of slowing down, JW continued barreling forward at the same speed, as did the other car. As Murphy's Law would have it, it became obvious that both cars would arrive at the center of the X at the same moment, which we did. We blew past each other, barely missing (George Carlin famously complained that "near misses" are misnomers for "near hits" whereas actual collisions should be labeled "near misses"). I blew out a breath of pent-up fear, and JW said absolutely nothing about how he'd almost gotten our asses killed. (Asian drivers and their tendency to look only straight ahead so as not to lose face, right?)
That's what living in Seoul is like: it's a constant series of near-collisions, day after day. You get cynical and learn to expect someone bumbling around every corner, or popping out of the alleyway you're about to step into, or standing just on the other side of the public-restroom door, or launching himself impatiently out of a just-opening elevator.
Best recommendation for pedestrians: be twirling a katana whenever someone draws near.
3. The Off-cutter
Quite possibly the most obnoxious of the four types of walkway hazard, the Off-cutter cuts you off. A more callous display of fuck-you-ism isn't possible than when someone decides he deserves to be closer to the head of the line. I've stood in line for elevators, only to have late-arriving college students insinuate themselves in front of me. Oh, no, Virginia: it's not just arrogant grandmothers who engage in this behavior! I've stood in lines in which people have interpreted the empty space between me and the person in front of me (a polite acknowledgment of personal space) as license to interpose themselves. And like every other expat in Korea, I've had old people rush forward to the counter, cutting me off so they can be served first. Every single time, I've wished for a cane with a curved handle so I could yank those fuckers back by their necks. That, or the telepathic power to mind-blast a message into their brains with the voice of God (or at least of James Earl Jones):
WAIT YOUR GODDAMN TURN.
Some Off-cutters do what they do in a manner that almost seems to evince calculation and not mere selfishness combined with a lack of impulse control. What I mean by "calculation" is this: you're walking along a school hallway; someone up ahead is leaning against the hallway wall and talking on his phone; then, right as you're about to pass this person, he breaks off from the wall, steps in front of you, and starts walking, thereby forcing you to stutter-step either to a halt or to a slower pace. Knowledge of a Sith power or two would be nice at this point: some way to Force-choke the offending party, or to vaporize him into bloody mist.
Off-cutters share certain behavioral traits with Close-callers, but unlike the latter, Off-cutters actually impede your progress; they don't merely violate your personal space.
Best recommendation: have a gun handy.
U-turners are just as bad as Stoppers. As the name illustrates, U-turners will suddenly pull a U-turn right in front of you. This happens to me most often in crowded subway stations, although it also happens on street level, on busy sidewalks. An unbelievable number of people are, it seems, forever forgetting their keys or suddenly realizing that they're walking in the wrong direction to their appointments. It's enough to make one wonder just how spaced-out Koreans actually are when they're walking. They rarely seem to be doing the most commonsensical thing, i.e., looking ahead and being situationally aware. I wonder if this problem is widespread in East Asia. If it is, that might explain the prevalence of a religion like Buddhism. Religions flourish where there's a need for them: the ideals they preach tend to be ideals that the local people would do well to embrace. Since Buddhism preaches mindfulness, perhaps East Asians need to hear Buddhism's message because they're so unmindful when going about their daily affairs.**
Koreans are infamously indecisive at crucial moments; they change plans with little warning, moving meeting times, canceling and rescheduling, issuing memos that contradict earlier memos, U-turning in ways both physical and mental. Again, if I had telepathic powers, I'd want to blast the mental message Stay the course! to such people. To be fair, Koreans can be almost ruthlessly decisive in some ways—for example, when they dispense unsolicited advice on how to live your life, or when they order their favorite food at their favorite restaurant, or when they spot a hole in a line and decide to cut in.
Best recommendation: acquire the ability to use the Force.
Essentially, all four types of people evince a lack of civic-mindedness and a tendency toward selfishness. I'm not saying American society is a paragon of altruism: we Yanks can be selfish in our own ways. I'm merely commenting on an aspect of Korean culture that definitely rubs my American sensibilities the wrong way, and which I still haven't adapted to despite nearly ten years in country.
I do often fantasize, though, about having and abusing telepathic and telekinetic powers. This is one reason why I love walking up Namsan at night: it's not crowded. There are no U-turners or Off-cutters or Stoppers, and Close-callers (normally bikers) are at a gratifying minimum.
You know what? I almost forgot a fifth type:
5. The Phalanx (or The Moving Wall)
Three girls walk slowly, shoulder to shoulder, down a crowded campus hallway, happily chatting and perfectly oblivious to the fact that they're holding up traffic. A group of old men converse boisterously on a sidewalk in the Euljiro district near my neighborhood, equally unaware of the inconvenience they're causing to passersby. Koreans sometimes move in phalanxes, like the four good guys in that iconic scene from "The Untouchables"—the one where they're running down the street together, side by side.
Phalanxes can be hard to pass. I'm not so obnoxious that I'll muscle my way through a group of people talking to each other, although Koreans themselves might be so rude. Normally, when I find myself behind a Moving Wall, I bide my time, and if I can hop around the group by stepping onto the street or veering close to the edge of the path, then that's what I do. Occasionally, this means speeding up to seize the opportunity presented by a sudden hole, which puts me in the same class as the obnoxious people I resent, but at some point you have to stop being a doormat and start asserting yourself. In this country, if you don't fight for yourself, people will almost literally walk all over you. It's thrillingly Darwinian.
Best recommendation: keep a bazooka. Or drive a monster truck.
So there, at last, are the five types of hazards you're likely to meet while walking on this very non-linear peninsula. In Korea, there's no such thing as "minding your own business"; you're going to be fucked with at some point, and you have to learn how to deal with that. I didn't really talk much, in this post, about my own coping strategies, my own ways of keeping from going insane and lashing out, but perhaps in a later post I'll do just that.
*Yes, "taxonomize" is a word. It doesn't show up in Dictionary.com or Webster for some reason, but it can be found here. I'm sure I've seen it lurking around elsewhere.
**I won't argue with you if you think Christianity's presence in the violent West is a sign that Westerners need to become less violent.