Tuesday, May 14, 2013


On the way home from Yongin today, I took the Line 3 up to Chungmuro Station, then transferred to Line 4 to take me the rest of the way to the apartment.

While on Line 4, a pair of uniformed elementary school boys got on the train and noticed me holding a very high handgrip. They whispered and giggled together for a while, trying to reach the grip and stealing glances at me, until the fatter one got a little bolder and started staring baldly at me. I looked right back into his eyes, leaned in close, and said distinctly in Korean, "You know you shouldn't stare."

In a ritual gesture of regret, one he probably had many occasions to practice at school, the boy hung his head, said, "Yes," then turned away and, with his friend, never looked at me again.

I rode for several more stops with a big Cheshire Cat's grin on my face. Knowing a foreign language is power.

Barely thirty minutes ago, I was walking home from dinner at a Japanese-Korean restaurant (a donggaseu-jip, named for Japanese donkatsu, i.e., deep-fried, panko-breaded pork, fish, chicken, and shrimp) along a very wide sidewalk. Up ahead, I saw a father hastily pulling up the elastic-waist pants of his little boy, who had been urinating into the bushes along the sidewalk's edge. So that's how that habit starts, I thought sourly. The boy, now dressed, charged away from his father... and straight at me. He stopped just short of me, dodging to my right without making any eye contact. Right there, I saw the boy's future: driving a car in America, nearly missing another motorist, and never making eye contact. Asian drivers, right? So that's how that habit starts.

The other thing I remarked is something that other foreigners have talked and written about: the Korean tendency, when on a wide, empty walkway, to walk on a collision course toward the only other walker there. The boy could have shot off in any direction; he chose instead to make a Ben Hur beeline straight for my balls. Ramming speed! Thank goodness he checked himself in time.

I can only assume the near-collision habit is cultural. It certainly affects how Koreans both walk and drive: life in Seoul is a dizzy circus of near-collisions. Americans, by contrast, make a point of giving each other as wide and respectful a berth as possible, perhaps as a cultural vestige of our much-mythologized Wild West days. Meanwhile, Koreans' notion of personal space is an extremely pared-down version of the American notion.

But back to kids. Kids can be funny and goofy. They can also be frustrating, morally bankrupt, and downright stupid. The kid staring at me in the subway should have known better. When I leaned in and corrected him, it was obvious he did know better, the little fucker. The other kid, Little Bo Pee, was too young to know better when he started his mad sprint away from his father, but he was already manifesting that unerring Korean instinct for collisions. So that's how that habit starts.



John said...

Thankfully, I don't have much occasion to drive in Korea these days. But I do diligently practice defensive walking. Korean pedestrians are high on my short list of things I find irksome in the Land of the the Morning Calm.

Elisson said...

I loved this post. Wish I could've been there to see the Subway Confrontation.

Kevin Kim said...


It was oh-so-satisfying, as I rarely do that sort of thing when people stare. But I'm sure that, viewed from the outside, the encounter didn't look like much. The outcome was two very subdued kids and one giant, smiling Hominid.


Yes, I sympathize. Koreans don't give a damn who's in front of them, do they? Especially those pushy-ass ajummas and halmonis.

Charles said...

It's amazing what a few years back in the States will do to your perception of things, eh?