Wednesday, October 30, 2013

the Seoul metro: "more civilized" or "a fucking war zone"?

I heard the opinions of two different colleagues yesterday. One colleague, a French speaker, said he encountered a Frenchman while they were both on the Seoul metro. The Frenchman remarked to my colleague that Seoul's subway was nothing like Le Paris Métro: "Ici, ils sont plus civilisés," he supposedly told my coworker. Here, they're more civilized.

While walking home with another colleague, however, I heard a very different assessment of the Seoul metro, and of Korea in general. This colleague had lived and taught in America, Thailand, and Japan, and he often found himself pining for Japan–a place he deemed cleaner than Korea, and peopled with citizens who understood rules of politeness and the value of living in a civil society. Japan's subways, according to him, are orderly and sedate. Seoul's metro, by contrast, is "a fucking war zone."

My own experience lies somewhere between these two impressions. For the most part, I can't say that I've experienced much trouble on the Seoul subway system, which I used quite often back when I lived in Seoul. I saw plenty of drunk people on the subways at night; I also saw my share of crazies. But those folks were notable mainly because they were in the minority: for the most part, my subway rides were hassle-free. Come to think of it, my experiences on the Paris Métro weren't that bad, either. I recall one drunk guy telling a woman in a leather miniskirt to "spread 'em, dirty whore! Go on—spread 'em!" ("Écarte, sale pute! Vas-y, écarte!"), but she and her boyfriend just laughed the drunkard off. One of my most traumatic Seoul subway experiences involved standing ten feet away from a furiously drunk guy who started taekwondo-kicking one of the subway car's windows; he eventually spidered the glass, then left the car in a hurry when the train stopped. No one did a thing.

But one such incident does not a war zone make, and I don't know enough about other subway systems around the world to be able to make an intelligent comparison.



Bratfink said...

Isn't the Japanese metro the one where they have special 'cops' to push the people into the cars so they are packed like sardines?

Looks horrible to me.

John said...

I don't have much to compare with Seoul's system, other than the Washington Metro, but that's really a different animal.

I've never be scared on the rails in Seoul, but I've seem some crazy folks doing the infamous Korean bitch slap routine on each other and screaming like banshees. But that's happened 5 or 6 times in hundreds and hundreds of rides.

My biggest complaint is the vendors who shout or even amplify their sales pitch. But hey, everyone has to make a living I suppose...

Oh, I learned to not even bother riding during prime rush hour. They don't have pushers like in Japan, but the Koreans do a fine enough job squeezing in so tight you literally can not raise an arm. I found my one experience like that so unsettling I pay cab fare to sit in relative comfort while being stuck in traffic.

Charles said...

John's right: getting stuck in the Seoul metro during rush time is horrible. I try to avoid it if at all possible.

Otherwise, I've ridden a lot of metro systems around the world: the London Underground, the Paris Metro (which I can only remember as smelling of piss), the New York Subway, the Washington Metro, the Tokyo Metro, the Taipei Metro, etc. For the most part the Seoul Metro is relatively clean and orderly. Sure, you get the occasional crazy, but they are rare.

The worst metro system I've ever been on is probably the New York Subway, in terms of cleanliness, safety, etc. But I can't help feeling a little romantic/nostalgic about it.