Sunday, July 13, 2008


Physical Jerks and Funny Names

While living and working in a metropolis as large as Seoul, there are a handful of options one may explore when one needs to get around.

While living in Tennessee, virtually everyone employed the same method of transport: learning to drive the two or so tons of carbon footprint we call automobiles. We all learned to drive at the approximate age of 16, provided that by then our parents had mustered enough courage to take us out for plenty of driving practice and had stopped yelling at us to use our turn signals long enough for us to concentrate.

Once our nerves had settled enough for us to acquire our driver’s licenses, we could then begin transporting ourselves from place to place, hopefully not being obstructed by obstacles such as traffic and $2-a-gallon gasoline.

Driving in Seoul, however, is not so ubiquitous. For one thing, as much as gasoline prices have risen in America in the past few years, Tennesseans probably pay as much for fuel in a month as Koreans pay every Wednesday. For another, those who do drive in Seoul are at the mercy of the other 12 million or so people who live there, a good percentage of whom might enjoy driving home at roughly the same time as you.

Fortunately, I don’t yet have a family and therefore have a perfectly good excuse for not driving (an under-abundance of money to spare is also a useful justification). For all those who don’t drive, a city as large as Seoul has convenient public transportation. Cheap modes of cross-town travel are not widely available in Tennessee (unless you count pickup truck owners named Jethro who’re more’n happy to help you out when your engine makes them funny sounds), so using it takes some getting used to.

Those who enjoy public transport are generally divided into those who enjoy taking the subway or taking the bus. Some who swear by the latter, since you don’t ever have to transfer and it costs the same amount of money, no matter what distance you travel. It is true that those who take the subway are often charged a little extra money is their train goes an especially long distance.

It’s also true that traveling by subway often requires one to transfer, which may not be much fun if you’re a foreigner trying to figure out if you should switch to the blue line with the funny sounding names on it (like Cheongnyangni and Sinseoldong) or the green line with the funny sounding names on it (like Sindaebang or Yangcheongucheong), all the while dodging the trampling herd of Koreans, all of whom seek the intangible benefits of being the first to arrive at work and start their 12-hour shifts.

Taking the bus is inconvenient in other ways, though. For example, when you’re starting to use it, you can try listening closely to speaker system, which will inform you of the funny-sounding name of the stop that is now approaching. However, at about the time you are approaching the station you need to use, the speaker will almost certainly experience some kind of techy malfunction lowering it by several octaves. You may strain your ears and concentrate, certain that the voice is definitely saying words, but you will still be trying in vain to decipher what those words are when you’re stop has gone by.

While taking the bus, you must also contend with the jerks. Not the kind of jerks who take long lunch breaks or bring up memories you’d rather forget at high school reunions; the bus routes through Seoul cause actual physical jerks that can, in an instant send you careening across the length of the vehicle, crashing into someone much smaller and more feminine, thus requiring you to say you’re sorry in Korean.

The jerks can take place at the most inconvenient of times: you might have a secure grip on one of the handles, then suddenly receive a phone call a split second before one of the jerks takes place, putting you off balance and sending all of your weight crashing down upon the high heels of a nearby woman you’ve forever lost the opportunity to ask to dinner later.

“I’m sorry in Korean!” you might say, but the damage is already done. You, the foreigner, will be ostracized for the rest of the 15- to 20-minute bus ride. That, and by the time you’re able to exit the bus, the frequency of the jerks may compel your breakfast to make its own exit, the same way it entered.

For its additional comfort, I prefer the subway. Its added stability is also beneficial in another way: you can read on the subway. Doing so can keep one interested no matter how long the trip lasts, and you can fill your head with all kinds of interesting information you can share with co-workers later.

“Did you know that Bertrand Russell said that Catholics who give up their faith sometimes turn to communism because they miss the support structure of large groups?” you might say, to which your coworker might react blankly. He’s Korean after all, and probably gave up studying English 14 years ago.

He will probably then mutter something in Korean, probably meaning: “Why don’t you get a car?”

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