Saturday, November 29, 2008


It's a Michin, Michin, Michin World

I’m too late to board the 7 p.m. train at Cheongyangni station, and while waiting for the 8:05, I hear a voice. Amid all the sounds at the station during that hour, one is clearly louder than the others. It’s coming from across the station, about 50 meters from the benches where I’m trying to study the Korean language. It’s the course voice of a middle-aged Korean man, and for a moment I think I may be witness to some sort of public familial dispute.

If only I were so lucky. The course middle-aged Korean male’s voice would be followed by a shrill middle-aged Korean woman’s voice or a high-pitched whiny Korean teenaged girl’s voice if it were. Looking in its direction, I see that the course sound is coming from an unaccompanied male, standing near the ticket booth and having a very loud conversation with everyone and no one.

If English is your language of choice, you probably know what to call someone like this, but Korean people usually call this kind of person michyeoseoyo. At least, that’s the stand alone use of the adjective, when it modified another word it’s michin, as in, “That’s one michin guy, talking to himself like that.”

My first feeling when I see the michin man is one of sympathy for him. It’s brief, and quickly crowded out by a more durable sense of sympathy for myself. He’s coming toward the benches, eager for a conversation partner, and who’s he going to pick? The three-dozen odd Koreans sitting or standing in the area, or the single light-haired Caucasian? Anyone who has ever ridden a Seoul train or subway while being foreign already knows the answer.

If you’re a light-haired foreigner in Seoul using public transportation, the children will always find you and say, “Hello!” The young girls will say “Handsome!” or “Blue eyes!” even if you aren’t especially the former and the latter are green. The older men celebrating the fact that work has ended at 5 p.m. for the 1,267th day in a row by drinking a lot will find you, ask where you’re from, and ask if you like Korea, mixing and matching their language and yours all the while.

The michin man may ask any number of things. If you’re eating a Snickers, he may you to give it to him. He may stick up his hand and ask for a high five. Or, maybe he’ll ask you to shake hands, which is fine, provided he’s willing to let go eventually.

As the michin man in Cheongyangni station gets closer, he waves and sits down in front of me. He’s thin, with tufts of black and gray hair in his goatee, and his torso is covered with a heavy dark winter coat. That’s understandable, as it’s fall here, and Korean fall would make a pretty good winter in my native Tennessee. The coat, however, makes his choice of matching black flip-flops even odder.

He seems a child of the ‘80s: wearing green camouflage pants and a military beret like one of that decade’s action heroes. His fingernails are painted sparkly purple, like one of that era’s rock stars. Over his shoulder is slung a black bag with a pair of tennis rackets from those days: one wood and one metal. Over the other shoulder is one of those boom boxes that was popular back then, the one with the small black and white TV screen in the upper right corner. My family had one of those in my youth; we had about as much success in getting to play anything as the michin man does.

“American?” he shouts.

“Yes,” I reply, looking up from the Korean book which I know I’m not going to learn anything from now. Still, I’m hoping it functions as an excuse not to get too involved in conversation and, if necessary, works as a shield. Like drunken older men, he speaks both languages in just such a way that makes both incomprehensible. As near as I can tell, though, he’s asking me if I’m married and live in a hotel.

He asks both questions five or six times. Each time I answer yes to the first question and no to the latter. I hope to get away, but michin men need to handled with great care, lest they attack you with one of their outdated pieces of sports equipment. Finally, I hatch an idea: I’ll call my wife on my cell phone.

“There’s a michin man talking to me at the train station,” I tell her. He’s still right in front of me, understanding nothing because he hasn’t stopped talking. “He keeps asking me if I’m married and live in a hotel.”

“Just ignore him,” she says, which probably seems like good advice from her point of view, which is located two hours away on the other end of my train route. But talking to her on the phone does have a beneficial result; soon, the michin gets up and starts talking to a young woman sitting on a bench nearby, probably asking her social status and if she lives in some form of short-term lodging. While she’s answering, I see my chance. I tell my wife I love her and that she should wish me luck. Then I pick up my things and make a break for the men’s room. There, I can hide a few minutes, then sneak out while he’s distracted to the station’s computer room, out of his view.

He sees me get up, though, and for a moment I despair my lost opportunity. However, he just asks to shake hands.

“Friend?” he asks as his hand grips mine and the gold-colored ring on his hand presses into mine.

“Oww! Yes!” I reply.

“Friend!” he exults, and says goodbye. Approximately 10 minutes later I’m in the computer room, writing to my mom in America to tell her of why it’s important to be on time for one’s train in Korea.

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