Bursting your personal bubble

Whit here. In case you forgot, I use to work here. I’m back. At least for tonight.

I have stood incredibly close to some people in the last year and a half. The kind of close that allows you to know what kind of soap another person uses, or what they had for their last meal. If you look close enough you might be able to tell them if they missed a spot shaving or if they have a strand of gray hair. It’s ‘feel them breathe on you’ close and it happens almost everytime you leave your front door and go into the Korean fray.
In a country the size of Indiana that houses 8 times more people (Indiana 6.5 million, Korea 50 million) it isn’t surprising that you are going to experience a closeness with strangers that you don’t get in the west. The days of being on a trail without seeing anyone or having a place all to yourself go away the moment you land in Korea. Don’t worry, it isn’t as bad as it sounds.

But you have to allow yourself to think like a Korean. Here are some guidelines:

1. Push or be pushed. You can try out your western politeness in queues but you might never get to the front. You must be aggressive out there. People have places to be and you should act like you do too. It isn’t necessarily rude to break in line, its just a sign that you clearly weren’t being an active participant in line. You must move forward and get almost uncomfortably close to the person in front of you. On Monday, I shoved my way through a pack of high schoolers(did I mention they were girls?) to get on the bus. Why? It was the second bus I tried to catch. The first bus left without me because other high schoolers (and Lindsay) were way more aggressive.
2. Don’t worry about bumping. Walking around Korea is a full contact sport. People aren’t looking out for you or worrying about bumping into you. Some will say they didn’t mean to, so why apologize, but it often seems that they just don’t care. In a crowded area, contact is expected. Don’t be offended or shocked because no one else is.

3. If you drive never take your eyes off the people. Today a boy crossed the road in front of my motorcycle without looking once. How do I know this? Because I watched the whole thing happen. I knew that there was a great possibilty that this kid was going to do what he did before he did it. Pedestrians seem to think that the driver is going to stop or that he better damn well better!
4. Watch your butt. Koreans are among the most physical people I know. I have seen men push women, women slap men, boys playfully wrestle in buses, girls whack boys, teachers smack students and students bop students. But you also see women walking arm in arm, old men holding hands with other old men and a great deal of public affection for each other. Kind of goes with the whole space issue. But among the most favorite activity is the infamous “dong chim.” This is when kids make a church with a steeple with their two hands and shove it up an unsuspecting person’s anus. You think I am kidding? I received roughly three today by 6th grade girls. Imagine that at home.

5. When you feel someone else’s hands on your waist move. This happens almost everytime I get on the bus and it happened tonight at a music concert. When you feel this, 9 times out of 10 it is going to be an ajumma(older woman) pushing her way to wherever she needs to go. You are just something else in her way. Resistance is futile. Quite frankly, these women look like they deserve to get whatever they want. Their bodies tell of a past of really hard work. Let them through.


6. Make a friend. While in Yeosu we were on a bus so crowded that strangers were sitting on each other’s laps. One woman even offered Lindsay some real estate. No one cared an iota, in fact it seemed quite normal.

So bursting your personal bubble is essential in Korea. You might even find that getting out of that shell is a lot more liberating than you had expected. In Yeosu, at least, it is bound to get you a seat on the bus.

4 thoughts on “Bursting your personal bubble

  1. WNCRod says:

    You guys ever thought of collecting tidbits like this and compiling them into a book about traveling/living in Korea? Your blog already has the perfect title.

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  2. Hina says:

    Great blog. I’ve been into korean culture lately, possibly from the exposure of the entertainment. I would really like to get a chance to experience it, but your blog’s been a great insight.

    You shouldn’t be so surprised, I think its in the west that we are so non-responsive and within ourselves. When I went to parts of Asia and Saudi Arabia, I noticed a lot of the things that you mentioned. Particularly intersting was that women would gently touch other women on the shoulder or waist to get past, which I noticed in Saudi as well.

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