Wednesday, June 16, 2010

We give ourselves away.

First it is the discomfort; the edgy, flexing, hyperawareness of our alienhood. We feel sure that we are objects of scrutiny on all sides, and in some ways, it is true. If an American (Australian, German, etc) is being obnoxious or profane in close public quarters, we stand out. Even if we are no louder, more obviously crude or persistently annoying in terms of observable data, we feel louder. We sense ourselves as totemic representations of every possibly Western stereotype, and as long as we feel it we are mummified into the terribly ridiculous contortions of this awareness. Because of our conviction that we are perceived as:

Inappropriately dressed
Drunk and slutty
Incredibly stupid

We become paranoid the instant we step outside. These are things, perhaps, that we see in ourselves, or fear in ourselves, sometimes suddenly and immediately upon entry into a foreign country. But our real earmarks are, I think, more subtle and pervasive than any of the blatant cultural profiling. In Korea, even when we speak the language (which many of us don’t), we excuse ourselves on reflex over and over again. We apologize in posture and speech.
So here is a first bus ride. My first bus ride in Seoul. My hand palms my T-card convulsively; the idea of stepping onto the bus unprepared is nightmarish. As though the immediate assumption will be that Americans cannot ride a bus without help? As though Koreans don’t occasionally hold up the line as their card inexplicably fails to beep in, or they can’t find their wallet, or they drop a grocery bag? But it is somehow exponentially worse to be a foreigner and an idiot on the bus, and there is nothing I can do but rehearse mentally each step and gesture that I will be taking.

When we step onto the bus, we are acutely aware of ourselves. We bump into a stranger and say “I’m sorry.” At first we say this in English, which is absurd, but actually less absurd than saying “miyan hamnida,” the phrase typically rendered as the translation of “I’m sorry” into Korean. Confusingly enough, this phrase is never used to apologize for accidental contact with your neighbors. “Chesong hamnida” is the correct phrase choice, technically, and is in fact used only when you may have fractured the other person’s toe or given them a concussion. The concept of personal space is different here; your actual physical space is nonexistent. It is easy to take offense at this sudden invisibility. Americans more than citizens of any other country are acutely cognizant of their physical presence and its sanctity. Kiss a lover? Kiss a friend? Unheard of.
This is also unheard of in Korea, where I am still attempting to suss out acceptable affectionate displays. But anything short of a handbag to the kidney is ignored by the strange neighbors of public transportation. So we give ourselves away by wanting to know how to excuse ourselves or apologize in the first place. Eventually we stop flinching away from the slightest brush of bodily contact, and regain our comfort.

And then one day the zen of the Korean bus ride becomes a part of us. The city is all lights, a mad neon and concrete maze. We step on the bus and are physically impugned, but mentally, we stand on a vast and silent prairie. The respect for one another’s mental space is a marvelous and baffling gift. In a city of 13 million people, the city bus slows and stops for a man in an ill-fitting suit. The bus smells like engine oil and dust and sour human warmth. A rich woman tucks her bag in her lap and talks softly. Her cell phone bangles clicking louder than her voice. A young couple watches a baseball game silently in one of the double seats. Her head rests on his shoulder, as they share earphones. The dominant sound is the hiss and honk of the bus itself as it drags moaning up the hills of Bugak-san before dropping into Gyeongbokgung.

Subways here are much the same, but the bus for some reason has a greater attitude of shared space and inner quiet. There is a sort of tranquility that is not alien-ness or the dreadful knowledge of not-belonging. Rather it is a communal decision to respect the need for moments of calm before plunging back into the mad electrical frenzy of one of the world’s largest cities.
And there is something valuable it gives us to be part of this city, its vibrant shimmer and its incandescent unstoppable roar. But more than that there is a wonder, the revelatory experience of a daily commute on the rainbow spectrum of buses. The metropolitan engines squeal and blat and shake through a mad warren of streets. Inside, mouthing the Hangul of an advertisement to ourselves, we discover an immense internet place of our own, a vacant Eastern place where our thoughts become thin as strands of hair, and we are peaceful, empty, and alone.

Even when we’re thigh-to-buttock with an adjuma.

Sandra T. is currently teaching English in South Korea.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mousyboywithglasses

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