Things to expect when using the Seoul subway system: getting lost, confused, angry, and amazed; getting hit in the sides and head by backpacks and handbags; being stared at as if in the zoo; receiving bruises; and so much more. Thus, there are some guidelines that should be followed if you want to survive a trip from Jamsil to Hongdae.
- Now, it’s not that the Seoul system is particularly overcrowded. On the contrary, it is relatively spacious compared to the London Underground, or the Tokyo system, which even hires people to shove the crowds compactly into the train. So, most of the time you will be able to get onto the train. But it is the survival of the fittest when it comes to grabbing a seat, and the fittest in this context are generally the “ajumas” (old ladies). They will literally push you aside, step on your toes, grab your arm and pull you away, or even beat you off a seat that you have managed to find.
So, in this situation the best thing to do would be to assess the platform before the train even arrives. Make sure you stand next to a carriage door that does not have a disabled sign pointing towards it on the ground – this is where the ajumas and ajoshies (old men) go to take advantage of the seats reserved for the disabled, elderly, and those with children. Also make sure that, if the platform is busy, that there are no old people standing in your queue for the carriage door. If there are, you better head further down and find another point. As a warning, this becomes increasingly difficult on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
- Making transfers can be a hellish thing. Crowds of people walking in separate directions with no demarcation between left and right lanes (you are meant to keep to the right). You’ll get the few people in particular hurries walking straight into you, or the stray foreigners wondering bemused and getting in everyone’s way (many of us have been there too).
In this situation you have to plan ahead. Take a look at what is coming up in front of you – it is easy to pick out the ones in hurries and the bemused. It is also possible to pick out the slow-movers, the ones absent-mindedly talking on cell phones, and the children crab-walking away from their parents. All these are necessary things to take into account as you work out the perfect route between or away from these people. To improve this skill even further, take up some dancing lessons – it will teach you to be quick and light-footed.
- If you are of a foreign appearance (i.e. non-Asian), it is a fact – you will get stared at. Mostly by our old friends, the ajumahs and ajoshies. Sadly, there is little one can do about this. Staring back at them hardly deters them.
So, either you can ignore them. Or you can entertain them! Speaking to a friend on the phone in English is a good one. If the “starer” can see your phone (i.e. is sitting/standing next to you) you could send a text, or watch some English videos on Youtube (for those fortunate enough to have smart phones). Then have a look at their fascination in you, as if watching a trained monkey! ^^
- Finally, do not assume that the other people on the subway cannot speak English. Yes, Korea is quite a homogenous society, and English is not their first language, but as most of the expats living in Korea will know (a large majority of them being English teachers), the importance on the English language here is vast. Most people under the age of 60 are learning or have learned the language at some stage in their life.
So, once again, do not assume that the people on the train cannot understand English. Certain topics – let’s say for example, oh, the sizes of Korean men’s’ members – should be kept for the privacy of your own homes and not the public arena.