Monday, January 07, 2008

"More Touching!"

Some people love the thrill of the big city subway. The millions of different people with different backgrounds all coming together to use the same mode of transportation. Maybe people will talk to a stranger and make a new friend. Maybe they'll sleep or at least close their eyes in order to avoid eye contact with an older person who they should relinquish their seat to without a fuss. I'm not one of those people. I do not like the subway, but sadly with Seoul traffic it's the fastest way to get around. No matter what your train-riding style is, people are all on it and, in my opinion, we're all equally unhappy about being on it.

I'm just complaining about the idea of the subway. That makes me agitated enough. However, in Seoul, there is a small, but highly visible group of older woman and sometimes men, who have been riding the rails for so long, that they're either hostile or the greatest crowd navigators ever. I'll go with the latter...maybe.

고 and I are walking to the station. We have decided to save the two dollars that we sometimes pay for the three minute cab ride to the station. As we walk through our little neighborhood, a passerby probably hears me moaning about my distaste for the crowded and oftentimes insanely hot subway ride that awaits us. I can't do anything about it and that makes me furious as well. Luckily 고 and I were having a good discussion about how great Obama is and the walk went by quickly. So, we get to the station, swipe our cards and wait in line for the doors to open on the next train.

Finally, the bell rings, the Korean and then English translation tells us where it's going and we get on. It's hot. The guy in front of me and behind me happen to be wearing leather jackets and their body heat is being transferred right to me and this only increases my potential to get quietly angry and complain yet again to 고 about how much I hate the train. The voice again comes over the PA and tell us where we are. The train starts to slow. I reach for the handle so I'm not the guy who falls over and then BAM!

I feel a huge force behind me that's relentlessly pushing its way towards the door. I turn around expecting to find a twenty-something male or maybe an older guy who is in a hurry, but certainly a man. To my surprise, it was a tiny little Korean lady with a sweet face and that trademark old woman hair. I was stunned. This woman could probably beat me up. She made it past the great wall that I am and continued in her pursuit for the door. She made it out and ripped a phone book in two. Seriously.

This was not the first time that this happened. It seems very common and in fact happens to me and everyone all the time. I would assume that an "Excuse me" would be appropriate even if it was in Korean. I'd understand and even if I didn't I would know what is needed of me.

This is an example of a culture that is more hands on. The general idea in America is that we are all expected to respect the idea of privacy and what's mine is mine. I think that ideology probably leads to more problems than it prevents though. Public transportation is just a quick example, but the facets of privateless space extends deeper into the core of Korean memes and mores. I think it's quite fascinating.

The dinner table is representative of this as well. As you might recall from a previous post, that I described eating dinner at 고's moms house. Her mom is a GREAT cook and I really enjoy our time there and if you look at the picture or read the post, I mention that there was one bowl of soup and most of the food is served on individual communal plates, dishes or bowls and we all eat directly from there. I really enjoy this way of eating. I think it increases conversation and overall appreciation for the dinner and brings people closer together. There are also some little rules governing how to eat and take food. There is a wonderful history that delves into the niceties and quirks of eating and how to eat with certain types of people.

Here's another aspect:

It was getting late, so 고 and I decided we needed to go home for the night. We were in one of the bustling business districts of Gangnam and surrounded by hofs, clubs and other bars. We grabbed our bill and make our way through the sea of suits and tables full of salary-men with that one boss who always positions himself at the head of the table. The were having a great time; laughing and carrying on like anybody would expect them to do. We stepped into the frigid air. It was cold. As we usually do, 고 and I began our walk with a kiss and the seemingly automatic motion towards the hand-hold. It seems normal to us and to everyone else. We were walking, but our stride was interrupted by two middle-aged Korean men. After a few drinks, they weren't really paying close attention and didn't see us. However, 고 and I did see them. We slowed our pace and the two men were directly in front of us were laughing, holding hands and having a great time. That's right. They hand-hold was just like the one 고 and I were sporting. And it wasn't what someone could call casual. It was the full blown lock. I was taken back, but 고 didn't think twice.

Being from a highly homophobic nation, this strikes me as... well... gay. It's not, but you know it's pretty gay. And it's obvious that these two men were nowhere close to being gay. They're just buddies. Girls can do this and it is a bit more tolerable, if not normal, but this particular man-hold situation is very foreign.

Since this, I've seen old men to young boys holding hands for fun. I will add that homosexuality is not really thought of here. Sure, there are homosexuals somewhere in Korea, but it's not very common and if it is present, I doubt that one would notice it because it would be masked or hidden.

One of my previous posts titled, "A Friendly Face", discusses a man that owns a nearby 711. He was very guilty of being very friendly and affection. While some of us went along with it to be nice, others joined in on the man-love. Of course, I think foreigners joining in on it intentionally, might actually make it gay.

So, in the end, a couple questions and thoughts: Would two Korean men see two Western men holding hands and assume they are friends or that they are gay? And furthermore, would the two hand-holding Korean men see two Western male friends drinking, but not holding hands, as odd?

I think the Western idea of the right to property trickled down a little too far. We see this type of resistance with taxes and social programs, but for some reason not with Women's Rights. (Hmmm... another post!) Maybe that fact that I see two men holding hands and immediately assume that they are gay is a little insane. I think personal space is an issue that too many people take way too seriously. I'm okay with a nudge or two as long as it's in jest or accidental. I have friends (Coug) that will physically freak out if they feel that their space has been "invaded". This seems odd to me hence the quotes, but it's how some people are wired.

I've been here for a year and half and still discover little quirks that I love: A communal bowl of soup that makes perfect sense; a pushy old woman who knows the ropes of subway navigation; and two men that are such good friends that they feel locking hands is the best way to publicy express it.

The best part is that 고운 is always by my side and helping me steer through the culture on this fascinating Asian peninsula.

Here's to those happy people who love holding hands...

By the way, the title "More Touching" is a quote from the great TV show Arrested Development...


Mom said...

Perfect video choice, George, to go with that entertaining blog! Can't wait to experiece this place.

Oncle Jean said...

These are terrific insights, George. You know, in Europe you can see some of the same behavior in terms of personal space and touching. Maybe not guys holdings hands, but the subway description reminded me of the Paris metro. And French girls who are friends or mother-daughter combos often walk down the street holding hands or each other's arm. As you said, you are so fortunate to have Go to help you navigate these cultural waters.