“The next stop is Wangsimni,” the pre-recorded smooth-voiced subway lady announces. “The doors are on your left.”
Her intonation is pleasant; her speech perfectly paced; the slight rise and fall in pitch is soothing. But I can see how, after 20 years of taking the subway and hearing those announcements day in and day out, one could have a mental snappage. It’s a good thing South Korea has such strict gun control.
“Sindang. Sindang. The doors are on your right.” But that’s not all she has to say about this stop. “You can transfer to the orange line, line number 6…”
The trick, I’ve learned, is not to actually listen to the announcements, but rather to tune into key words to know when to get off the train. Some subway riders distract themselves with computer games, others with texting and phone calling, still others with headphones and music. I read a book. I’ve learned to flip paperback pages with one hand while holding onto the subway strap with the other. On a good day, I get to sit for part of the ride.
For the first 15 months that I lived in South Korea, neither the subway lady voice nor the crowds bothered me. I arrived wide-eyed and open-hearted, ready to embrace my new country of residence. Korea was my new love and I was in the honeymoon stage.
Then one day the honeymoon was over. All of a sudden — while buying tofu at the grocery store and being giggled at by young Korean store clerks simply because I was seen as “other” — I saw the hairy mole on the ass of my beloved.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t continue to appreciate the opportunities Korea afforded me. I was grateful for my job, the mountains, the low crime rate. But my insular existence in a country where I didn’t speak the language and, therefore, didn’t have access to the culture in which I lived, left me feeling frustrated and excluded.
And I’ve never dealt well with being left out.
Her name was Mary, a camp counselor who worked at Camp Stella Maris, a Christian summer camp for kids. I lived in the trailer park next to Camp Stella Maris. On long July days, my friends and I would crash camp.
While the camp kids’ parents paid tuition, we trailer park kids simply showed up after morning cartoons to sing camp songs and make pinecone bird feeders free of charge.
One week the campers were rehearsing a play to be performed on their last day. This was going to be a big production. They’d wear costumes and stage makeup and put on the performance of their lifetimes for their parents.
I desperately wanted to be part of this play, so I showed up for rehearsal. While I’d generously been allowed to play freeze tag, drink camp Tang, and eat camp animal crackers, Mary, the counselor directing the play, drew the line here. She kindly informed me that I was welcome to watch the rehearsals, but I could not be a part of them or the performance.
My five-year-old self was outraged.
The next morning I grabbed a Pop Tart before heading out of the trailer and walked to camp. It was a chocolate Pop Tart, the kind with fudge filling and a thin layer of vanilla sugar-glazed frosting with chocolate sprinkles on top.
When I arrived at camp, play rehearsal was in full swing. I stood in the back of the auditorium eating my Pop Tart and watching Counselor Mary encouraging the happy campers in their thespian pursuits.
“Excellent, Johnny!” she called. “Remember to speak loudly so the the back row can hear you.” Johnny nodded and smiled. “That’s right, Susie. After Johnny’s line you walk across center stage.”
Mary had shiny brown hair, a clear face, and a sincere smile. She was also a bit on the heavy side.
As I watched the other children rehearse dialogue, break into laughter from time to time, and receive support and encouragement from lovely Mary, I began to fume.
As Mary faced the stage, prompting the campers, I had a view of her ample derrière bulging inside a pair of green stretch pants. I chewed my Pop Tart in a circular pattern, eating the chocolate cake-like crust, saving the frosted and gooey middle for last. Mary’s bottom jiggled slightly as she gestured to the kids.
Suddenly, compelled by fury, I dropped my Pop Tart and barreled down the auditorium aisle. I headed toward the stage in general, and Mary in particular. My rage had one target, and that target was a wide one.
I ran until I made contact and sank my set of baby-corn teeth into the dimpled flesh of Mary’s broad ass.
My chocolate Pop Tart was good, but nothing tasted better at that moment than sweet revenge.
Even Mary had a breaking point, and me biting her in the ass was pretty much it. From that day forward, I was banned from camp.
I rushed up the aisle and towards the auditorium exit, scooping up the large chunk of Pop Tart from the cement floor. After all, a kid can only sustain herself on sweet revenge for so long.
The train comes to a stop, the glass doors slide open, and I step on. Swoosh — the cloud of garlic- and alcohol-tinged breath hits me like hot oven air. Darn. Packed. I stand at the end of the row of seats hoping a space will clear at the next stop. Korean subway riders seem to have a system; they know where to position themselves for the best odds of securing a seat. I’m a clueless foreigner who just stands somewhere and hopes for the best.
I grasp the subway strap with my right hand and hold my paperback novel in my left; my heavy purse hangs from my left elbow. I’m reading The Mosquito Coast and would love to sit for the next 30 minutes delving into this tale set in a Honduran jungle. Instead, I try to concentrate on the story while dangling and swaying and flipping pages with one hand. The train begins to slow for the next stop. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the lady sitting one step from where I’m standing begin to shift her weight forward.
She gathers her cell phone and pocketbook. She stands. I take one step back to give her room to pass by me, then step toward the empty seat. Out of nowhere, a middle-aged man tornadoes across the aisle and into the seat.
Subway survival is a game for those who know the rules. As a foreigner, I’ve been left out of that tutorial. I step back and re-grasp the subway strap, feeling a sudden craving for a chocolate Pop Tart. * MatadorU is a community of writers, photographers, and filmmakers honing their travel storytelling skills.