The man behind the desk rattled off a sentence or two in Korean and gestured with his hand to look like a standing person and I looked at him blankly. “Standing room?” I guessed
He stopped and responded in English, “There is a standing space at seven fifteen or a seat at seven fifty-five.”
Just a day earlier my buddy was giving me tips on my “standing room only” ticket to Seoul, “It doesn’t look good, but you can sit on the steps if you need a seat. Or you can go to carriage… carriage?” We fumbled with words for a few seconds or so before I figured, “train car!” “Yes, train car number four is the cafe. It doesn’t look very good, but if your legs are hurting you can sit on the floor there.” “Great!”
As I waited for the train to arrive in the chilly, early, Spring air, green backpack packed and brown winter jacket snug around me I thought, Do I go to the train car I’m assigned first, or straight to the cafe car? I was imagining a train car with a barista and a few table booths for people who wanted coffee or a seat. I wasn’t prepared for the crowd of people that appeared in front of train car 4 as the Mugonghwa train pulled up. I guess I should get into the cafe car first then, I decided.
The doors opened and people jockeyed for space to get into the train car. I slipped in between whomever I could to get a spot between – my Asian face making me just another passenger in the crowd. Inside there was colorful carpet with different shapes, a counter, a vending machine and a few walled off booths. The cafe was clearly not functional except for the vending machine in the corner. People were seated along each wall already, and surging on from both sides of the train car. I saw a gap between a man with a face mask and a woman already claiming her territory, but the moment it took to think of how to ask to sit next to him the opportunity had passed. A girl and her friend plopped down on the floor in front of me against the counter and in front of another row of sitting passengers. An old woman sat directly in front of the vending machine. I reached an impasse when I met people coming in from the other direction with luggage in hand. The young college men standing around me looked sullen. Was this it? Was I actually going to stand for the two hour train ride to Seoul? The train lurched forward and we were on our way.
I pulled my backpack off and put it between my legs. It seemed there was a small footpath down the train car that wasn’t meant for people to sit in that I may or may not have been standing in. The man sitting directly behind me was obnoxiously sitting with his lap jutting forward and his backpack positioned in front of his lap. He wasn’t going to move. A man was taking up the entire back of the counter in a sleeping position. Knees bent, feet apart was my mantra every time the train lurched in a way that may have sent me tumbling onto the sitting passengers around me. I could sit. I could do it, but was I supposed to? I was mostly in the footpath and standing very close to two other standing passengers. The halmony (grandma) in the corner kept shooting me worried looks. A few minutes after the train started moving the conductor opened the door to make his way through our crowded quarters. Through the open door I could see the familiar sight of the neat rows of chairs in the next train car; a train car full of people completely unaware of the struggle that was happening twenty feet from them. The conductor made people uncomfortably squirm out of his way, pressing into other people until he passed. Perhaps traveling to the biggest city in Korea on a Friday night standing room only was a mistake.
After about fifteen minutes of debating whether or not to sit and if all the people in the train car would judge me I committed to it and sat down. I felt my face flush red as I got very cozy with the girl right next to me – another man’s butt around face height now. I thought about taking a photo, but all the eyes (or butts) staring back at me made me think twice about the fake camera noise my Japanese purchased phone would make.
Two hours is a long time so I pulled out the book my coordinators lent me “Here I Am; Faith Stories of Korean American Clergy Women” to read while I waited out my journey. Despite having lived in Korea now for seven months, I still haven’t gotten the hang of sitting on the floor without my feet falling asleep. Thankfully there are stops in between DaeJeon and Seoul which meant for people go on and off. Opportunistic passengers (occasionally me) took the chance to sit or move as others left leaving new arrivals in their old positions. My new spot was against the wall which had a heater. The man next to me was bundled up, eyes closed, and within a few minutes I wondered how he did it. It was hot. Also, a few elderly passengers entered. Two men found spots on the floor to sit and took the time to open up some snacks and mix up some ramen. The smell was definitely noticeable. An elder woman was left to stand at the counter. Normally, in day to day life, the elderly have first pick and someone always gives up their seat for them, but I felt the tension. Each person in the train car had carved out their own little, hard-earned space, and while Korean culture normally dictates that you give up your seat for the elderly, no one was budging. I had just finished reading a few heart-wrenching stories of Korean women in ministry and felt maybe I should be the one to bite the bullet. I’m a young, spry woman. I could handle standing at a counter for a bit.
I stood up, “Jeogiyo” (Excuse me) A man immediately started moving to take my place, “Anjesaeyo” (Please sit) and immediately moved back when he realized what I was doing. The woman said thank you and then immediately looked back and, as if to confirm, asked me a question. I didn’t understand it at all, but assumed she was asking if I was sure so I responded, “Kwenchanaiyo” (It’s okay). So she said thank you again and sat. What did she say to me? There were two young men who smiled and laughed next to me. Are they laughing at me or something else? Maybe she asked if I was getting off. “It’s okay” wouldn’t make any sense then. Maybe it was something completely different. Did I smell funny? It did kind of smell… Was it me? I felt my face burn red again, but continued to reread the same paragraph five times in an effort to play it cool. I eventually got a seat again as we drew closer to Seoul. Arriving at Seoul with the remaining people we all sat in silence. I felt like we had been through something together. Perhaps this was a kinship only I felt, but a little worse for wear we had all made it.
I could see the micro expression the man behind the desk tried to hide – a little smile as he watched me slowly mouth the price he had said, “Man pal baik won.” 10,800원. I was thankful he waited for me to figure it out instead of telling me the price in English. A seat was about a dollar more and a train later than the standing room only price. “Nae,” (Yes) I responded.
Yes, that one.