Thursday, December 22, 2011

Party in the Subway

Japanese book in hand, I stepped onto the subway. Even though I only had two minutes of a ride until my transfer station (Seomyeon), I automatically glanced through the car to see if there were any easily accessible seats. I’m a city dweller now, and practiced in the art of scanning for subway seats. I looked first for the rare space of two or three open seats, then for the prized seats nearest to the door where you only have to touch one person on either side of you. Eopseoyo.[1] There were only a couple of half-open seats neighbored by puffy-coated Koreans trying to cover as much of said open seat without being rude but simultaneously defending that precious bit of breathing room for all they are worth.

I didn’t even glance to my left at the special seats reserved for the elderly, the pregnant, the handicapped, and me during my first week here when I didn’t know any better. But I do know better now, so I calmly stood by the closing doors and waited for the two minutes to pass until I could hop onto the orange line and home. I opened my Japanese book and started deciphering the once-familiar symbols into half-remembered words. I heard some rickety Korean by my left elbow.

The area of special seats on the subway is often empty, or maybe only one or two seats are filled by slightly smelly ajeosshis[2] (old men) or babbling ajummas[3] (old women). But sometimes—sometimes!—they’re packed with old folks who may or may not know one another and whose shouts and laughter ring out throughout the otherwise quiet subway car. At times like that, the rest of us glance up from our i-phones, i-kindles, and i-newspapers—maybe even remove an ear bud—in order to observe the raucous impromptu party we weren’t invited to due to our lack of dentures.

Gyu says, “That is the ajeosshi and ajumma way of talking. They like to be loud and they don’t care if anyone else is really listening. They are always yelling and they are self-important.” And they’re definitely having more fun than the rest of us. They’re the cool kids at the other lunch table who are always laughing about something while your table is quietly munching on your lunchables and ham sandwiches.

Looking gangsta. Nbd.
So you can understand why I felt so shocked and honored when the ajumma behind my left elbow scooted over and patted the special seat beside her. I sat—hesitantly—by her side and nod/bowed in her general direction. She smiled and half-nod/bowed back at me, and I opened by Japanese book once more.

She leeeeeeeaned all the way over my shoulder to look at what I was studying. Koreans are remarkably comfortable rubbernecking on the subway and ajummas are the opposite of the exception, but rather the intensification of the rule, as so often is the case with age in Korea. The following took place in a garble of English, Japanese, and Korean. I’ll translate the important parts:

Ajumma(Korean): Japanese garblegarblegarble?
Me: (Korean) Uhhhhhhh (Japanese): Yes, I’m studying Japanese.
Ajumma (Korean): Russian garblegarblegarble?
Me (Korean): uuuuuuuhAmerican person!
Ajumma (Korean): Ahhhhh. Korean garblegarblegarble know?
Me (Korean): I am studying Korean. GarbleIcanonlythinkoftheJapaneseword...(English) But it’s difficult.
Ajumma (Korean): garblegarble?garblegarblegar?blegarble
Me (English/giving up): uuuuuuuuh—gotta go! My stop!

My two-minute ride was up, as was my ability to speak in Korean. With yet another nod/bow thing I slipped off the green line and onto the orange grinning like a mad thing. Clearly I’m well on my way to both fluency and fame. If I can break into the ajumma circle of popularity, who knows what will happen next? I might even get invited to all the coolest subway parties!

[1]없어요 = Don’t have
[2]아저씨 = old man, but in a respectful way
[3]아줌마 = old lady, but in a respectful way

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