Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Concert for my Subway Car

            I hate the subways. On the other hand, most people think alighting the steps of a Busan Bus is comparable to crossing the Rubicon to dance with Damocles’ sword. It’s a melee where the last man standing is sometimes a hand-cart toting ahjumma or a smelly, staring ahjusshi but it is never a foreigner clutching her bus pass and crying out to God for the lost innocence of her personal space.
            Every criticism against the bus is well-deserved, earned by a myriad of late and crowded Daewoos careening through the streets with little respect for the human life both inside and outside its walls[1]. But at least they have fresh air coming through the constantly opening doors. At least they have windows.
The subways only have blank glares, stale air, and advertisements plastered over door, windows, and wall—advertisements for plastic surgery, for clearing my skin, perfecting my hair. There are no windows, only rows of frowners, people who jostle and steal your seat and cough on you. Doors open only to admit the hordes of overly perfumed women, smelly men, and dull-eyed students—batches of automatons politely ignoring everyone else’s existence. Headphones, smartphones, and i-somethings appear from nowhere: tiny, electronic shields. No one smiles.
I don’t often take the subway during to-and-from-work times, but today I had to drop my violin off at its babysitter’s, so I hauled myself out of bed, skipped Bible study and joined the masses in the tube of disappointed dreams and despair.
Okay, I promise I’m finished being maudlin. That was the last one.
I had gone through my Bible memory verses on the bus and so attempted to pray on the subway. No dice. I’m not a good prayer at the best of times, but without a pen in my hand or even the hint of a skyline I’m hopeless. I patted my violin case in consolation and suddenly realized I was going to miss my little fiddle. Two months is a long time apart and we’ve been through a lot together—All State nerves, symphony and scholarship auditions, concerto performances, and that time when I was awarded a scholarship violin that was way better and my heart wandered for a semester or three . . .
A song floated into my mind—
            Come thou font of every blessing
            Tune my heart to sing thy grace
            Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
            Call for songs of loudest praise
            Teach me some melodious sonnet
            Sung by flaming tongues above—!
            Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
            Mount of Thy redeeming love.
Prone to wander in prayer, prone to leave my focus behind and chase after rabbit trails of thought instead of the God I love, I was grateful for the hymn. It haunted my mind, prayer-like, until my fingers itched to share it. I patted my violin case one more time.
“Not now,” I told it quietly, even as my heart thudded with excitement. “I’m on the subway and people stare enough at the foreigner. It’s scary to be different and we already sang on Sunday. It’s time for goodbye, not worship.”
But the idea grew like the thump, thump, thump of the Telltale Heart, and I had to work hard to consider the logistics. No room, too many people, too many disapproving stares, and too many stops of embarrassment to go before I could escape. But my fingers itched, my heart thumped and I knew that within, courage and fear within were tapping their toes to the beat I would play.
In the first car on the subway, there’s a small extra space for standing. I moved there with seven stops to go, unzipping the outer case, leaving the lock untouched. With six stops to go, I took off my scarf and the fingerless glove on my left hand. I set my purse down behind me and my case next to it. I stooped and sprung the lock. A finger brushed across the strings—still in tune—a look at the bridge—still straight. Tightened my bow. Took a deep breath. The eyes of all in the car were on me, but still I faced the wall.
With five stops to go, the subway emerges from the earth’s depths and becomes an elevated train. It was then—mountains and buildings flew by; the sun peaked in the windows, past the advertisements about fixing my skin, my nose, my eyes, obscuring the screens of the i-somethings—time to begin. I slipped my puffy coat off my left shoulder and turned to my audience.
The song was raw. My fingers shook, my legs wobbled, and I worried about the jolting starts and stops as we passed through the stations. Come Thou Font, simple; Amazing Grace, timeless; Flowers of Edinburgh, a toe-tapper.
I saw one head bob with the beat, but didn’t catch anyone’s eyes. I couldn’t smile. I looked out at the sun, facing my body toward the window and my violin’s sound down the long, metallic aisle and played as best my trembling fingers could manage.
It was at once a temporary farewell to Korea, a fist-pump of fighting! to the dull-eyed students, a thumbed nose at the glaring, staring, judging anti-toe tappers frowning at me. It was a timid cry for a revolution of joy and quirkiness, a suggestion to look up from their phones, a hope that the day would be brighter than an average, pushy subway ride. It was a little song of praise, too—wobbly and raw—to God, who has grown me to the point where I have the courage to stand up in a subway car full of grey, slumped shoulders and sing.
With one stop to go, I ended on an impertinent little g-chord and packed up. I pulled my left glove back on, slipped my arm back into my coat, and wound my scarf around my neck. Violin strapped to my left side, purse hanging on my right. I checked my cell phone, readied my subway card, and stepped into the cold, cold morning. 

[1] Today my bus driver pull a three-point 360 on a 30% incline, backtracking faster than the Millenium Falcon in order to avoid an ephemeral traffic jam. It was impressive, terrifying, and needless.


  1. Music ♫ is food for the soul - thanks for breaking bread, so to speak, with a whole carload. I feel sure that at least some enjoyed the unexpected morning repast

  2. Who in the world are you and why am I only finding your blog just now?! I love your mind and heart--what a treasure you must be to know. I want to connect but it looks like you're leaving Korea soon--My husband and I are moving back to Korea (used to live in Seoul) in Feb2013 to start working for Kosin. I've taken 6 months off to visit friends and family in the states. Tell me more about Kosin if you get a chance. I'd like to have an idea of what I'm getting myself and my family into....if that's even possible.
    english.kl at gmail if you're inclined to reply.