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Seoul Shock: adventures in public transportation

Danielle Davidson is a Boise State student studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea. 

When a complete stranger walked up to me after I got off the train as I headed to the transfer point, I was skeptical. He said “hello,” and I said “hi” back with what hopefully looked like a ‘why are you talking to me’ face while I scanned my card. The conversation went something like this:

Salmon-colored shirt man (SCSM): “Hello.”

Me: “Hi.”

Please don’t be a creep.

SCSM: “Do you speak Korean?”

Me: “No.”


SCSM: “Are you a teacher?”

Me: “No.”


SCSM: “Do you have KakaoTalk?”

Me: “…no, why? Do you?”


SCSM: “Yes, you should get it. Do you have a boyfriend?”

Well that escalated quickly.

Me: “No, and no thank you.”

Run away, run away!

He must have been too shocked to follow me, because he stopped in his tracks and I dove into a group of people going toward the transfer tunnel. Maybe he just wanted to be friends, or maybe not, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

There aren’t always open seats on buses, so a lot of the time people have to stand, which isn’t very fun. It’s like riding a horse on a stair stepper on the high seas. Occasionally this results in falling over if you’re not careful to hold onto something or someone (a friend, do not hold onto strangers). Being a foreigner, people are already prone to look at me because I am tall and white, which is awkward sometimes. Occasionally children stare at me out of curiosity. ‘Mommy who’s that girl with big eyes?’ There are also those who hold back laughter as the foreigner falls and grabs onto her friend for dear life when the bus starts moving. Yes, I’m talking about you, man with the headphones, who tried desperately not to laugh at the bewildered girl on the bus. No harm done, but I usually stick to the subway lines now. No more sailing for me.

The key to blending in, or trying as much as possible, is to act like you know what you’re doing. When I was in Japan I had to ride the train by myself one morning and I was a little nervous, because I don’t know Tokyo like I know Seoul. I got on the train, looked around, and everyone was on their phones (same as Seoul). So, I got my phone out, and paged through some messages quite seriously. Accidentally I ended up getting off a stop early, so I just played it cool and looked at my phone some more. Apparently my ‘I know what I’m doing’ act was convincing, because another foreigner came up to me and asked if they were headed in the right direction. I knew enough to say they were. They thanked me and said they were glad they ran into someone who spoke English living in Tokyo before heading on their jolly way. All and all, I miss my car, but I like public transportation too.