You feel so comfortable in this place after such a long time, you believe you really get it, you can predict what’s going to happen, all the cultural oddities have settled into mathematical formulas, and if you just plug and chug a few numerals you can calculate the consequences of your actions to a reasonable degree of certainty. At times, among the warmth of your friends, acquaintances, and even your family members, who belong to this alien culture, you even feel yourself accepted as one of the tribe. You’ve gotten used to it.
And then you take a seat on the subway.
It was something I hadn’t noticed before because most of my previous commutes were short, twenty minutes or less, but now I’m traveling all over the city, an hour each way, and in a pair of rather uncomfortable shoes it starts to get pretty unbearable if I don’t fight for a seat on one of the long green benches that line the sides of the subway car. Whereupon, of course, no one will sit next to me; the seats beside me are always the last to be filled; and if anyone does sit there, they always make such a show of squeezing as many inches between us as possible, perhaps because they suspect that everyone else on the subway car is scowling at them. And, indeed, perhaps, they are.
This evening I was stared at for a total of perhaps twenty or thirty minutes by two different men, not to mention a few older women whose gazes I met, but did not break, with my own wandering eyes. After so many months in this place, after feeling relatively certain that most of these people must see at least one foreigner every week, I still cannot wrap my head around what would compel someone to stare for so long at another human being.
And you may scoff at the following two words—American politeness—but god damnit, my American politeness always revolts at this behavior; until I came to Korea I had no idea that I was such a prude. I mean, you can glance at someone for a split-second, and it’s really okay if they don’t catch you or if they pretend they don’t catch you, but a full-on stare, an unrelenting glare, that does not break even if the victim in question catches you in the act—that is simply inexplicable.
I can understand mob violence. I can understand sporadic acts of cannibalism, ritual human sacrifice, voluntary crucifixion, child pornography, coprophilia, even Republicans—but I cannot understand that kind of staring, and I’m not sure I ever will.
I watched one man in the reflection of the subway door windows (a safe place to look as most Koreans have a very strange relationship with glass, one which deserves its own blog post)—I watched him, as he watched me, for the entirety of the fifteen-minute ride from Seomyeon to Jungang. He regarded me. He stared out of his old tired eyes, the dark slits in that leathery wrinkled mask, and did not seem to blink. Sometimes he grew bored with me—after all, I was just standing there, reading, and is that truly so nefarious?—and glanced away at the usual suspects hanging about the subway car, but his gaze inevitably returned. When we were a minute or so away from his stop he stepped up next to me and peered over my shoulder, rather belligerently, to see what I was reading, though I am fairly certain the meaning of those beautiful letters was beyond him.