Subways and Culture

Once again, I’m linking to Matt’s site, this time where he links an article on how the seats reserved for the old, pregnant, ill, weak, and disabled are, well… some old people seem to think those seats are just for old people, and doing things like shouting at pregnant women for sitting in those seats. Or, in one case, getting into a fight to the death over who gets to sit there.

And, well, you know how it is: nobody’s really stepping up to tell them, “No, you have it wrong you crotchety old bastard, now STFU before someone knocks you on your ass and you end up with a busted hip!” Or, as the article puts it:

The problem is compounded because Koreans are generally reluctant to make a public issue of unruly senior citizens – doing so goes against the social norm of showing respect to the elderly.

The implicit claim here is that it’s a (Neo-)Confucian thing. This, I’m willing to entertain.

My experience is rather like that of one of the commenters: though of course there are a few people who do immediately hop out of their seats to give a spot to someone who’s visibly pregnant, old, or disabled in some way — like the woman I saw leap out of her seat to guide a blind lady to it and sit her down yesterday — they seem fewer than I remember even five years ago, and, I should add, just about the only people who I ever see giving up their seat are women — especially those between 30-50, who seem to have been “raised properly”… and they’re usually giving up the seat for other women, which, hey, makes sense to me.

Meanwhile, searching my memories, I have seen precisely one Korean guy under 30 give up his seat for anyone in any of the conditions mentioned above. The one guy who did so was a teenager, prompted by an older woman I assume was his mom. I have seen younger men yield seats to women, quite overtly when it’s the women they’re with, but also, tacitly, in cases where an attractive woman nearby seems to want the seat.

By the way, I’m not sure I can really make a comparison. The only subway I’ve used extensively was in Montreal, and from what I remember it was basically never as crowded as most of the trains are in Seoul, so this sort of dilemma was rare. Then again, so was the conflict between young and old, because in Montreal, not only were there fewer people on the subway, but they behaved in ways I can’t help but think of as saner.

Yielding seats was common. Moving to make space for a couple who obviously wanted to sit together was normal. Hell, if the train was full, people would just wait for the next one, rather than cram themselves into already-crowded cars. (And the definition of crowded was much less like a sardine can than it is here.)

Some friends have commented to me that this is just big city stuff, but I’m not so sure. Maybe big cities in a certain stage in the process of modernization: the Paris, London, New York, and Chicago metros all opened in the 19th century, and I’d be unsurprised to hear such behaviour as normal within thirty years of their opening. But the behaviour on the Seoul subway, especially creaky old Line 1 — basically, ignoring others, and behaving as if common sense safety protocols (like not cramming train cars to the brim) are for paranoiacs — doesn’t seem like universally big city stuff to me. It seems more extreme in Seoul, from my experience. I’d be curious to hear how people who’ve used the Paris and Moscow metros — two of the busiest in the world, apparently — would compare behaviour on those systems to the one in Seoul.

By the way, the end of that article is baffling:

“Even in more economically advanced countries such as the United States, where the system of capitalism undervalues those with lower productivity, understanding seniority is part of the academic curriculum. This is to teach that everyone grows old and thus the younger generation, which is healthier and stronger, should be more considerate of them.”

Besides the fact that plenty of people here in Korea are undervalued because of lower productivity — just as brutally as in the US, if not more so, and on spurious grounds (being an artist, being disabled, having gone to the wrong university, belonging to the wrong religion… hell, even being a woman: these are all common enough reasons in many Koreans’ daily lives for their being undervalued).

Besides that, I’m sorry but “understanding seniority” wasn’t something I was taught in school at all, at least not as far as I remember. I learned it in other places, including the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts (there was a merit badge for lending a hand to a senior citizen, for example), but mostly from my parents, who very consciously taught me to respect older people and be generous with them.

They also taught me that seniority was not a blank check: that my being older than someone else didn’t give me the right to lord it over that younger person, and likewise that being younger didn’t mean I had to take shit from someone older indefinitely.

(Taking a little shit, maybe; some old people don’t know what they’re saying or doing. But there is a point when the other person’s rudeness signifies that he or she has waivered any right to expect polite treatment. Then you tell them to shut their bloody mouths and keep that crap to themselves. Why? Because young people have a right to dignity too.)

And that, you see, is why I think young people more often seem reluctant to give up their seats. When you have been made to feel like you don’t have the right to tell someone off for being a jerk — when respect has been warped from something mutual between members in a society, though different in nature between young and old, into the monstrous duty to just take shit from your elders, warranted or not — it becomes truly impossible to bear the duty of respect on a continual basis… and then it’s very tempting to seek segregation.

Tempting, in other words, to think, Those seats down on the end, those are for old people. Go sit there. I’m not saying it’s right. But it is understandable, the reaction. The real problem is, who can police the small percentage of elderly people who are completely aggressive jerks, and possibly mentally ill? The young people can’t, and their elderly peers either can’t or don’t dare.

Of course, I suspect at the same time that older people probably feel as if they’re not being respected enough. Young people want nothing to do with them, and how can one extract respect from people when they are avoiding you? And these are people who, after all, see themselves as having lifted Korea out of poverty. A lot of them did struggle to do so, though I don’t mean to paint them in pastel colors. I just mean that if some of them feel a little screwed over, on some level, it’d be, well, not very surprising.

So the issue festers. Frankly, putting signs that highlight a fetus in the womb of a pregnant woman won’t make a difference when women are two-thirds of a person — and that’s precisely what, among many other things, mind, their average economic renumeration for work, compared to men, suggests:

Female regular workers made just 67 percent of wages for their male counterparts, while female nonregular employees also earned much less than male nonregular workers.

And amid some positive comparisons to the status of women in Japan, a pretty stark statistic:

90 percent of workers who lost their jobs due to downsizing resulting from the crisis were women. Of the workers that have been declared redundant since November 2008, 98 percent are also women, says the Korea Labour Institute.

I therefore find it not very surprising that older men seem to think they’re entitled to shout at pregnant women for sitting in those seats. (After all, the 68% pay and the fact women had jobs outside the home at all was an improvement on conditions when those old folks were the young majority.) It may not be wholly a gender issue, but it is at least partly one.

But it’s also just a weird etiquette issue. Sometimes I’ll get on a train that’s full, and those extra seats will be empty. On Line 1, almost nobody ever takes them, even if there’s no old person around. On other lines, some people do, though they’ll usually vacate the seats when older people show up. Having the seats designated as being “priority seating” — seats that should be yielded to certain kinds of people — has somehow turned into nobody who isn’t in that group having the right to sit there.

Anyway, returning to the original article:

“It is high time for the country to come up with a more reasonable and systematic means to get both parties to understand each other better,” Professor Choi said.

Well, if that’s what you think will solve it, then the one thing that needs to happen is… respect needs to become a two-way street. Until it does, I imagine the easiest solution would be just to mark Car #1 on each subway train as for senior citizens only. Then the priority seating in the other cars would be available for everyone else.

14 thoughts on “Subways and Culture

  1. And I’ll just add to it that I think most dominant philosophical systems suck in a lot of the same ways.

    That said, it was possible to rehabilitate part of the Judeo-Christian mess into the relatively sanity of secular humanism; if that’s possible, I’m sure Confucian thought could similarly be rehabilitated.

    C. Douglas Lummis has argued (and this is a paraphrase) that any society or culture (including our own) can become a more democratic (and generally humane) version of itself, and I like to think so too. So I think the solution is less about dustbin, and more about building something better on the ruins of what came before.

  2. You made me go through my dusty drafts file to find a post I started months ago. Appreciate it :)

    “Tempting, in other words, to think, Those seats down on the end, those are for old people. Go sit there. I’€™m not saying it’€™s right. But it is understandable, the reaction. The real problem is, who can police the small percentage of elderly people who are completely aggressive jerks, and possibly mentally ill? The young people can’t, and their elderly peers either can’t or don’t dare.”

    Foreigners! Under the totem pole of Confucianism, our place is either the lowest of the low (as an outsider with few or no relationships), or without a place in the system at all. That means we have nothing to lose by standing our ground. We have no face to lose, and unless we’re with a Korean or know the language, you can completely ignore whatever may come out of his mouth.

    The aggressive ones can be dealt with (whether male or female) in many of the same ways they attempt to garner a seat, a better position: a push-aside, a shove, or perhaps even an elbow should the need arise.

    Shaming them into submission is unlikely to work – how many drunken ajosshis have you seen pissing on the street in full view of anyone walking by?

    In closing, let me say that I do (as a general rule) respect older people – when they’re being / acting respectable. Ignoring societal agreements for their benefit gives less reason to show any level of respect to them.

  3. Chris,

    Well, I’m not sure I can get behind that, even with the 19th-century manifesto-styled opening of “Foreigners!” There are, after all, some problematic assumptions there. Such as that foreigners don’t speak Korean and naturally wouldn’t learn, for starters. As for this:

    Under the totem pole of Confucianism, our place is either the lowest of the low (as an outsider with few or no relationships), or without a place in the system at all. That means we have nothing to lose by standing our ground. We have no face to lose…

    I’m not so sure about that. I think that like in any society, there are progressives, and that Confucianism isn’t merely some malignant computer program installed in the heads of Koreans. I like to think, and that my experience supports this, that a number of Koreans, even those who tend not to react in an adult way when we speak critically of things in Korea, are willing to give us a chance. When disappointed, a significant percentage of them default to us having no face, but only for us as individuals.

    In other words, Koreans aren’t simply a group we should lump together and dehumanize as a (horror!) Confucian mob.

    I’m also not so hip to elbowing or shoving people, because I don’t want it to be the norm and it isn’t the norm. I don’t jump out of their way, mind, but I don’t go out of my way to start physical confrontations.

    Shaming them into submission is unlikely to work – how many drunken ajosshis have you seen pissing on the street in full view of anyone walking by?

    I think you’re assuming Koreans ought to have the same shame buttons as Canadians or something. Shame is an extremely powerful force here, as anywhere; but the problem is, shame only works when inflicted in front of those one feels one ought to be ashamed in front of.

    In closing, let me say that I do (as a general rule) respect older people – when they’re being / acting respectable. Ignoring societal agreements for their benefit gives less reason to show any level of respect to them.

    I agree with this, I think, as well as with the idea someone isn’t default respectable by virtue of having been born at some time before me. Some old people are morons, and I think the main problem with those morons in Korea, unlike in places I’ve lived in Canada, is that in Korea strangers seem to prefer to let ’em get away with their bad behaviour, rather than tell them to shut up, get lost, or whatever.

    (Indeed, it seems people are more tolerant of asshole behaviour across the age spectrum: I’ve seen young people act like jerks in public, for local standards of “jerk,” with imnpunity too.)

  4. As someone who has lived in NYC and London, I can say with confidence that all of the bad subway behavior described in this post exist there, too. You may not see it if you visit for a week or two, but if you are there for a long period of time, you will see people cramming into subways, not giving up their seat to seniors or pregnant women, etc. Sorry, cultural relativism doesn’t apply here.

  5. Michael,

    Well, okay; maybe it’s a function of mostly having lived in smaller cities like Montreal and Edmonton, or maybe it’s a function of Canadians being super-polite, but I’ve never seen anything like this before coming to Seoul. (In the parts of Canada I grew up, hell, men still stand up and yield their seats to women more often than not. I never, ever felt like I was the only one doing it out there.)

    But I will say that if you may not see it visiting for a week or two, then it must not be like Seoul. Because if you visit Seoul for a week, and use the subway during that time, you’re probably guaranteed to see it.

    I should also clarify that I ride Line 1 the most, and Line 1 is the oldest and worst line — worst in terms of service outages but also in terms of speed (especially on the commuter line outside of Seoul), and thus also worst in terms of frustration of passengers and resultant passenger behavior.

  6. I’d go the opposite way, Chris: first of all, even if I don’t have face personally, I remain a representative of my group.

    On the other hand, I have a friend whose Korean is good enough that when an ugly ajumma or ajosshi situation arises, she scolds them in Korean, and then, to twist the knife, comments out loud, “Good lord. This kind of thing gives me a terrible impression of Korea!”

    Shame DOES work.

  7. Rob,

    Well, wait a minute. I’m a representative of “my group”? What is my group?

    These days, “multiculturalism” is a huge buzzword in Korea. Okay, fine: in a multicultural society, people learn that one person from a racial group (or other group: a gay guy, a soldier, a Southerner or someone from out West) isn’t necessarily representative of others from that group.

    I mean, if you were to translate this to a minority in the place where you’re from — a Native person, or a black guy, or someone from South Asia — would it be reasonable to call that person a “representative” of his or her race?

    Where we come from, this would understood as a racist view. And I would contend that it is racist thinking wherever it occurs.

    (And I would contend that white people in Korea, for example, tend to encounter the short end and the long end of that simultaneously while here, often for the first time in their lives, at least the first time they’re conscious of both ends. They hate being seen as a representative of their race, and meanwhile often take the worst behaved people around them as representatives of Korean society.

    (Yeah, me too.)

    I agree that in a lot of Koreans’ eyes, foreign people whom they don’t know personally are slotted into specific groups ([white] “American,” “black,” “migrant worker” and so on). I agree that a number of Koreans furthermore take for granted that the behaviour of people of a certain group should be taken as representative of the group as a whole.

    I disagree that we should encourage, or accept, this kind of thinking, just as I disagree that we non-Koreans ought to characterize Korean society based on its most annoying members. It’s racist thinking, plain and simple.

    Which is not to say we should all be trying to pretend to be colorblind. People are aware of race. It’s part of our consciousness, whether (as I would argue) for evolutionary reasons1 or cultural ones. It’s when racialized thinking drives one’s interpretation of, biases towards, and treatment of others that it becomes racist.

    Frankly, I think the real impetus for changing this will come from enlightened Koreans, but along the way I see no point in trying to be some kind of “model minority” that is willing to take random shit while following all the rules. (I’m not saying you’re arguing that, just that it often is a component of being a member of a model minority.) Asian-Americans have demonstrated for us how fruitless and frustrating a route that can be.

    As for shame, as I said I think it can work, but within a context. Some people will feel embarrassed when told off by whoever they’re treating badly. Some people, though, simply don’t have the social equipment. Some of the social equipment involves being not-racist enough to regard non-Koreans as human, and sadly, a lot of people seem to still be working on the step before that… the step of regarding fellow Koreans, or even their own family members, as human.

    So I would caveat and say “Shame CAN work.” But it cannot be relied upon to work consistently. See this post on “I’m No Picasso” for an example where shaming seems not to be a viable approach.

    1. I’m not saying we’re wired to be racist. I’m saying that among the “software” we evolved for survival was some code for recognizing people of groups different from our own, which has distinct survival advantages in a world where humans from different groups are competing for resources, don’t have language to communicate with, and where, as with our chimpanzee cousins, [micro-]genocidal acts (killing off another troupe of humans for their resources, land, females, whatever] was likely both common and conventional.) In such a world, noticing differences that suggest one is from another group could make a major survival difference.

    I’m pretty sure race would not have fit into that evolutionary process, mind. Race as we modern humans know it might be the result of a branching-out perhaps as recently as the Toba catastrophe (ie. just 69,000-77,000 years ago–an eyeblink of geological time, really. So our “racial” sensitivity is probably rooted in something more like a sensitivity to appearance, and specific aspects of physical and facial structure.

    Which is interesting, because both Koreans and white Westerners, who have grown up not being immersed in the other’s society, commonly report finding that “they all look alike” (I hear Koreans say it of Westerners, and we all know the Westerner-in-Korea’s joke that goes like this:

    A: “Have you seen Jinhee?”
    B: “No, what does she look like?”
    A: “She’s short and slim, with brown hair and brown eyes…”
    B: “Um…”

    The details one looks at to differentiate Asian (and I’d guess, African, or Aborigine, or Tamil, or whatever) faces are slightly different, and adjusts quickly. Likewise, what one looks at to differentiate Western faces isn’t what Koreans seem to grow up with, and regardless of media it seems to take immersion, and particularly immersion in real-life relationships (of whatever sort) with Westerners for Koreans to get better at telling us apart. (I was recently mistaken for a professor who used to teach here; he was tall, slim, and about ten years older than me, I think; looked nothing like me, had a British accent. Same haircut, though, and to this student, we “looked the same”).

    Anyway, just wanted to qualify: we’re wired to be conscious of “different” physical appearance, but that doesn’t naturalize racism. We’re also wired to be sexual and to notice sexuality around us; but that doesn’t make us “naturally sexist” for example.

  8. It’s worth pointing out that some seats are similarly reserved for old folks on the DC metro, though I’ve not ridden it enough to know how often people actually respect the rule.

  9. Scott,

    Are they reserved in the way they are in Seoul? I’ve seen seats reserved for older, pregnant, or physically handicapped people on subways all over, but I have not seen the kind of territorialism among old people that (a) stops the pregnant and handicapped from sitting in those reserved seats, and (b) prevents anyone and everyone from using them until an old person actually shows up.

    And to revisit Michael’s comment, I am noting on the subway in Rome that people do pile in, but they also apologize when they bump you more than very lightly, they don’t tend to shove, they don’t tend to be nasty about it. There’s an extension of human warmth and basic respect to the interactions I’ve had during my admittedly brief stay that, nonetheless, are night and day with the behaviour one sees in Seoul (on or off the subway). I was shocked when I bumped a lady by accident and she turned and looked at me with an apologetic smile and said, “Scuzi.”

  10. Gord:

    I’ve been in Korea a total of 4 days now (just came over with EPIK) and am currently in Jeonju, so I can’t compare the subways of Seoul with the DC metro. I definitely don’t think old folks in DC would yell at someone for not surrendering a seat, but I do think most DC metro-goers would give up their seat without complaint. But this is really just speculation on my part.

  11. Scott,

    Ah well, when you have a sense I’d be happy to hear it here.

    By the way, I clicked the link to your blog, and immediately got the sense you’re not going to appreciate my next post, which is basically my impressions of Rome but focuses on my thoughts after visiting the Vatican Museum. This, too, is only speculation, however.

    That said, have you seen this blog? I have no idea whether you’d get on, or be mired in theological disagreements, but anyway, I figured it might be of interest to you, as it’s another Christian blog by an expat in Korea.

  12. Haha, don’t worry–I’m not Catholic. I’m an Episcopalian (i.e. Anglicanism in the US). I’d probably share many of your criticisms of the Papacy (and Christianity in general, for that matter). That said, I trend towards Anglo-Catholicism, but that’s for sacramental and liturgical reasons. I’m a rather harsh critic of Papacy and Roman hierarchy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *