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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.

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