Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Man in the Subway

For Thanksgiving, all Fulbright ETAs were invited to have (American) thanksgiving dinner at the U.S. embassy. So, most of us, from all parts of Korea, packed our bags and met up for dinner.

I'm still trying to decide if the dinner was the best thing in my life or the worst. The food was excellent. Real vegetarian stuffing, green bean casserole, salad, fruit, bread (with real butter) and pumpkin, apple and cherry pies. For the meat-eaters, there was also real turkey and ham. I've never seen so many happy people in one room before.

On the bad side, it made me realize how much I wish I was home. But, what can you do? This is my home. This is my family. You can't spend your life wishing for something else. That just makes you sad.

Anyways. It was great to be united, once again. After dinner on Friday, we mostly hung out at the hostel, just catching up. Saturday morning I had a meeting for a winter camp my school will participate in, followed by lunch. After lunch I met up with one of my non-Fulbright friends from Gurye who happened to be in Seoul as well. The rest of Saturday was shopping.

After my friend went back to Gurye, I decided to catch back up with my Fulbright friends (to continue shopping...ugh. I'm SICK of shopping!) Transportation in Seoul is amazing. It has probably the best subway system I've ever been on. But it's also the primary means of transportation for most people, so it's always packed. Especially on Saturdays. Especially around Myeong-dong - the center of the shopping part of Seoul, which, of course, was where my friends were.

So I made my way to the nearest subway station, figured out where to go (happily, I didn't have to make any transfers!) and climbed on the next train that pulled up. It was packed, being only three stops away from Myeong-dong. I made my way onto the train car, gently pushing past people to allow the stream of people behind me to fit in. When I came to a point where I couldn't squeeze in anymore, I turned around to brace for the car's movement. Next to me, packed just as tightly, was a man towering at least four-and-a-half feet tall and not a day younger than 75, peering at me under his orange golfing hat through eye slits sunken into a wrinkly face.

Living in a very rural place, I see the best of the best when it comes to old people. And I'm pretty good at telling which of the oldies are harmlessly old and which are mentally unstable. This character had all the makings of a crazy, but his eyes were pretty alert. So I assumed that he was just another old man. Probably wondering why there are so many of these weird looking people in his city.

He didn't break his stare, which made me kind of uncomfortable (perhaps a tad irritated). So I did the only thing that I know how to do when it comes to strange people. I flashed him a little half smile and head bow. And then he did something surprising.

He somehow got even closer to me, reached into his pocket and took out a little scrap of hanji paper (brightly patterned paper with a little rougher consistency than normal paper) and started folding. By the next stop, he placed the smallest origami turtle in my hand. Completely shocked, I muttered my thank-you's and my beautiful's as I studied the turtle.

Now a few people were turned toward us (I mean, seriously, a foreigner just spoke their language!).

Delighted, the man reached, yet again, into his pocket and took out another scrap of hanji paper. With great care, he started folding. All eyes in the car were on this little man folding little paper for this single American. He then produced a tiny origami flower and placed it in my hand. I did my best to express my interest, gratitude, etc. But we came to my stop. I told my little friend that this is where we must part.

Well, back to reality. It's a crowded train (of which I was in the middle) and there's only a small amount of time that the doors open at each stop. My little origami friend moved for me, but the boys next to him did not. To make matters worse, another group of boys were pushing to get out, causing my exit route to be even more blocked. As I was getting nervous about getting out, my origami friend pushed past me and, with a deceptively strong arm, pushed both the standing boys and the fast-exiting boys out of the way, making a very clear way for me.

What can you do? Do you get down on your knees and bow? Do you stand there thanking the guy? Or do you just walk out? Here was this little man, who probably remembers a Seoul without the subway and remembers a time when there was a Seoul without the foreigners. How much has this man seen? He also probably remembers a time when young people were deeply respectful to the elderly rather than now, where most young people ignore them.

And here he was. Entertaining a foreigner who tossed him a smile. And making sure she didn't get lost in this huge city.

So what can I do? I started toward the door and gave him a little wave as I walked away (and gave a head-nod of acknowledgement toward the surprised boys). Still holding my turtle and flower in my open hand and feeling a renewed sense of faith in the world.

Even though I was in Seoul for three days, that's still the first thing I think about the trip. I'll try to post some pictures later. Thanks for reading!


  1. Awesome experience. Simple pleasures are the best. Glad your trip went well. Love Mom

  2. WE Loved your blog. It brought tears to my eyes. You missed us and we missed you. Had dinner at your folks. Special as always. Can't get into the Christmas Spirit. Somehow things are different this year. Uncle Bruce and family spent Thanksgiving in Hawall. Keep in touch. We really appreciate the communication.Love G&G

  3. I am glad that you got to have Thanksgiving. And a real cool story of the subway origami master... I do remember riding buses with my bulging book bag. I remember how the bus driver would make a turn and we would all be packed further, although it didn't look like there was any room. Sometimes, if you are standing with the heavy bag, some kind soul sitting would take the bag from you. Sometimes, if I was sitting and an elderly person gets on the bus, it was expected that I'd give the seat to him or her, which was a good thing. The same with little kids. The extreme proximity of fellow human beings on the public transportation and sometimes just on the street is something I would have much difficulty with, now that I have gotten so used to the space.