Public transit in Asia in general has been quite unreasonably exciting for me. I really appreciate the ease and comfort that the intricate system of trains and buses offered both in Korea and Japan.
One thing that I have realized, however, is that I have, or perhaps had, a very low tolerance for breaches in personal space. Growing up in suburbia, there aren’t a lot of personal space restrictions, and the US isn’t exactly the most densely populated country. Here in Asia however, I have found myself uncomfortably squished, packed and crowded into planes, trains, automobiles and a variety of other means of transportation.
Due to the space restrictions here in Asia I have found that people tend to have far smaller personal space bubbles. This is reflected outside of public transit as well. It is not uncommon to see women, or even men of all ages walking down the street hand in hand or leaning on one another. Especially among junior high school and high school students, you will often see same gender groups cuddling or stroking each other’s hair. Unfortunately in the US any same sex physical contact, especially between males is immediately associated with homosexuality. It is nice to see men able to show each other some love, without the homophobic stigma that exists in America.
Another trend common to public transit in Asia is dozing. You can hardly get on a train or bus without seeing several people passed out in every manner of awkward position. Students and professionals alike tend to work too hard and not sleep enough, so the commute home seems to be a pretty convenient opportunity to catch up on some shut eye. This seems to come with an extra sensory awareness for when the right stop comes up. It’s amazing how many people are startled awake barely in time to peel their faces off the window and slip out the doors, just as they are closing.
I suppose when you factor in these two variables, this next little story doesn’t seem too far fetched. It was however pretty perplexing for me at the time.
As it turns out on this particular evening I was headed home from Seoul about a two hour ride on an express bus. Oddly enough I ran into some of my foreign friends at the terminal so we were all on the same bus. I ended up in the back row with three friends to my right and one empty seat on my left. Typically this type of bus fills up pretty fast, and there are rarely empty seats. I knew this seat wouldn’t stay empty for long. As we were waiting for the bus to fill up and depart, my friend next to me was joking about how she felt sorry for the Korean that was inevitably going to end up in our row with a bunch of foreigners. A few minutes later sure enough here comes a Korean woman in her late 20’s, wide eyed and hoping she is not reading her ticket correctly. Becoming more certain of her doom with every step, she finally resigned herself to her fate and even managed a polite smile at me as she squeezed into the corner next to me.
After a long day in Seoul, there was no way I was going to stay awake for a full two hour bus ride. So, naturally I fell asleep pretty quickly. A little less than halfway home, I awoke to my surprise shoulder to shoulder with this pretty young Korean next to me. I didn’t think much of it and not wanting to be creepy or weird, I gently shifted and broke the contact.
After shrugging it off and resuming my nap I woke once again a little while later. This time to even greater surprise, I found that not only were we shoulder to shoulder again, but she was leaning heavily on me. This time if I were to politely move over, I would undoubtedly wake her up. Seeking the most gentlemanly solution to this predicament, I decided I should simply attempt to go back to sleep and allow this mystery women to use me as her pillow for a little longer. After all, there are worse things that could happen to a guy on a bus. I soon found that there was no hope in getting back to sleep with her all but cuddling with me.
At this point, I faced a bit of a dilemma. Should I have a little fun and see how far I could take this or put an end to it and gently wake her. Just when I was about to give her a gentle nudge, I noticed bit of light. I opened my eyes from my feigned sleep just a sliver and was shocked at what I found. The light was from her cell phone, with which she was sending a text message. Yes, she was awake. Upon realizing this I decided to throw caution to the wind.
A Game of Chicken
I found myself here on the brink of a situation wrought with humor and or misunderstanding. If I were at home, I’d surely have done nothing and simply tried not to let the situation progress any further. However, as a foreigner in Korea I saw a magnificent opportunity. Just how far could I take this? I slowly and subtly not only gave in and stopped avoiding getting closer to her, but began to return her shameless leaning. Very soon we were much closer than just shoulder to shoulder.
My incredulity grew with every second. Could she really be okay with this? Is this common place on buses in Korea? At this point it became a bit of a game of chicken for me and I wasn’t going to lose. I continued my ever slower motion toward her until I could no longer get any closer. Our shoulders weren’t the only thing touching. We were now eyebrow to eyebrow.
Just then the bus lights finally came on, indicating that we were now only minutes from our destination. Yet still she did not move. I refused to be the first to give in. The bus pulled in to the terminal and finally came to a stop. All the passengers stood and finally she stood up and swiftly left the bus.
I sat there dumbfounded probably with my mouth hanging half open, wondering if anyone else had witnessed my odd encounter. Surprisingly, no. Not one of my friends had noticed a thing. I shrugged and followed everyone off the bus, thanking God it was a beautiful young woman instead of a stinky old man.
The Down Side
It is very true that people in close quarters cannot help but yield the majority of their personal space and get used to getting squished in together. However, the close quarters are often taken advantage of. Women especially are often groped and harassed. Also, I may have had a good experience as a human pillow, but switch me out for a young woman and switch the woman out for a dirty old man, and it would not be nearly as comical or pleasant. The anonymity of being surrounded by strangers is often emboldening and the creepers come out in full force.
I have also had some equally shocking, but less positive experiences in transit, but I will save those for another post.
After overcoming the initial discomfort of personal space invasion, I have come to appreciate what it means to let strangers into your personal space. It requires an inherent trust that people won’t abuse that privilege. In both Korea and Japan, people take social responsibility very seriously. This makes for a much safer environment, and crime in both countries is very low. I wonder if the close quarters and increase in human contact have anything to do with this. With the exception of the few who abuse the system, I wonder if the intimacy of riding together, and the acknowledgement that regardless of profession, social status, education or age, we are all on this train of life together, increases awareness of social responsibility.