Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Public Transit (My PhD in Bus Riding)


Subway tile

Decoration from the glorious Incheon subway.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

The Korean subway is essentially the pinnacle of all modern human civilization. It is dirt cheap, it goes everywhere, it is freakishly on time, rarely breaks down, and there are often entire restaurants and shops housed within each and every station. They are enormous catacombs below the cities, to the point that if they were built from ancient bones and black magic, no one would be surprised, or care. You swipe in by smart transit cards, which you can also get in in the form of cell phone charms and, I’m sure in a few years, ocular implants. While riding the subway, monocled, tuxedoed French butlers saunter down each car with the grace of ballet performers to offer riders snifters of brandy and fine European cheeses. Once a month they have foot rub day, where specially trained shiatsu masseuses assemble onto every train and dole out free massages for weary travellers. Once I saw a man transporting a real live unicorn from Seoul station to Sindorim and he allowed people to take pictures with it for free. The trains run on pixie dust and human happiness.

Or at least, this is how the Korean subway system seems to me now that I’m back to riding Toronto public transit.

It may be the contrast of the two systems, because I don’t remember being so averse to the TTC in the past. During my university years, it was a tolerable, necessary mode of transport, one that I ignored being on by books and music and my impeccable imagination. I rode the TTC, but I never really had to be present on it, and thus I never really noticed its various and sundry horrors. Oh, I was aware of the various fights, indignities, and bodily fluids being thrown and splattered and hucked here and there, but I am highly capable of living inside of my head, and thus never had to deal with it. I have a PhD in riding the bus, and it is almost shocking how much ambient noise, violence, and stupidity I can block out if I don’t want to be dragged into whatever nonsense is happening around me.

But riding the transit system in my Asian home tore down all of my guards. Except for the occasional incursions of Old Angry Drunk Men (which were a chronic problem and not specific to the subway), my public transit usage was uniformly pleasant and efficient. There were widely available and accurate schedules, displays showing the location and distance of the next buses and trains, and hilariously low costs. Cell phone reception was crystal clear, even in the depths of the earth. I never had to imagine I was anywhere else because where I was proved perfectly pleasant.

Of course, this means I am now out of practice, and thus I remain painfully aware of the deficits of the Toronto Transit Commission. The buses are constantly packed and slow and off-schedule and manned by casually sadistic trained apes on power trips. The subways break down almost constantly, and are always too hot or too cold or actually on fire, and covered in shredded newspapers as though large rodents are nesting everywhere. A single ride costs a million dollars. Everyone riding it hates everyone else riding it, and people will vulture seats out from under you if you so much as lean over too far. The whole system is embroiled in a policy debate that has been going on for decades and looks likely to stretch on for the next few millennia, with no one improving the system as it reaches the kind of white-gloved people-shover capacity of a Tokyo rush hour.

I once had a mild-to-moderate opinion of the TTC, and the fact that I had to ride it so regularly forced me to begrudgingly view it with rose-coloured glasses. Hey, it runs late into the night! Hey, for a geographically large city, it’s not bad! Hey, we have charming street cars! Hey, it does the basic job of getting me places! It did the bare minimum, and that was all I knew.

But the contrast formed between the TTC and my beloved Seoul/Incheon Metro Megaplex is staggering and wounds my very memory of commuting back home. I wonder how I ever tolerated such a monstrosity of a system, how I was able to ignore its flaws, how the other riders do not actively rise up in revolt, riot in the streets, spill the blood of the innocent, set fire to the stations, etc., etc.?

Every new moment I spend on the TTC is torturous, some fresh hell. I see visions of the great demons of the underworld bursting forth from the conductor compartment, impaling bored and uncomfortable passengers with pitchforks and using them as a fuel source. I imagine every fee hike, which occur at a rate of about once every 17 seconds, as a carefully designed psychological experiment meant to study how long people can withstand gouging before they melt into a pile of tears, wails, and empty pockets. I cram uncomfortably between whichever crazed, angry husks the bus has decided to collect that morning, pour my lifeblood into the fare collection booth, and think about the wording of the Hague Convention and wonder if it applies.

I can’t go back to thinking this system is just okay–I know too much. I’ve seen the kind of transit glories mankind can achieve, and all others pale under its light. I think I might need to move somewhere with even crappier public transit if I have any hope of recovering my tolerance.

15 thoughts on “Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Public Transit (My PhD in Bus Riding)

  1. I think you should send this to the Toronto Star and see if they would publish it (use an alias if you wish – you can use my name though they may guess the truth for obvious reasons)!

  2. “Running late into the night” is a pretty good perk, though. I think I’d trade some of the Japanese comfort I currently enjoy if staying out past midnight didn’t automatically mean staying out until 6 (although that can be fun).

  3. I do not look forward to this upon returning to DC. I already thought DC metro was terrible. But I guess I could just remember being thrown up on in Incheon and think how that hasn’t happened (yet) in DC.

    • I’ll put a definite yet on that. If anything I always found my north American system to be more pukey — it’s more expensive, and people are less likely to sacrifice their fare to get off and vomit somewhere that’s not another person.

      Oh, Incheon.

  4. I take an opposing view. I rather enjoy taking an occasional subway trip here in North America. Things are honest here: people are just getting by, wanting to be someplace else. It’s a microcosm of the world above.

  5. As a Chicagoan currently residing in Mongolia, I’ve had the opposite experience: Asia doesn’t always do it better. Chicago Public Transit is, admittedly, far from perfect, but at least the L operates independently of the traffic. Ulaanbaatar has neither a subway nor an elevated train line, so the buses are stuck in traffic that is amazingly awful for a city so small.

    But at least UB and Erdenet are connected to other places by actual paved roads, and those are things that mostly do not exist in this country.

    • Residing in Mongolia, eh? That’s all it really takes to get me interesting in a blog!

      It’s true, the whole ~great transit~ thing tends to be in the larger and richer cities through Asia, as I’ve definitely spent time in smaller places where a ramshackle old van with rope for seatbelts is about as good as the public transit is likely to get.

      • Seatbelts? What are those? Not that you really need them when you have twice as many people as seats in your vehicle; you couldn’t move if you tried.
        I’m in Mongolia for pretty much the same reason you were in Korea: to teach English while gaining some experience living outside the Western world and a pretty name to put on my resume. Mostly, it means I spend a lot of time hanging out with the local Peace Corps Volunteers and failing to understand what’s going on around me.

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