Dirge of the Stifled Fast-Walker


Okay, everyone: trudge!

I generally hate all sentences that start with “All Koreans [x].” It’s frighteningly common in the expat community in Korea to make grand, sweeping estimations of the Korean people, from the depths of our great and all-knowing experiences. In the place of [x] is usually something benign or nonsensical or vaguely racist from which the speaker derives untold umbrage. For every sentence like this that I have endured, millions of counter examples float to my mind, as do caveats, and comparisons to other countries, and a vague, flavourless boredom, tempered with dull rage.

This is all preface. I don’t make generalizations lightly, you see. And I will only do it when something is seriously detrimental to my ongoing well-being.

Thus, I say this: Koreans are slow walkers.

My loathing for slow-walkers is deep and oceanic. I could write odes and soliloquies and grand, sweeping epics about why they are particularly the scourge of our planet and need to be eradicated, but you already know. You have felt as I’ve felt.

You’re walking, going about your business. You have an important business meeting starting soon. Or a dentist appointment. Or a date. Or a colonic. Time is not on your side. You need to move. You need to go. Nothing will stop you.

Except for this one person. This one person does not feel your urgency, nor have they ever encountered such an alien sensation as moving quickly. They have nothing to do, nowhere to go,  a large camera, and a bag of kettle corn. They are your everything that is wrong, and usually they don’t know it. If they do, they don’t care. Because they are entropy and sadness embodied into human form.

Slow-walkers can take a lot of forms. There are the wanderers, those who shift from side to side in front of your path, making it near impossible to deke around them to the vast, open terrain of sidewalk before their aimless, beguiled feet. There are the stoppers, who simply clog up the walkways, completely unaware that there might ever be another person even in the world, let alone right behind them. There are crowds, families or couples or groups of heinous teenagers standing just close enough to make passing impossible.

You pace. You sigh. You drift from side-to-side, trying to find a moment when you can overtake their daydreaming asses and be free of them. You stand obnoxiously close, or cross the road to find another way.

Toronto streets: vast and scoot-aroundable.

At home, in Toronto, I have enough coping strategies that I can evade most slow-walkers and be on my merry, jauntily paced way. But in Korea, this is impossible. Korea is a land of slow-walkers. Slow-walking is the national pastime. It is something looked upon with pride. It is performed with élan. And simply as a matter of population mechanics: there are a lot of Koreans in a relatively small country and, ergo, there are a lot of slow-walkers jamming up the streets.

Korea has a few particular sub-cultures of slow-walkers. Behold:

Agasshi (아가씨) Class

Agasshis are young women, and in Canada, I’ve never found young women to be a particular problem in terms of slow walking. But in Korea, there is a large hindrance keeping them hobbled and slow-paced: the high heels. A committed agasshi never takes off her heels. Whether in spring, or in winter, across ice or sand or wet cement, whether on the street or as they go to sleep at night, heels never leave their feet. And the heels are high, and adorned with zippers and buckles and lace and three-feet spikes. These women wobble to and fro in front of you, trying with all of their might to stay right-side-up in their shoes, and have no time or energy to devote to picking up the pace. Sometimes they are also walking slowly because of…

Couple Class

A slow-walker is bad, but two slow-walkers together is death. Each party wants to slow the other one down even further, because they are just so in love, and the slower they go, the longer they can amble aimlessly in your fucking way. Are they going anywhere? Probably to a coffee shop. Because PDAs are not typically widespread in Korea, young couples must find other ways to show their affection, like holding hands, but doing so at a far enough distance so that they also take up a lot of valuable sidewalk room. If they can’t show their affection in front of the rest of the country, then they will hold you personally hostage behind them on the sidewalk so that you are aware of how much of a couple they are.

Pull up a chair, son. You ain't getting around ajumma.

Ajumma (아줌마) Class

Ajumma has places to be. She has things she needs to do. She is maybe retired. She has a tight perm (it means business) and a visor and a leopard print coat and possibly a bindle of shit behind her, dragging listlessly from her frighteningly strong arms. She is setting the pace, and she’s not going to let some punk bastard kid tell her any different. She is as old as the sun, and therefore, through magic and science and whatever, better than you. She follows no direct path from A to B, because she knows that the zig-zag is the more righteous and allows her to show off her dominance by eliminating all of your routes of escape.

Ajosshi (아저씨) Class

Ajosshi is also maybe retired, and similarly old as the sun. And frankly, he doesn’t really have much to do today, and he wants to get his stroll on. He wants to take in the sights of everything around him, and nothing short of the apocalypse will make him walk faster than the gentlest saunter. Also, he kind of just doesn’t give a shit.

Mall Walker Class

Not only do malls contain all of the above, but they also make each of the above walk slower as a matter of volume, and because people stop to gawp at things in stores. Hey look, a backpack with needlessly long shoulder straps that will make it dangle somewhere around the backs of my knees! Visors! Even higher heels! Purses, for her, and for him. People cannot be made to move faster, because there is stuff all around. Malls everywhere around the world have this special power to make all people incapable of speed or efficiency.

Public Transit Class

Public transit slow-walker doesn’t have a train or a bus to catch. They have hours to kill, and as such, have no need to hurry to the next platform, nor to move at all, really. Their time in a subway station is one of leisure and gentility, a time to shop, or take calls, or knit booties. When they reach the top of a staircase or an escalator or, indeed, any place where people can bottleneck, they feel the rhythm of the universe and know in the core of their beings that it is time to take rest and ruin the day of all those souls behind them.

Look upon me and despair.

My Special Hell

So, many Koreans like slow-walking (not all: I see in the eyes of the young, the busy, and the delayed my same rage). What happens when you combine all of these classes, and jam them into one space, and oh, what the hell, make it subterranean and inexplicably hot? The Bupyeong Station underground mall. Combining the many stairways on which ajummas can zigzag and public transiters can nap, the many stores for people to ogle, the long pathways and captive crowds to be held behind a couple who wants to show the world their lurve, this is basically my worst nightmare. I cross through its scorched, ruined plains at least twice a week, like journeying through the underworld. The purgatory of the slow-walker.

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26 thoughts on “Dirge of the Stifled Fast-Walker

  1. I myself am a somewhat slow walker. I can move when I want/need to. When I say slow walker, I just mean that I’m always trying to catch up to everyone who walks insanely fast. That was before this year when I started walking more. Even though I used to walk not-so-fast I would do my best to go my fastest whenever in a situation like a busy street or a mall or something like that. On the other side, I have also been stuck behind people even slower than I. So I feel your pain. I have a friend who is Korean. Actually, her parents are, she’s Canadian, lol. She may be tiny, but man can she walk/hike.

  2. I’m constantly being told, “You walk fast.” I would like to say, “No, I don’t. I walk at a normal pace.” Maybe I’m wrong and slow is becoming the new normal. Who knows? I live in Michigan where it seems like the majority of us walk fast, drive fast, talk fast…you get the picture. Maybe the fast paced thing has something to do with proximity to the equator. It gets darn cold in both Toronto and Michigan. You walk slow, you get frozen to the sidewalk and risk death. 😉

  3. My grandmother is a slow-walker. I let her get away with it because, well, she is my grandmother and she rocks. My mother, however, hates going anywhere with her because it takes four times as long to go from point A to point B. I find this whole dichotomy completely entertaining, which is probably another reason I do not mind my grandmother’s slow walking tendencies. At any rate, thank you for this. I am glad to know some human traits are cross-cultural. I hate the mall.

  4. After working in a mall for almost 7 years, I came to the conclusion that every mall should have walking lanes, just as you would see in traffic. There would be the slow lane (directly beside the storefronts) for window shoppers, the passing lane (i.e. the mall employee lane) and even turning lanes to avoid the constant games of human chicken. There would be punishments for careless walking. Idling in the fast lane? You’re out of the mall. Improper turn into oncoming traffic? Out of the mall. Coming to a dead stop without looking behind you first? You’re out of the fucking mall via the downstairs Sears exit.

    I have shared your pain, Michael.

  5. I, too, am a fast walker. A really fast walker. When I first came to Korea from Hong Kong I used to hear Korean people talking about the “bbali bbali” lifestyle and how Korean people did everything so quickly: walking, eating, sleeping, etc. Well, honey, no, you have been misled. Korean people are slow as molasses in January. In Hong Kong I could barely keep up with the flow of traffic. I used to have to wait for a break in the pedestrian traffic before daring to step foot outside my apartment lest I’d tangle my leg in some poor unsuspecting commuter on his way to the subway and cause bedlam as thousands of people folded in on themselves and tripped over us, leapfrogging into piles of mightily pissed-off, Cantonese-cursing wage slaves. Compared to Hong Kong people, Korean pedestrians are statues.

    • I buy the 빨리빨리 thing in terms of maybe lifestyle, in that people are intensely busy for whatever reason, and thus must cram food and sleep in whenever they can (Koreans are celebrated sleepers, and can nap like no other group I have seen). But I feel like the sidewalks are the place where they decide to rest their weary souls and take things slow.

      I visited HK last winter, and it was definitely a place of speed and efficiency. There is no time to dilly-dally, because you will be killed.

  6. Now I know why you and Zack loved Britain because they walk with great speed. I don’t mind slow walkers as long as there not within a hundred km of me; that goes for slow drivers too!

  7. There’s this thing I call the “Supermarket walk” that is slow, meandering, and aimless, but prone to sudden stops or changes of direction at any time, because that’s how people wander vaguely through supermarkets. and nothing tires me more.

    But I can’t believe you missed the worst thing of all: Wall Of Ajumma – when three or four ajummas (younger people do this sometimes too, but the worst offenders are usually ajummas) are walking, shoulder to shoulder, and blocking an entire walking lane, and moving at a lollygagging pace.

    Drives me mad.

    I sometimes speak disparagingly to them in English as I muffle my way by them, in order to feel a little better.

    Nice blog. I just found it today.

    • Worse in supermarkets, because they usually also have carts. I’ve been trapped between entire familes who somehow decided it was time to get all perpendicular with their cargo and make it impossible to get at the milk.

      The ajummas in my hood don’t tend to bunch up that much, to be honest. South Incheon is a place of the lone ajumma ranger, although I can imagine if two or more fell into the same orbit, it would be like moving a mountain. I have actually just run into traffic to scoot ahead of them on the sidewalk.

      How did you come across my slice of the internet? I read your blog, although I don’t really comment, so I’m curious.

      (Also, when I signed into wordpress, my first reaction was: “Where the hell did these hits come from?”)

  8. I’ve seen your fast walking and your ability to get around anyone in your way, and for you to post this must mean that Korea has kicked your walking butt. long live slow walkers!!!

  9. I can’t believe the nastiness directed at slow walkers in the discussion. I understand it can be annoying in a crowded street where everyone is moving fast in a fast-paced city like Hong Kong (where I am from ). But at a supermarket or a shopping mall? If there are not much people, they are bothering nobody.
    I am a slow walker in strange places. Over the past two years I have been traveling so I always walk slow so I can appreciate the surroundings and think.
    I go slow when I do shopping too. If you know what to get already, fine, go and grab it and get it over with. But for some people spoiled with choice, they want to take their time and stop and think before making the purchase. Is there anything wrong with it?
    My experience with fast walkers is that on the negative side, they often make hasty decisions and end up buying the wrong things, or things they don’t need.
    I am not here to dismiss fast walkers, there’s always good and bad in everything. but the totally dismissive attitude shown by some posters here against the slow walkers is uncalled for. Show some respect please.

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