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.
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…
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.
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.
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.