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.

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The Glamorous Ass-Pain of International Travel

Welcome home. You're going to be here for a while.

Welcome home. You’re going to be here for a while.

It is hard, sometimes, to explain what a pain in the ass travel can be. The conventional wisdom is to not complain about your awesome time gallivanting around the world, because you do tend to come off like an ungrateful turd. Oh, your beautiful month of sun-drenched beach-dozing in Italy was marred by four hours on a bus? Please bathe in the great showers of pity I have for you.

Of course, part of this comes from the different mental idea many people have of travelling.

Now, as people who were backpacking through Asia for months and had already lived there for several years, our trio had a fairly high opinion of ourselves. Certainly we weren’t hiking Kilimanjaro in flipflops or yurting through Mongolia, but we had packed a lot of hardcore into our four months. In our greatest fits of self-congratulations, the three of us would have long talks about the nature of travel vs. the nature of a vacation.

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How I Learned to Love The Subway

It may look like it probably contains a Minotaur somewhere in the middle, but it is worthy of your love.

I once met a man on the way to Incheon International Airport. I was sitting alone with my enormous travel bag, reading, and he drifted into the seat next to me. At length, he wrote the word “wretch” on a napkin in a lovely, florid cursive style, and asked me to pronounce it. It became clear that this was simply his ice-breaker, as he informed me that, as a retiree, he had nothing to do but ride the rails all day and talk to strangers. Internally, I reacted with some degree of horror. Why would someone spend his golden years of rest experiencing something so horrible and repulsive, so dehumanizing and alienating and weird?

Not talking to strangers, mind you. Riding the subway.

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