It has taken me a lot longer than most of my friends to grow accustomed to the fact that Korea is essentially a giant mosh pit. It seems like I spend every waking hour in a crowd. My office and apartment are my only sanctuaries. There are two reasons for this: 1) Korea is a physical culture. 2) Korea is crowded. Imagine the population of California and Pennsylvania in an area the size of Kentucky!
I learned quickly that I can’t take offense to being bumped, nudged, pushed, or otherwise crowded by strangers. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that I am comfortable with it yet. Last week in Costco, it was so crowded that there were times when we simply couldn’t move. We had to stand in a huge traffic jam and wait for the crowd to untangle itself. My friend Chris (Texas) and I had to abandon our cart and leave the store.
I find myself saying “sorry” or “excuse me” all the time, even when other people bump into me. It’s like a disease. I can’t stop it. My Korean friends and coworkers think it’s absolutely hilarious.
I think I made a breakthrough today. Usually, when the school bus parks and lets everyone out, I sit back and wait. I let all of the students pack themselves into the aisle and fight their way off the bus before I stand up. This morning, I decided not to wait. I threw my arm out, nearly clothes-lined some girl, and forced my way to the front of the pack. I was the second person off the bus. As soon as I stepped off, I turned around to apologize to the kid, but I stopped myself. Hell, she didn’t care. That’s just what you do here.
My colleague and friend 신정 (Shin Jeong) told me about her first lesson on personal space when she moved to America to study abroad. All of the Korean students in her orientation group were taught to imagine that everyone has a 1’x1′ box around them at all times. If you find yourself inside a person’s imaginary box, you must say “excuse me.” She said it was difficult to remember, because it’s such a weird concept to her.
I’ll continue to work on my personal space issues. My next goal is to go to E-Mart or Home Plus (like Korean WalMart) on the weekend and not freak out. I’m 0 for 3 so far. I have yet to check out (on the weekend).
Until next time.