Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Village people

Seoul hardly resembles a village, but in spite of the eight-lane roads and endless high-rises, sometimes it still manages to produce a small-town vibe. These are the village buses, small buses you can ride for 60 cents to go an impossibly short distance, a neat public service for those moments when you just don't want to walk home ten minutes. The one I normally take is packed with university students, but the other day I took one that really was a village bus.

This bus runs a circle around the virtually antique east-end neighbourhood where I live. When I got on, there were two old people aboard. They quickly got off and then it was just me and the driver nervously eying each other through his rear-view mirror, seeing who would give in first. He gave in first when I kept staring at the route map.

"Where are you going?" he asked. I answered that I was going to the Hanshin apartments. "You should've gotten on village bus 5, this one goes a long way." "Oh, that's okay," I replied. I was just grateful to sit down and the longer the ride, the longer the sitting. Then asked where I was from. I told him. If I'd kept looking at him, I would've probably ended up telling him my life story, so I looked away.

Then he stopped at a construction site and said to wait for five minutes. He got up and gave me a fish-shaped cookie with red bean inside. I said I couldn't possibly accept it, but he gave it to me and walked away. Then an elderly woman got on the bus and offered him something to eat, but he was already eating. "Your lunch time is at 4:30," she noted, declining his offer of the cookies. An old man got on and they chatted for a while.

For a city of this size with this much concrete and this much sophistication, it's surprising to see people talk about ordinary things like food or weather, with a patience that shows they're not going anywhere. The elderly and the bus drivers do in fact have all the time in the world, but I've always been impressed at how casually strangers talk. Confucian social practices which dominate Korea are built around relationships and don't really include strangers for the reason that you don't know if their status is above or below yours.

Still, I hear people on the subway tell strangers to sit down with a long-winded explanation of why they're not sitting down, or accept the seat with a long-winded explanation of why they are sitting down. Whereas in English we tend to begin conversations with strangers by starting with greetings and semi-friendly statements to gauge their interest, those who talk to strangers here (and many don't) simply launch into it.

A sociologist could probably say that this ease comes from living in a homogeneous country that was rural and agrarian until very recently. That's probably part of it, especially for those over a certain age, who might have especially more in common since they're not from the world of watching TV on tiny boxes in between taking pictures of themselves. Having the village buses also helps, since the people who ride them know that they all live in the same area, and this shabbier area is more congenial to a village spirit than a shinier block of apartment buildings.

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