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Friday, February 27, 2009

A lesson in bus etiquette

It's taken me nearly five months to learn one of Korea's most vital public transportation lessons: which way to stand on the bus/subway.

At home, there's no "correct" way to stand -- or if there is, I've been oblivious to it for 23 years. But as I took the bus home from Hyewha recently, one of my Korean friends immediately said, "You're standing the wrong way!"

Who knew there was a wrong way to stand on the bus?

It turns out that Koreans always stand facing out, toward the windows, rather than facing either the front or back of the bus/subway car. After Chloe pointed this out to me, I began realizing it everywhere. People might be crammed into the subway car like a pack of sardines, but everyone still faces the same way.

It goes against logic to me. For one, I like seeing the exit and following the bus route. And when I'm sitting down, there's nothing worse than someone's crotch directly in my line of sight. Having someone boxing me into the seat makes me claustrophobic.

It's also unspeakably rude, apparently, to talk on cell phones or sometimes even to talk period. Several of my friends have been berated for talking too loudly, including by one older man who said (in Korean), "This isn't New York! Be quiet!"

They ignored him and kept talking, maintaining that they weren't exactly shouting and hey, it's public transport, what do you expect?!

The loud talking I can understand -- Americans, especially, seem to speak several decibels louder than any other nationality. No matter where you go in the world, you can hear Americans coming. I'll never forget walking around Florence late one night, enjoying the peace and solitude, and suddenly hearing the unmistakable screeching of American girls from several streets away.

But the "right" way to stand on a bus? That's one cultural norm I feel perfectly comfortable ignoring. I'm just a rebel without a cause.

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