Personal / Won chong · August 10, 2010

Waiting in line in Korea

This New York Times story about waiting in lines reminds me so much of my first years of living in South Korea.

I was in my second year of living in South Korea, stationed at Kwang Ju Air Base in the Southern part of the Korean peninsula.  I had traveled all over Korea by bus, but usually with a Korean guide – my girlfriend (later to be my wife.)  We had met when I was stationed the year before in Uijonbu, near her home in Seoul, so when I moved away from Seoul we found ways to visit each other.

Taking a bus to Seoul took hours.  A train was faster and more comfortable.  I had two semesters of Korean Language from the University of Maryland (overseas) under my belt; I had a English-Korean-English dictionary; and I am cautious, but curious to the point of fearlessness in exploring.

The hardest part of taking the train was purchasing a ticket!

I was stationed in Korea from 1985-1987, before the 1988 Seoul Olympics.  Korea was an interesting mix of third and second world country at that time.  They still clearly remembered the hard times of the recent past – political oppression, poverty, war.  But they were all looking forward to the bright future they could all see – Korea was going to be a world player soon, and everyone knew it.

So you could wait in line at a Wendy’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken or Dunkin Donuts in downtown Seoul, and place your order during your turn in the queue.

All that went out the window at the train station ticket counter.

The first time I walked into the train station at Kwang Ju, I was amazed.  The women selling the tickets behind the little windows in the glass were some of the fastest workers I’ve ever seen.  They could have sold out a whole Megaplex Theater worth of opening night Star Wars tickets in five minutes flat.

And the way the Koreans rushed the windows was awesome, baffling, and a bit scary.  They would shoulder each other aside, waving money and shouting ticket orders.

I had to buy my ticket from…. that.

My first attempt was laughable.  Still clinging to the idea (a mere fantasy at this point) of a line, I tried to scoot up to the window, and wait for the people to clear out in front of me so I could step up. 

They treated me like furniture – like a support column for the train station.  They went around me, and a couple even pushed off of me to get better access to the window in front of me!  I was used to being the only “round eye” around; I was used to stares, to helpful people showing me what to do next – but in this instance I don’t think anyone even realized I was a foreigner.

I then wormed my way through the crush to the window, and started to ask how much for a ticket in my limited, halting Korean.  The ticket attendant listened for a moment, and was about to reply when a couple of sweet-faced, apple cheeked grannies body-checked me away from the window and demanded their tickets!  I’ve never played Hockey in my life, but I’ll bet if I did parts of it would feel familiar.

Fine!  Be that way!  I got mad.

This time I got my money ready, barreled my way right to the window, braced myself with feet apart, and one arm on each side of the window – my fists were gripping the edge of the marble counter, and my elbows were out.  I resisted every attempt to get past my guard while I asked the price of the ticket, paid, and then got out of there.

I got my ticket.  I also got a bruised instep, kicked shin, and a kidney punch by someone’s grandmother.

From then on, when I took the train I wore my boots, and paid with exact change – staying just long enough at the window to lay the money down, shout the name of my destination, and snatch up the ticket.

I’d never heard the word “scrum” before this – but the word so fits my experience!

When I went back to Korea again in January, I was pleasantly surprised.  Trains, buses, taxis, even airport shuttles all now use a sort of “pay pass” card.  You purchase the card at any roadside store or coffee stand, and you charge it at a machine, or add money to it at a store.

When you get on the subway or train, you merely wave the card over the turnstile.  Your card is debited the proper amount, and you continue on your way without missing a single step.  In a taxi, you wave it over a machine that sits between the front seats.  I think it even gives the taxi driver a gratuity.

The train station, subway, and bus terminal is no longer a place to “scrum”.  But there isn’t a queue either – people just pass through.

My shins were very grateful.