Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Getting mothered Korean-style on the subway

IT WAS a subway morning commute like any other. There were the scores of people huddled in a mass that heaved forward and back each time the doors opened at a stop. Some watched TV on their smartphones, others wrote texts or played games on them. Some, seeming almost quaint in a sea of gadgets, read newspapers.

I stood staring into the reflective window of the carriage, watching the blur outside. The hood of my jacket was ruffled, tangled in the strap of my shoulder bag. I reached behind my head to straighten it out. I was jerking the hood awkwardly from side to side when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was an ajumma (older Korean woman).

Without a word or gesture, she pulled the hood this way and that and zipped up one side which had come undone. For 20 seconds -- which passed like 20 minutes -- she fussed over my jacket, before setting it in order without so much as a word.

"감 사 합 니 다 (thank you)" I muttered, at a loss for what else to say. She nodded gruffly in silence. I was being mothered by a stranger on a train. This was the sort of home comfort you expect to well and truly leave at, well, home. Perhaps there was no need for Skype calls to the mother after all.

It seemed a sort of nice, no-nonsense gesture -- almost touching. But it felt bizarre nonetheless. The kind of gesture that would earn you a trip to your local A&E in most countries. I can imagine poking at people's clothes and playing mum on the Luas tram from Tallaght in Dublin -- imagining would be the only safe way to do it.

At the office I told a few colleagues about my apparent applicant for adoptive Korean mother. A Korean workmate expressed surprise and insisted what had happened was far from usual. But my foreign colleagues had felt the tending hand of Korea before.

Apparently, I'd gotten off lightly. One guy had the buttons on the ass of his pants fastened before -- by another guy, albeit a vague acquaintance. Now that is lending your fellow man a helping hand. But it is also lending a helping hand where it's most probably not wanted.

Quite. Bloody. Literally.


  1. Indeed not an everyday occurance. I lived for six months in Seoul in 1981, working for the Korean Telephone Company. I remember the "elderly" ladies (I was 25 at the time) at the telephone exchange as being very caring too. Must be in their nature...

  2. It sounds really nice :)

    By the way, could you please write more about your journalism and your writings in local newspapers? I have always been interested in submitting my writings to newspapers myself. It would be nice to hear your stories ;)

  3. Such a very nice and kind woman helping a stranger...I find it so strange for I noticed some Koreans here in our place, they are not the helpful type of people. hehehe. But there are nice Koreans I've met though.

  4. Subber in Seoul,

    I love that story.. well, right up til the "other mans hands on the trousers" bit.

    I'm the editor for Nanoomi/ReadBuild's book project "The New Korea Files." You can check out our very new blog here:http://thenewkoreafiles.wordpress.com/

    I'd like to use some of that post as a vignette in the book. Also, if you'd like to look at our blog and write an essay/article that would also be a good thing.^^

    At the moment, this will only be for the thrill of publication in a real ISBN’d (and bilingual) book, but we are currently figuring out the possibility that the book will make a profit and how we would divide any profit that might accrue.

    All I can say is I’ve worked with Nanoomi for almost two years now, and they are scrupulously honest and have given me some wonderful opportunities here in Korea.

    If you are interested, please drop me a line at: charles (at) ktlit (dot) com.