Compared to New York’s subway system, Seoul’s is modern, clean, and convenient. The train tracks are walled off, with doors that coincide with the subway car doors to prevent people from falling onto the tracks. Each of the doors are numbered by car number and door number (door 4-3 is the third door of the fourth car) allowing people to arrange meet-ups in the station itself (cell coverage and wifi are available underground). Station announcements tell you when the next train is coming. Train announcements tell you the next station in Korean, English, and Chinese. Major stations have bathrooms. More surprisingly, the bathrooms are clean. As a consequence, the elevators are not only quick, they don’t smell of pee. In short the Seoul subway system is everything you’d expect in a modern subway, so what’s the warning?
Ajumma* #1: Why do you have a stoller? Six** is too old for a stroller.
Cookie: I’m three.
Ajumma #2: She’s very tall for three!
Ajummas #3 and #4 nodding in agreement: Nnnnn!***
Mommy: It’s for the jet lag.
Ajumma # 1: That makes sense.
Ajummas #2, 3, 4, 5, 6 nodding in agreement: Nnnnnn!***
Cookie: Yeah, we flew from America. It was a loooooooong flight.
Ajumma #7: So she speaks English as well as Korean?
By now, half of the subway car was involved in the conversation, and we were suddenly under the scrutiny of, and the topic of conversation for, twenty to thirty people. There’s no rule in the Seoul subways to mind your own business. In New York, you don’t make eye contact. In Seoul, it’s quite the opposite, and we became the topic of conversation for half the subway car every single time we rode the subway except for the one trip where the entire subway car started discussing us. As I don’t understand Korean, I had to ask Mommy to translate. By the end of the trip, her response was just, “same as last time.”
Oddly enough, the scrutiny and your language skills met the approvals of the Ajumma Inquisitors****, and soon, each Ajumma started rummaging through their purse for something to give you. Every subway ride, Cookie, you ended up with assorted candy, cookies, pocket lint, and in one case, a muffin. I was emphatic about not accepting any of this, as, well, you’re literally taking candy from strangers, but Mommy explained that it’s customary for people to give things to cute kids and very impolite to refuse (after refusing the first time a gift is offered), especially since we just passed inspection.
Of course, we didn’t let you actually eat any of the sweets you received, but yeah, I hope the lectures on how you weren’t supposed to accept candy from strangers stuck (after we allowed you to take candy just one more time).
Prepare for inspection. You’ve been warned.
* Korean word literally meaning “aunt,” but used to describe an older woman in her 50s with a reputation for pushiness, no verbal filter, and a nose for everyone else’s business
** In traditional Korean numbering for age, newborns are counted as 1 year old the day they’re born. You’re not that tall, Cookie.
*** “nnnn” is a Korean sound for “Yes,” though I think Ajumma #3 may have been constipated as well.
**** I think this explains the cleanliness of the subway system and Seoul in general. If the Ajumma Inquisitors are going to pass judgement on every toddler and stroller they see, they’re certainly going to do something about litterbugs and trash.