How to Survive the Subway, and other Seoulful Tales

It was fifteen degrees in Seoul today. 15. I’m not quite sure if you West-Coasters can fathom this temperature.  Yes, I’m talking Fahrenheit.

The air outside is so cold that your face hurts. You pull your scarf up over your nose and your hat down to your eyebrows, and still your eyeballs hurt and every breath in is painful as it saps all the warmth from around your face. It’s too cold to snow, too cold to think, your brain cells serve one purpose: to keep your legs moving until you find the next available indoor heated space. Pray you don’t have to carry anything, as that would mean your hands are out of your pockets. Wear two pairs of socks. On your hands if you have to.

Koreans care a lot about how they look; it is a display of respect to others, and a sign that you respect yourself. I’m violently resisting the urge to just put on every article of clothing I own every time I walk outside. Instead, I layer up, bare my stocking-clad knees to the weather, hurry from one place to the next. Screw my hair. I’m wearing two hats.

Today is Boxing Day, I’m informed by Canadians and Brits, a day that never held much (read any) meaning for me in the U.S. Today is the day you eat leftovers, take out all the wrapping paper to the rubbish bins, and watch Junior League hockey. It’s “Recover from Christmas” day. Good one.

No recoup for me, though—today I made my first appearance on the Seoul subway and went to day one of New Teacher Orientation. Located across Seoul, I ventured out two hours early to ensure I was there on time and was introduced to Seoul commuter traffic.

Lessons from the Subway:

  1. If you want on the train, get your ass on that train.  The little Korean woman in front of you is sure as hell gonna elbow her way on. Follow her.
  2. Don’t bring coffee, and hold on to something. Luckily, I didn’t learn this the hard way. During rush hour it is super unlikely that you will have a seat, or even something to hold on to. If it’s busy enough the other bodies will hold you up. If not, learn how to surf.
  3. There is an area reserved for the elderly, pregnant women, etc. If you are a foreigner and don’t see the sign, you will get dirty looks until you get the hell with it and look around.
  4. Subway stations are incredibly well organized and labeled. Color coded, even. Run little mouse, run through the maze to make your connection.
  5. Wanna buy a dress in the subway? No problem. Coffee? No problem. Dried fish? No problem.
  6. Everyone EVERYONE wears black. Tomorrow I’m going to wear my magenta down jacket, stand in the middle of the car and let everyone play ‘Let’s spot the foreigner’. Heehee. Just kidding. I’m going to take up three seats because I’ll be wearing every article of clothing I own.
  7. Subway seats are heated. Things like this just make my day.


After arriving a half hour early at my station, I walk the two blocks to the training school and there on the corner is a Starbucks. A mother <beep>ing Green Mermaid Queen of the U.S. Starbucks. I felt my body go into this kind of confused-disgust-panic-relief mode, and found myself walking across the street towards it before I really knew what was happening. It was like some West Coast honing device suddenly switched on, my arms went up in front of me in zombie mode, and my eyes glazed over knowing exactly how it would look inside. Now THAT is marketing power. About two steps from the door I woke up, noticed a Coffine coffee shop two doors down (I’m assuming they were going for a clever ‘coffee/caffeine’ wordplay, but the similarity to ‘coffin’ didn’t escape me) and broke the magnetic pull only to walk in and find that a latte is 4,500 won, roughly $4.50 USD. Damn you, coffine addiction. Seriously world, let me keep my last—cough cough—vice! I’m really not asking for much, just coffee for under $3 in a land where you can get a whole pizza for $6. C’mon.

Orientation starts and I’m not only the first person there, I’m the only person there. The teacher gets a text on his phone and pulls one of the remaining two desks to the back of the room, continuing to make small talk while he repeatedly looks at the clock on his phone. Matthew: Orientation Teacher, five foot eight, big smile, definitely gay. Like, the gay where you just leave your gaydar gun in your pocket because his nametag says, “Hello, I’m Gay Matthew”.

Eventually the other teacher comes in, nose red with the cold, carrying a small suitcase. He’s travelled from Daegu, and managed to only be fifteen minutes late. He is definitely not spiking the Gaydar meter, and his shoes confirm it. Straighty straight straight. Matthew, however, looks like it is Christmas morning all over again and his present just arrived. I just sit back, happy to be done with my end of small talk and pleasantly surprised that I get my own live Korean drama to watch. Actors: Nicolas and Matthew. Set: Korean elementary school classroom. Plot: Gawkwardness (that’s my new term for when a gay man gawks at a straight man and it’s awkward). It’s hilarious. At least I think so.

What’s NOT funny is that our heater seems to be broken. Did I mention it was fifteen degrees outside? Nick and I both huddle in our student desks still fully bundled in our outdoor gear, passing furtive “What the heck? How am I supposed to learn like this?” glances at each other.  I start making jokes about burning our workbooks in the middle of the floor for warmth, and a new friend is made. Sometimes it’s that simple. Common problems, survival, comic relief.

It makes me wonder about the people in North Korea, and if they have heat.

Lessons from Day One Orientation:

  1. Korean superstitions include: If you leave a fan on at night and have all your windows closed, you will die. If someone writes your name in red ink, you will die.
  2. Almost 50% of Koreans ‘don’t have a religion.’ I’m not sure if they are atheist, agnostic or just don’t practice one, but I still found the number interesting. A personal Plus One for Korea. The remaining percentage is divided between Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, etc.
  3. If you wrap your scarf around your legs and sit on your hands you may save them from frostbite.


If I remember any of the actual lessons, I’ll let you know. It was pretty basic. I led a 20 questions mock game. With two people. Woo.

Insert: subway travel, reverse order. Once back to the apartment, I turned up the heat and lay down on the floor to defrost my bones. The temperature outside is twelve degrees. Holy sweet baby Atheist-Buddha-Jesus. Some cold sweet potato curry pizza (you heard me, and yes, it’s amazing), a cup of tea, and it’s time for this old girl to hit the hay.

Merry Boxing Day.