[Viewpoint] Silence on the subway

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[Viewpoint] Silence on the subway

There are a couple of things I always carry around in my wallet. There’s my alien registration card for one, and of course, cash. But the third thing, absolutely essential and indispensable, is my subway map. I picked it up free from a subway station somewhere more than a year and half ago and wrapped it in duct tape to keep it from falling apart. Even so, the corners have fallen off, and I can no longer read the name of the stop after Taereung Ipgu Station. I keep telling myself that it’s time to get a new map, but for some reason, I still haven’t gotten around to it. I guess I’ve just gotten attached to the map.

If my crumpled little subway map has become a part of me, the Seoul subway itself is even more so. When I first arrived in Korea, I didn’t feel very comfortable using the bus system and so of necessity had to take the subway almost every time I had somewhere to go.

After three years in Korea, of course, I can handle the buses more easily, but the subway is still my preferred method of getting around. I recognize areas in Seoul by the nearest subway stop rather than the actual name of the district or neighborhood. When I hear “Gwanghwamun,” I think of the subway station rather than the great gate in front of Gyeongbok Palace. When trying to figure out where exactly someone lives, my first question is always what the closest subway stop is. In a very real way, the subway has guided and shaped my understanding of Seoul.

Take a look at some facts about the Seoul subway system and you can’t help but be astonished. Seoul is third in the world for the number of annual subway rides, trailing Tokyo and Moscow and leading famous transit systems like the New York subway and the London underground. Each day, the Seoul subway carries more than eight million fares, and it sprawls over 755 kilometers, or 469 miles, and includes 14 lines.

In Seoul, apartment prices soar when a subway line opens, and real estate speculators keep an eye out for potential plans to expand the current system. Underneath the skin of Seoul with all of its high rises and highways is the steady pulse of people going about their daily affairs along the veins and arteries of the Seoul metro.

No doubt businessmen and politicians are whisked around the city in their private cars every day, never needing to set foot beneath the ground, but for ordinary Seoulites, the subway is a huge part of their day-to-day experiences. Naturally, attitudes toward the subway vary from person to person. Some love it for its convenience. Unlike buses, the subway never runs into a traffic jam. Some hate it for the gropers occasionally found in the crowd at rush hour. A female friend of mine, for instance, is always worried about strange men touching her on the subway.

Foreigners on the subway often complain about how crowded it is, or how people are always shoving them as they get in and out of subway cars. Indeed, sometimes getting into a subway car is nearly as much of a challenge as squeezing into a bookstore was immediately after the release of the final book in the Harry Potter series.

For me, though, the subway is a sanctuary of solitude and peace amid the bustle and business of the city above me. Of course, the subway often gets as crowded as a bus shelter in a thunderstorm, people do push and shove, and there are preachers and peddlers with their tiresome pitches.

I’m aware of its downsides, but where else in Korea can people rest quietly and peacefully in the middle of their daily schedules? When I am on the subway, I am free to listen to the Beatles on my iPod, to read the latest Haruki Murakami novel, to brush up on my hanja. I have no guilt or worries about my job or my other responsibilities. The subway is a temporary retreat from all the concerns of the world above, a short escape from the cares of life.

As Heraclitus once said, “The only constant is change,” and the Seoul subway, too, is undergoing continuous change and development. Despite being one of the largest subway systems in the world, it expanded with line 9 in 2009, a Seoul-Chuncheon line in 2010 and a second Bundang line last year. Within the next 10 years, high-speed subway lines will be laid 50 meters (165 feet) underground to allow high-speed commuting between Seoul and satellite cities such as Ilsan and Suwon in Gyeonggi and Incheon.

I guess one of these days I’ll have to go out and get a new subway map with all of the recently constructed lines on it. But amid the change, I hope that some things about the subway will stay the same. I hope that the encouraging messages and mottos in the bathroom above the urinals will stay there.

I hope that the poetry posted next to the platform will not be torn down. I hope that riding the subway will still be affordable, a transportation option available for the average Seoulite. And I hope that the subway will remain my dose of tranquility each busy day.

*The author is a reporter for 10 Magazine in Seoul.

by David Carruth

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