The International Writers Magazine: Korea

On the Bus
Jim Sutherland in Korea

iding a city bus in small Korean cities can give foreigners a far better chance to experience the country’s "real" culture than any number of packaged tours or visits to the usual tourist haunts.
I landed my first job in Korea in March 2000, teaching English at a university in a small town in the extreme south-central part of the country

I had two choices for getting to work. The first option was to take bus 55, which swung left for ten minutes onto the highway immediately after leaving my stop and then turned left again onto a major street for the same amount of time before getting to my school. I chose that route when I was in a hurry. But when I wanted to revel in real "Koreanness," I took Bus 50.

Like Bus 55, Bus 50 swung left onto the highway after leaving my stop, but it only did so for a minute or two before turning onto a narrow road that passed a small industrial zone, which soon gave way to an area of tiny rice paddies and miniscule vegetable plots. There was a deep but shallow ditch between the paddies and fields and the street, and it was not unusual to see three or four dark-brown cows with long, twisty horns on the roadside, browsing contentedly on the long grass or lounging under the willows beside the water. The cows were tied to bamboo poles hammered into the ground, but the ropes holding them were so frayed, and the stakes so flimsy, that any bovine with a mind for adventure could easily have made her escape. Still, why bother? With free food, refreshments, and enough shade to protect me from the blistering heat of a Korean summer, I’d stay put too.

About ten minutes later, Bus 50 started laboring up a steep grade bordered by small, tidy houses whose front yards were bursting with kimchi pots, fruit trees, flowers, and dogs too lazy to chase it. The street–already extremely narrow—was now only wide enough for one vehicle. That was fine when Bus 50 had the street to itself, but not so fine when its counterpart appeared going the other way. Still, the rule of the road was clear: the bus that had gone the furthest up or down the grade had the right-of-way, and the one that had gone the shortest had to back down (or up) to where the road widened. However, since neither driver wanted to move further than was absolutely necessary, a refinement had been added: when the driver of the bus going backwards thought he’d gone far enough, both drivers would fold their left outside mirrors tight against their vehicles and slowly creep past each other. Since the distance between the two buses was often a mere six inches, a passenger on Bus 50 going uphill could easily have passed an apple or a Coke to a hungry or thirsty rider on Bus 50 going downhill.

The riders were often as interesting as the ride. In Korea, respect for the elderly is a given, and the unspoken rule on city buses is that old men and women are exempted from the rule that you must exit from the back door. One of my favorite memories of Korea is of an old "halmoni" (or granny) who, despite her seeming frailty, was hefting a big brown plastic bowl, filled with enough water to keep an equally-large fish inside it alive, onto the bus. As soon as she had shoved the bowl over the top step, a young guy riding near the front hurried forward to pull it further along the aisle. Being young, and obviously unacquainted with the proper handling of fish aboard city buses, it was perhaps inevitable that the finned one would slide out onto the floor, where it flopped about until its owner, clucking like an angry old hen, restored it to its rightful abode.

No tale about buses in Korean cities would be complete without a description of their drivers. They show their mettle best on multi-lane arteries, swerving from inside lane to outside to gain maximum speed and then dodging back to pick up passengers with the effrontery to expect the would-be Schumaker to bring his thirty-five-foot-long Ferrari to a shuddering stop and pick them up. However, my favorite memory is of the driver who found my umbrella on his bus. The next day, it appeared in the English Department office. At the end of his shift, the driver (who by now had obviously gotten to know me) had gotten into his car and delivered the umbrella to my school–telling the secretary that it belonged to "the big foreigner with a little hair on his head and a lot on his face."
© Jim Sutherland,October 2006

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