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Prose Winter 2021

Express

by Nadia Jo

A symphony of plpleaseplease putputput on put on on yyour put on your youyou yourmask mmask youyourmask greets me while transferring from subway line 3 to line 9. Dubbed “hellway” by longtime Seoul residents, line 9 is the most crowded in the entire subway system. A mix of all-stop and express trains disorient riders, and a sea of Koreans flood the escalators whenever they get off a train. Until I first started working full-time in Seoul in 2019, I had never witnessed such homogeneous waves of people before. A stream of black-haired Asians morphed across paths and into stairways: everywhere you turned, your eyes would rest on the same characters.

During COVID-19, the resemblance between people grew stronger: dark hair, black parkas, white masks, and obscured faces. Silent and efficient, shuffling towards the next destination. The next short-term goal. In this chaotic city ritual, I could disappear into the cogs of the well-oiled machine — society — that we all promised to uphold. Most times, I reveled in the fast pace and carelessness of strangers around me. I felt efficient as I ran down the left lane of escalators, which everyone silently agreed to designate as the side for people in a hurry; the right side was reserved for people who wanted to stand still on the escalator. Running down the escalators signaled busyness, the drive behind someone with a packed schedule who couldn’t waste time idling on the right lane. No one stood still on the left lane; we all made way for each other, clearing out the path as quickly as possible for others.

In the summer of 2020, I always switched to subway line 9 in the “Express Bus Terminal” station. I was used to the procedure: jog up the stairs after getting out from line 3, pull out my subway card as I walk in order to save time, tap the card and walk through the turnstile without pause, race down the escalator, and try to catch the express train. After rushing down the incredibly long escalator, I found myself in a gigantic open space with clean white tiles and impossibly high ceilings, with the sci-fi grandiosity of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I took in the strange dystopian beauty of this platform during a few seconds of walking, then headed down the second flight of escalators to finally arrive at the subway.

Chaos makes this station simultaneously hell and a highway to hell. I always discreetly smirk at how we all look the same: a stark contrast from the vibrant diversity of American cities I’m used to. Then, I smile a little less widely as I observe people in their 20s who are numb from the repetitiveness of 9-6 jobs they don’t want to be stuck in. When I settle into the tightly-bunched-together rows of seats, I look around for a few seconds at everyone escaping into digital worlds on their phones. A few minutes of distraction, texting, and catching up on TV shows before boring office jobs. At the same time, their predictable motions of taking out phones from their pockets and putting on AirPods feel painfully banal to me. However, those passengers would probably describe both as activities ridden with anxiety. You can’t exactly enjoy a reality TV show when the screeching of subway wheels seep into your ears, and you have to listen to overhead announcements to see if they call out the name of your stop, or you have to feel the familiar duration of the trip with every cell in your body to “automatically” know when to get off. It requires attention, focus. Even during escape.

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