Public show of affection is generally frowned upon in Korea. But Koreans are quite emotional and if you are in the right place at the right time, you might see an intimate drama unfolding as I did on the train recently.
The Friday before New Years Day was a busy day for travel. I had an interview in Seoul that afternoon and had to take a standing room only ticket the morning before to be in Seoul for the interview the following day. Not wanting to repeat that experience, I went straight to the ticket booth and reserved my ticket for the following day. I had a comfortable seat by the window and the seat next to me was unoccupied until we reached Pyeongyang, the city of Korea’s largest airbase. At that stop, a young twenty something aged woman edged through the crowd of standees and joined me.
She appeared to be alone. But just before the train pulled out I saw a young man come running down the platform and bolt onto the stairs. He had a determined look on his face. He knew exactly where he was going. He squeezed through the crowded aisle and took his place as a standee next our seats. The girl looked up, surprised and pleased, and gave a little cry of surprise that can only be heard from Korean women. It’s a sound somewhere between ooh! and woo! that comes out as a short owah! It can only be discerned as positive or negative from the current situation; it’s a slightly strangled sound, because otherwise the true emotion within the sound would be betrayed. In this case, there was no mistaking it; it was a sound of joy. She smiled as he handed her gifts, snacks and a book for the long trip south. She was going to the end of the line. He leaned in slightly to talk to her and, as he blocked the view from everyone except me, there was furtive hand holding and whispering. From her, there were lots of smiles and tears of mixed joy and sadness.
Apparently he had made a last minute decision to get on the train with her for the express purpose of extending their goodbye time. He got off at the next stop and amid tears, she began frantically texting him, even before he left the platform. There was furious texting back and forth for the next few miles and then the responses stopped. She sat quietly, ate the snacks, and then settled back to read the book. As she opened the book, I couldn’t help but notice her pause. I looked down and there was a lavender piece of paper taped to the inside cover of the book. I tried to give her her privacy; but oh, I could not help glancing over every few seconds. It was not just a note. It was a letter, some three pages long, neatly folded, and of course, written in hangul, the written Korean language. Just as well, I wouldn’t be tempted to try to read it. But it wasn’t hard to read her reaction. Her eyes began to well up almost as soon as she started reading it. In some parts, the tears streamed down her face so that she had to stop because she couldn’t see the page. When her efforts to brush back the tears became futile, I knew I no longer needed to pretend ignorance. I handed her a tissue. She gave me a quiet, “Com sa ham nida,” in thank you; I nodded and politely turned towards the window.
It had turned dark by then and I could still see her reflection. She kept reading and rereading that letter, turning again and again to certain parts, even tenderly touching the words. More frantic text messaging. I imagined him smiling as he received the reactions he must have been waiting for. Although I speak little Korean and truly did not understand any of the words spoken in the brief time they were together on the train, the emotions were unmistakable. This was no break up. There was no sense of despair, but a sweet sadness. The young man’s gentle voice and tender expression and the glow in the young woman’s eyes and even the slight turned up corners of her mouth amid tears revealed that this was a sad farewell, but not a goodbye. Some things you don’t need language to understand.