Culture: Saved by the Bag Lady

by Melissa Lang
Busan Haps Magazine

I knew she was looking at me as if I was a damsel in distress with no arms in desperate need of assistance.

Living in Korea can throw expats into some wonderful, bad, and many perplexing situations through an outsider’s eye. Take for instance public transportation, specifically the bus. With such a densely concentrated population and limited land, getting to and from places is very accessible, but with a price. You regularly feel like a sardine with no personal bubble crammed shoulder to shoulder. Riding the bus is one thing that from time to time I am still not desensitized to, despite living here for almost three years.

Something extremely peculiar happens on a Korean bus sometimes. It involves an old lady, a bag, and a whole lot of confusion. I have had this occurrence happen to me twice so far since I have been in Korea. I will bet money it has happened to you too and made you jump with fright. It’s one of those moments when even the culture shock of living in another country has subsided; it reminds you that you are still living in a completely different world entwined with distinct cultural norms.

I was standing because as usual the bus is packed. I have my bag hanging over my shoulder. Little did I know the unassuming old lady sitting next to me has been eyeing my purse for a while now. She really did resemble the sweet grandma who just wants to feed you copious amounts of home cooked food…or so I thought.

Well, I thought she was completely harmless until a few seconds later.

I have a medium sized bag, nothing too crazy. I was standing on the overcrowded bus when suddenly; out of nowhere the presumably sweet old lady swipes my bag right before my eyes. She then proceeds to cradle it in the crevice of her lap and clutch onto my purse, as if it was her newborn cub as she smiled at me as if she did nothing wrong and invasive. I was completely taken off guard and just in a state of shock. What nerve of this lady! I thought to myself, ” what has just happened?” At that moment I found myself in a predicament. Do I just try to pry my bag from her paws? Or do I just wait for my stop as an opportunity to grab it from her. I mean, she is old I can take her on right? There is no competition. I would be the winner in this battle hands down.

I have this constant interior monologue bantering back and forth the entire ride until; finally it’s my time to get off.  My heart was pumping so fast. There was no need to look at her or give her the hand signal to cough it up. As if she could read my mind or something she immediately gave back my beloved bag again like it was her duty. At that moment I realized in an extremely strange and twisted way that this lady was planning on giving back my precious accessory the whole time. She was merely being thoughtful and caring by lightning the load for me because she thought my bag was too heavy. She really was a sweet old lady after all looking out for me!

A reflection of how Korean society many times likes to take care of people, whether they ask for it or not and that’s what I love about this country. Just a normal outing in Korea. Nothing out of the normal.  So next time you are on the bus heed my warning. Hold onto your bag for dear life and stay out of close proximity to sitting old ladies. Unless you need a load off your shoulders.

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