“If you see something suspicious or unusual, say something.”
A banana peel on the floor of the train. A bathroom door sliding open with no one inside. A man playing Solitaire on both his phone and his laptop. Suspicious. Unusual. Say something.
Outside the train window, New England foliage paints by in wide orange strokes. A family takes a sailboat out on the Connecticut water. A woman steps off the platform holding both of her daughters’ hands. I keep catching sight of the pamphlet tucked into each seat pocket. The words stare back at me, as they do at everyone: “Say something.” To whom? For what?
We’re trying to get to Boston. My boyfriend and I are stuck in an hour-long wait in Penn Station. We split a Dunkin’ iced matcha latte, and it’s surprisingly okay. We remember the matcha latte we used to get from the cafe down the street in Seoul. The owner was always grumpy, the weather warm.
The screen in front of us flashes blue, then shows smiling faces of police officers. What to do in case of an active shooter. The people on screen are panicking and running: This is what not to do. But now a woman sees a man with a gun strapped to his belt and reports him to the nearest officer: This is what to do. Prevent the problem.
We shake our heads and sip. Barely a laugh at the daily reminder that at any moment in this country, we could be shot and killed in a tragedy of a “senseless” crime. It’s hard to resist the glance around the station: no oddly shaped bags, hidden holsters, or strange bulges, right?
I spent most of my life in suburban Austin, where you had to drive to go to the library, the grocery store, the park, even. Everywhere mildly fun or new was at least a twenty minute drive away. It was okay, I told myself early on: I’d just walk. But when I suggested this to my parents, they laughed. By yourself? Absolutely not. Nothing infuriated me more than my immobility growing up. I wasn’t allowed to go on runs or walks by myself until the same year that I began to drive.
But Texas drivers scare me to this day. Being behind the wheel was more often anxiety-inducing than freeing, and I stuck to my usual routes near my neighborhood. All throughout high school, I dreamt of cities in their restless motion, the infinite maze of streets and subway lines. I read poems writers had written during their morning commute, listened to songs about coming up from the subway into the heart of the city. I’d make it out and live the life of infinite destinations, of infinite possibilities, of New York City.
When I got to Princeton, the fact that New York City was only an hour-long train ride away thrilled me. I watched the skyline slowly emerge out of the Jersey smokestacks and barely believed it was real. I rode the subway for the first time alone and made sure to check the name of every stop. The whole city was still a fantasy, and I was immersed, mesmerized for the brief hours I spent there.
When I returned to school this past fall after a gap year, I came to the East Coast two weeks early and spent a few days in New York. I got on the 1 at 125th, and the subway car was basically a free sauna. I don’t know why I expected air conditioning; the heat steamed the windows and I clung to the glossy steel pole. The speakers told me that the MTA transit system had the right to search passengers randomly at any time. As a young Asian woman, I knew they wouldn’t search me, but still the announcement took the smile off my sweaty face. We were just trying to get downtown. I hadn’t seen this part of the country in over a year and a half—I realized I hadn’t missed it.
I don’t want to criticize anything to the point of entitlement, least of all the United States. And I don’t want to romanticize anything, least of all Korea. But the public transportation system was one of the things I missed most after coming back from five months in Seoul over my gap year. You could get to a bike trail in the mountains an hour outside of the capital city for under two dollars. The subway cars were always brightly lit, air conditioned to the highest setting. In the stations, older women sold produce or hiking gear or popped rice crackers. On the doors of the clear walls between the platform and the car were poems to read while waiting.
The first time I used the buses in Seoul, I pored over my phone, triple-checking the bus numbers and stop names. The Kakaomap app told me when the buses would arrive down to the second. I didn’t know how to operate the STOP buttons and the transfers, but got it after the first try. Sometimes I used the free bus WiFi to watch YouTube on the way home, but other times I sat and watched the little screens at the front of the bus that showed ads and video clips between announcements of the next stop. On the way to Seochon, a girl onscreen took out a crab the size of her entire torso and showed us how to cook and season it. Then, she cracked open the shell and pulled the white meat out of the legs. Then, a different woman was tasting two different types of tofu. Which one was the organic one? We had to guess with her. And then a kids’ toy show. I could follow the rest of the video on YouTube if I wanted to.
In the Seoul subway, under bright fluorescent lights, everyone was glued to their phone. I didn’t have data, so I just watched the public service announcements and ads on the screen. Hold onto your luggage on the escalator, one said, since if it falls, it could really injure the person in front of you. Don’t crowd onto the subway car, said another, and just let people go if it already seems full. The most controversial announcement was about Japan trying to claim Dokdo, a Korean island, as theirs. THE WORLD KNOWS THE TRUTH, the screen read.
My boyfriend and I traveled from one end of the city to another, took buses down to a Buddhist temple and across the country to the beach. When he left, I had memorized certain subway lines and could comfortably lose myself in a book or close my eyes for a cat nap before glancing up at exactly the right stop. I visited my favorite cafés and museums, went to see my aunt and my grandparents, and took the rush hour train in the morning to the bus terminal for a solo trip to the beach. On that bus, the seats reclined, there were shades that closed, and it was almost twenty dollars cheaper than my usual Megabus to Boston.
It wasn’t just that the subway and buses were better maintained or ran more smoothly in Seoul. No one really minds a bus being a few minutes late or being lit a bit dimmer. It was that in Seoul, I never once felt unsafe on public transportation during my five-month stay. I was never once asked or told to look at the other riders with a suspicious eye, never once jolted out of a calm ride to be reminded that I could be searched, or might be attacked, at any time. In fact, if anything the public service announcements continually reminded me to look after the strangers around me; so they wouldn’t fall off the escalator, so they wouldn’t be shoved into a packed car, so they would get a seat if they were pregnant or elderly.
I’m a public transportation enthusiast. These modes of movement, of flow, are the greatest reminders of how small, random, and infinite life is. Rarely elsewhere in life do we get to take the exact same path with a group of strangers from point A to point B.
But back in the U.S., all I’m reminded of is the fact that any of these strangers could kill or rob me. Don’t play your music too loud or get too absorbed in conversation—you could lose everything in a moment of distraction. And so when a man takes out his tissues to help me wipe up my spilled drink on the subway seats, I’m first suspicious, then shocked. Who could have expected basic decency, let alone kindness, from a fellow NYC passenger?
I still like public transportation in New York. I like that people are talking, that people are eating, reading and busking and laughing. The Seoul subways are silent, the reflections of phones and makeup mirrors, except for the area reserved for senior citizens, who chat about their kids and the groceries in their rolling carts. I like the coincidences, the chaos, the random acts of kindness here. This could be beautiful, or at the very least, neutral, non-threatening.
But any chance we all get to catch a collective breath on the subway, bus, or train, the moment is broken by an announcement imploring us to look around and find something wrong with each other. I know that feeling a sense of community, safety, and care on public transportation depends on many factors, most outside of the passengers’ control. The challenges of American public transportation are products of the greater fatally capitalist and individualist system that surrounds it. For passengers, it’s a fine line between wanting to be safe and overthinking; I still constantly oscillate between fear of the unexpected and shame at suspecting others. But seeing a different reality in Seoul, I can’t help but wonder how much of this constant fear is valid and how much of it is created, even encouraged, by America itself.
To ask people to tell what’s suspicious and unusual is to expose innocent individuals to a system that constantly profiles and projects fear, to always assume the worst. To make the one rare time we all get to inhabit the same space a “dangerous” and even traumatizing place is to drive a wedge between all of us, to make “stranger” a scary, not hopeful, word. The systems-that-be coerce us to turn against each other and benefit from our constant fear to enact even more surveillance and policing. It saddens and honestly angers me that that’s what American institutions want us to feel when we’re all with each other. It becomes the age-old chicken and the egg question: What came first, neglect of the transportation system, or neglect of the people who ride it towards their fellow passengers?
What would a transportation system look like if we stopped the fearmongering announcements altogether? What would a subway ride be like if we were told instead to look out for one another, to help the elderly with their groceries up the stairs or to wait for everyone to get out of the subway before walking in? Without the constant reminders of how we should respond to suspicion and fear, would we actually feel safer?
I still remember the first time I took the New York subway alone. It was freshman year, and as I watched the station names spelled out in tiles speed by, I felt giddy. For a moment, I could become the most confident, independent, and free version of myself. Everyone on the subway was on their way somewhere. I was trying to get somewhere too, but for that second, I didn’t mind being there. Among the passengers, I felt for a brief moment like I was part of something bigger moving all across the city. In the quiet from the overhead speakers, I could look around at the other people there with me. For a brief moment, we were all stuck in space together, as familiar to each other as any other human being can be, meeting in motion.