Good evening to you, lass. Any chance that you have some cash to spare for a poor old guy like me?
Call me imaginative, but if I understood Korean, those were the words that must have slipped past the old man’s lips. If I understood Korean.
My latest trip to Seoul and the only time I felt unsafe in South Korea. A lone woman traveller, I usually don’t venture out of my accommodation after dark, but I made an exception that night because one of my vendors told me about a bargain mall that I could try.
It was just my luck that the bargains start after 20:00 hours, that I chose to stay in an unfamiliar hostel this time that just happened to be in a quiet neighbourhood, and that the bargains in that mall only occurred every third Sunday of the month or something like that.
It was also, I admit, exceedingly bad judgment on my part to forget that I wasn’t in home zone comfort. In the peace of the night that was shattered only by the wintry cold, that was amazingly easy to forget. In any case, I made my way to one of the underground tunnels instead of staying above the ground.
My footsteps echoed loudly in the silence. By then, all the underground shops were closed, and I could not see a single soul about. Until another tunnel joined mine from the right, and a man turned in and walked in the direction that I was heading for. From his posture, I judged him to be in his late forties to mid fifties. He kept about 200 metres ahead of me.
I was glad for the company; it was getting too unnervingly quiet in the exceedingly long tunnel. If only it didn’t become a trio soon after.
Another man appeared around a bend of the tunnel, walking towards us. He looked to be about the same age as the first man. He reached the first old man and I’m not exactly sure what happened, but a shouting match soon ensued.
My steps faltered. Especially when they’ve walked past each other, but were still hurling foreign abuse and threatening glances over their shoulders at the other. It looked as if it was going to escalate from a verbal argument into one you do with your fists.
My hesitation was brief; I certainly did not want the man who appeared later (the one walking towards me) at my back, so I could only advance. His unkempt appearance wasn’t all that prejudiced me against him; even from the distance, I could tell that he was the one who made the first step to approach the other man and whatever he said had prompted the conflict.
Despite what one really feels, I believe that to show fear in such situations would put one in (even more) jeopardy, and whether this belief is misguided or not, I kept my strides confident and unwavering, and my stare resolutely forward. Hell, I didn’t even move nearer along the tunnel wall to put more distance between us.
He stopped me.
Not as in physically accosted me, but stood about a metre and a half away to my eleven o’clock, and bowed while saying something to me in Korean. He looked at me expectantly. The stench of alcohol was discernible. Somehow, without understanding anything that just came out from his mouth, I knew that he was asking me for money.
Despite the frantic beating of my traitorous heart, I gave him a hard, flat stare. And continued walking. He started cursing behind me, and in spite of the temptation, I resisted the urge to turn back to make sure he wasn’t following me, or to break into the indignity of a dead run. I didn’t want to provoke him any further. But I made sure to keep my ears wide open, and strained to listen to any scuffle of boots behind me.
The first uncle who nearly got into fisticuffs with the vagrant turned back to check on me a few times. I think he realised that I was behind him only after the shouting match with the other man, and was worried about me. Strange, but body language is so telling sometimes. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it.
This incident won’t put me off Seoul, or travelling alone. When overseas on my own, I don’t plug into music while on the road as I usually do here in Singapore. My sense of awareness is heightened, I try to sit with my back to the wall in the places I go to, I check where the entries/exits are, I check my bag and pockets regularly to ensure that nothing is missing, I scan faces to check for familiar faces materialising once too many times a day, I try not to go out after dark…normal precautions with some bordering on paranoia, according to some of my friends.
Then again, you can take all the precautions you want, but life doesn’t work like that. When it happens, it happens. So it’s all down to the choices we make. Sometimes, your gut reaction saves your life. Other times, it makes you regret that you gave in to your fears at the critical moment.
Me? Sometimes, I turn my fears to rage. Fear makes you run away from something; anger propels you towards it. When you fear something for too long or the intensity is too great, it gets tiring. And I don’t like to be bogged down like that emotionally.
If ever the time comes for my life to hinge on the fight or flight decision, I pray that I’ll make the choice that I can live with (no pun intended).
In the meantime, I’ll continue reading up on survival tactics and erm…the most vulnerable parts of the human anatomy.