Photo credit: poohoot

I stand on the platform, one foot touching the strip of bumpy yellow flooring, waiting for the subway to arrive at Itaewon Station. Thirty minutes ago, I was in the sauna, having three months of dead skin scraped off my body by a fifty year old ajumma wearing a sheer, black bra and panties set. I’m feeling pretty good, despite it being 11:45 PM and past my bedtime.

The lights from the oncoming train shine in my direction, and the automated recording verifies that the train headed towards Bonghwasan is indeed approaching. It rumbles along the tracks and gradually stops. The doors slide open and I step inside, migrating towards a seat at the end of the bench directly in front of me. Nice, I think, end seats are the shit.

I sit next to a young Korean girl dressed to the nines in a silky white blouse that’s sheer to the point where I can see her floral printed bra underneath, paired with a tight skirt and jeweled stiletto sandals. Her toenails are painted pink with small golden butterflies. Her face is caked with foundation that’s two shades too light and offset by dark magenta lipstick. She’s petite and attractive, but it’s obvious that she spends time primping in front of a mirror. A tall white guy with ash blond hair sits to her right. He’s wearing a tight, pink, v-neck t-shirt paired with dark skinny jeans and suede loafers, an outfit that, in my country, would call for a suitable man to replace the attractive female by his side. They’re seated close enough to assume they’re together and he’s straight.

I cross my legs, and arrange my skirt to prevent myself from flashing the row of seats in front of me. I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed.

“Do you like sports?” the guy asks, annunciating the “o” and the “r” in “sports.” I immediately assume he is English.

“Well, I like football,” the Korean girl replies in nearly flawless American English with a hint of a Korean accent, proving she’s not a native speaker.

“Football, like soccer, or American football?”

“American football.”

“What’s your favorite team?” he prompts.

“I like the Greenbay Packers.”

“Why?” he leans towards her, overly interested in hearing her response.

She giggles and twirls her thin, gold necklace. “I don’t know. They’ve just been really good for a long time.”

She probably studied abroad in the U.S.

“Do you watch soccer?” she asks, not picking up on his previous usage of the word “football.” Maybe she just doesn’t care.

“No, not usually. I don’t watch sports often. Some of my friends are really into football, er soccer, though.”

“What do you do for exercise?” She glances at his biceps protruding from that tight, pink v-neck.

“Well I work out at the gym a few times a week,” he says, proudly.

“Ohhh, good,” she purrs. “Do you take steroids?”

“No, of course not!” He laughs, astonished by her question.

“I know many Western men who use steroids.” she admits. I’m wondering where in Seoul she’s meeting all these Western men on steroids.

“Those are the bodybuilders though.” He decides to change the subject, “Do you read?”

“Yes, I read.”

An awkward silence ensues. He crosses his arms over his chest and uncrossed them immediately after. “Do you read Western books or Korean?”

“I read Korean books and yeah, some Western ones too.”

“What is your favorite book?” He speaks slowly, like he’s speaking to a group of low level elementary students.

“Ohh,” she pauses, averting her eyes, “I don’t know the name in English. It’s an American book, like a series of three books.”

I bet it’s 50 Shades of Grey.

“What’s it about?”

“Oh, umm…” she giggles softly.

Yep. Definitely 50 Shades of Grey.

Another awkward silence ensues. After a few seconds, he tries again. “Have you heard of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?” Apparently he’s thinking of a different kind of trilogy.


“Oh, it’s a great novel. It was written by a Swedish man… I also read a book about a man who climbed Mt. Everest. That was fascinating.”


“It almost brought tears to my eyes. It was so intense.”

“You almost criiiied?” She giggles yet again, while placing her hands on her knee and turning her head towards him.

“Yeah, almost!”

Silence. “Let’s listen to some music.” She grabs her phone from her purse, elbowing me in the process. At this point, I pretend to read my Jhumpa Lahiri novel, but as my eyes scan each page, I’m only comprehending their conversation. In fact, I can’t NOT listen. I can usually tune out Korean on the train, but when I hear English, my consciousness refuses to ignore it. Especially loud English. And English that is right next to me.

“Great. What kind of music do you like?” He seems relieved to have a distraction.

“Here. You can look,” she hands him her phone, and he begins to scroll through her library of tunes.

“Oh, John Mayer. He’s great,” he approves.

“Do you like country?”

“Umm, I don’t usually listen to it,” he admits. Translation: I never listen to country music, but I will now because I want to have sex with you.

“Like Keith Urban? I love him. He’s from Australia, I think. Not America.” She clicks on a Keith Urban song.

“Could I just scroll through your songs as the music is playing?”

“Oh, you can choose anything.”

“No, this is fine. I’d just like to see what else you have.” He chuckles as he scrolls down. She peers over his shoulder.

“I love the Spice Girls! You wanna listen to them? I love this song.”

“Oh, no. It’s okay.” He glances at her. “Well, if you want to, then, okay sure. Go for it!”

“I like another singer, I can’t remember her name, but she is better than Adele. She’s one of the British persons though. I didn’t even know that.”

“So, she is English?” he corrects her.

She giggles. “Yeah, English.”

At this point, I try to tune out the awkwardness occurring beside me. I run my fingers through my damp, knotted hair, wishing the ajumma at the sauna had washed it when I got my scrub. I carefully place my phone and book in my purse and anticipate my stop. I peer out the window as the train races past Korea University, then Wolgok, and a few minutes later, I reach my final destination. As I stand up, I smooth my skirt against my legs and sling my purse over my shoulder. I glance at the pair. They don’t seem to notice me.

Five minutes later, I walk towards my humble abode where I begin typing this story. As I transcribe the awkwardly hilarious conversation between two people coming from separate worlds, I’m wondering if my past dates with foreign men have ever sounded like this–especially the dates that were conducted in Spanish.

They may have, but then again, I’ve never asked a man in a pink v-neck shirt if he uses steroids.


*This story was also published on Asia Pundits.


-Text by Sarah Shaw @ All rights reserved.