After having seen countless people suddenly stop for no reason in the middle of a road, run red lights, slowly turn onto busy freeways, and change lanes or turn without signals, I considered myself pretty familiar with hectic driving in Korea. Koreans put their phone numbers in the windshield of their car, allowing them to park other cars in, double park, and park their cars on sidewalks, because anyone who is blocked or stuck can call the phone number and ask the owner to move their car.
I’d decided that there is one key to survival while scooting or biking on a road in Korea: expect everybody to do illegal things 100% of the time.
Oddly enough, this expectation didn’t protect me from the lunacy of one asshole driver and his friends in the wee hours of a Wednesday in spring.
Some of my friends started doing morning workouts together Monday through Friday and I tried to join them at least three days a week. Though I started work in the afternoon, they all taught in the morning and so our workouts began at six a.m.
After two weeks of biking for 30 minutes to get there by six, I decided to sleep longer and ride my scooter.
I’d already noticed that the morning traffic, though sparse, was worse from a legal standpoint than it was in the daytime. This particular morning, I was approaching a t-intersection when I saw one of the more ridiculous driving moves. I had a green arrow, and was planning on turning left. Though all other sides had a red light, there was only one car stopped at the light and waiting. A black SUV drove up behind it, and, not wanting to wait, drove into the right turn lane and swerved around the median, trying to get back to the main road.
Unfortunately, I was scooting between the car and the main road. You know, in my own lane.
We didn’t collide, but we almost did. We both stopped, inches from each other. I threw up both hands and said, “What the fuck! Are you crazy?” This, though maddening, was a pretty standard part of my daily driving. I put my hands back down, shook my head, and turned left.
Once on the main road, I pulled over. It was colder than I’d expected, so I had to try to cover my hands with my sweatshirt. As I adjusted my sleeves, the SUV pulled up beside me. This was unusual. In all of the time I’d been in Korea I’d only seen cars pull over twice: once when a car drove into oncoming traffic and hit the cab I was in, and another time when a car ran into a bus.
Three younger guys were in the SUV. They didn’t look mad. They were all in relaxed positions and smoking cigarettes. They rolled down their window and said something to me. I shrugged, and said, “I don’t speak Korean” in Korean. We looked at each other for a while, and then I drove off.
They followed me. Rather than going around me, they sped up directly behind me. I freaked out. I was nearing a bridge and was nervous to hit the pillars. I swerved to the right as much as I dared, and the boys flew past me, just barely missing me.
I stopped suddenly and they did too, angled in front of me. Fuck! I thought. Maybe they really did want to talk! I edged up toward the open window, but the boys just sat inside, paying no attention to me and smoking cigarettes.
I gave up waiting for them to not communicate with me, and so I drove off again down the same road. They reversed back to the road and sped up behind me again. I scooted up the first ramp I saw to get on the sidewalk. They drove alongside me, even with my pace.
“You’re trying to kill me?” I said, miming with my hands. They laughed. “You’re trying to kill me!” I said again.
“Yes!” The driver said, laughing, giving me the thumbs up.
It hit me then that they were probably going home from a night out. Although drunk driving is prohibited in Korea, cops quit stopping traffic and breathalizing after 1 a.m. I know this because my Korean friends always made sure to only drive drunk at 1:01 or later.
“Are you an alcoholic?” I yelled in Korean. I wasn’t sure how to ask if they were drunk.
“Yes! I’m an alcoholic,” laughed the driver.
“Ahh, okay then. Bye!” I tried to look casual and undisturbed. I wanted them to leave. They didn’t move. “Go!” I shouted. They stayed.
I faced forward, and continued along the sidewalk. They followed beside me, then swung in front of me before the sidewalk ended, blocking me from going down the ramp.
I turned my bike around, slowly, and drove the other direction. They whipped around and sped back, leaving tire marks on the ground. They blocked the next driveway I was trying to go down.
“What the fuck!” I yelled.
They burst out laughing. “Fuck-uh!” They said, trying to speak English. “Cray-gee! Bastad-uh!”
I turned again and drove to the next down ramp, where they blocked me again. I turned off my scooter and pulled out my phone. Fuck it, I’m calling the cops, I thought.
I had remembered that 119 was an emergency number in Korea. I dialed it in my phone, but the boys drove off before I could hit send. I checked the time, and was surprised to see that I was late for the workout. I had been stalked and terrorized for 15 minutes.
I called my friends to let them know I was on my way. “Hey, sorry I’m late. I’ve been in a fight with these Koreans. I’ll be there soon,” I said. As I hung up my phone and put it away, I was surprised to see that my hands were shaking.
I continued to wait where I was, nervous to be on the road. After a sufficient enough hesitation, I turned on my scooter. Most buildings in Korea are built right up to the edge of the road, making each corner blind, and this was no different. I was afraid that the boys were waiting to see me so they could flatten me on the pavement. It seemed as though they wouldn’t be happy until I was lying on the road. I slowly inched down the sidewalk ramp, peering around the corner.
They were gone.
I passed their turn and continued on the same road, jumping every time I saw a car. I had to turn left at the next corner. I waited beside a red truck until our light went green. Carefully, I turned.
Suddenly I heard beeping… more than beeping. The person behind me was laying on their horn. I looked in my mirror and saw the black SUV once again. They were like bullies in a bad 80’s movie. The boys had pulled aside to wait for me, and then ran a red light to chase me.
I bee-lined for the sidewalk again, and the SUV turned the corner, blocking the sidewalk ramp. Old tricks.
I turned off my scooter immediately and grabbed my phone. The boy in the back seat was flipping me both middle fingers and laughing. The boy in the passenger seat said, “fuck-uh! Bastad-uh!”
I had a wealth of knowledge of Korean swears, but had earlier been too chicken shit to use them. I was scared enough of the fact that they were in a vehicle and I was on a scooter. I had no desire to piss them off.
Now I was pissed.
“Oh. GREAAAAT English, genius! Way to put together a sentence,” I shouted, slow clapping. “Knee me gee shibal, motherfucker!” I said. (translation: ‘motherfucker, motherfucker!’) Then I waved my opened phone at them. “119! 119!” I yelled.
They drove off again before I could hit send. I found out later that 112 is the Korean police, and 119 is the fire department, but at the time it was the best I could do. I was happy to have scared them off, and I memorized their license plate number as they drove away.
I opened my phone again, ready to call the cops. Then it hit me, I could never begin to communicate what had happened. Communication complication strikes again.
I called my only Korean friend who would already be awake for work at six a.m.
“Hey, I need a favor,” I told him. “I need you to call the cops on these guys. I swear to God, they spent the last 15 minutes trying to kill me.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m close to the bus terminal. I’m not kidding either, these three guys were chasing me in their SUV, and I have their license plate number, but I don’t know how to call them in. Can you do it?”
“Well,” he said.
“Well what? Won’t the cops do something?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said.
I was instantly dissatisfied, and mad at myself for attempting to ask for help. “Well okay. Do the cops speak English?”
“Maybe…” he said.
“Okay. I’ll call them myself.”
I hung up and drove away, jumping even more every time a car drove around or behind me.
Later I realized I hadn’t saved the plate number. They got away with it, as they probably would have regardless of my calling or not. Instead of getting them back, I went home and stayed awake for hours in my bed, fantasizing about keying their car.
I told one of my coworkers what happened. She shook her head. “Drivers in this area are so aggressive,” she said. “Plus, the men hate it when they see women driving. They think women should be working in the kitchen and taking care of kids. Even these days. They live in the stone age.”
She shook her head in disgust, and I did too.
I had hated more than anything that they had chased me down as though to teach me a lesson when they were the ones driving like morons. But now I had an explanation: I’m a female driving.
Thanks for the lesson, Korea.
(written in 2011)