A Life Lesson From the Seoul Train

I had just finished four wonderful years teaching English at West Point, and so the Army decided to send me on what was archly referred to as a “punitive tour”—an assignment meant as a counterbalance to a previous assignment that was, oh, perhaps a good fit for one’s skills, or in a desirable location, or just plain fun. Or perhaps all three. Whatever the Army’s rationale, I was ordered to leave my family stateside while I reported to South Korea and Camp Casey, well north of Uijeongbu (where M*A*S*H was set) and within shouting distance of the Demilitarized Zone and North Korea.

Amid the war games and training exercises, I spent much of my free time in Korea trying to complete the dissertation I hadn’t finished while teaching at West Point. But occasionally, I got out to see the country beyond the gates of Camp Casey. And so I went to Seoul for a weekend in the Spring.

I was alone. And I didn’t read or speak the language. But I had a good map and some useful suggestions as to where I might want to go. So I boarded a train and memorized the name of the stop I needed, and I held on tightly to the stanchion as the train left the station. 

We picked up more passengers at each stop, but it seemed none of them got off. Whatever the actual situation, the train was seeming more and more crowded as we continued along the route. 

The station signs were identified in both the local Hangul script and in the Roman alphabet, so it was clear when it was my stop, and as the doors opened, I let go of the stanchion and tried to move. But I was stuck in the crowd that pressed against me.

“I need to get off,” I announced, hoping to get a little cooperation. But no one obliged. Meanwhile, more people got on the train, and I knew the doors wouldn’t stay open forever.

“I need to get off!” I said, more firmly. By this time, I knew I had precious little time. But no one on the train seemed to care.

Finally, I shouted, “I NEED TO GET OFF!!”

From somewhere in the car, I heard a reply in English, “Well, then, get off!”

With that, I wove through the crowd that, while thick, wasn’t blocking my exit at all. And I was on the station platform before the car doors closed behind me and the train pulled away.

I think I ended up going to a park. But that’s not what I remember about the trip. I remember the advice of a stranger, who was obviously tired of my complaining about needing to do something but not actually taking any steps toward doing it. 

I include the incident here for those who may be lamenting that they need to write more, or finish a novel (or dissertation!), or submit their writing for publication.

I’m aware that it’s not always as simple as “Well, then, get off!” or, in the words of the Nike ad, “Just do it.” But once you confront the stark reality of beginning, and taking that first (or next) step, you may find that you can just—keep going. Or you may discover what the real impediment is and turn to address that. Or you may discover that it really wasn’t all that important in the first place and you’d really rather do something else instead.

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