He was sleeping standing up.
I was jealous. How could he find enough peace in this crowded subway to sleep? Not that it was particularly noisy but all of that mind pollution of 200 people packed into one subway car, all thinking about their work day? Impossible. All those advertisements and colorful banners clamoring for visual attention? Impossible. All the accidental contact forced upon you by strangers who are trying to get home as soon as possible and willing to cut on comfort? Impossible!
I would have admired his skills, but I was finding out that he didn’t have admirable skills- he was simply playing on the kindness of others. I first realized he was sleeping standing up when he slammed into me. Way beyond the normal bumping and jostling of a crowded train car.
I felt hopelessly unable to do anything. Yes, I didn’t want the responsibility of waking up a stranger and explaining that he was repeatedly hitting me. I might have tried this in a polite way in America, but I knew this strategy would never work. He was way older than me. In the Korean code of ethics, he deserved my respect and (some might argue) my support in keeping him upright. He had no obligation toward me- a nobody because of my age.
This system of hierarchy often gets me in trouble. I understand it, but it is deeply ingrained in me culturally, intellectually, and emotionally to ignore my low position as a young female. I wouldn’t say I necessarily fight for more power. But I hate the feeling of being powerless that the hierarchy often presents me with.
I followed protocol. I turned around and gave him a nasty glare. His eyes were closed.
I accompanied this glare with a loud impatient and huffy sigh- something I trained olympically for when I was a teenager. He didn’t have earphones in, but I suppose sleeping prevented his hearing from detecting the not so subtle communication.
So I employed the next step. Pushing him away with a bit of force when he slammed in again. This actually brought him back sooner as it seemed the other people he was bouncing off were also employing this tactic.
So I brought out my elbow. I would push a little harder and hope that in his sleeping subconscious he would associate my position with discomfort.
On my commute, there are two places that I know I need to hold on. These places are on a short stretch of track that spans three stations. But this day I was too preoccupied and I missed the first place. The train took it’s normal sharp corner, and the sleeping man blundered into me with all the relaxed muscles of a sack of potatoes. Thankfully, it wasn’t only me who was on the receiving end- I shared the force with the man standing beside me. We both almost fell into the laps of the obliviously comfortable seated passengers.
Enough! My feeling of inability to solve this amicably turned into being willing to solve it with violence. An eye for an eye. Someone slap this guy and wake him up because he’s treating the world’s citizens irresponsibly! Sleepiness isn’t a license for violence! Being old isn’t a free pass to abuse! As I turned, the man who had borne sleepyhead’s weight with me turned also. We caught ourselves mid-glare and knew that our looks had the same recipient.
I don’t know why, but we paused. Would he be a gentleman and slap the sleepyhead for me so I wouldn’t get blamed? I confess to that thought. With a quick assessment, I guessed us to be about the same age, and his suit showed me that he had probably been dealing with workplace hierarchy all day- taking it like a good employee who wants to keep his job.
When our eyes locked, the anger turned into something else. An alliance.
I knew I didn’t have to stand and take the punishment any longer. We would take away his ability to continue the abuse. It was the absence of continuing to hold him up that we conspired together.
We moved as if we had one brain. We both inched over and made a few more centimeters of space between us. We turned sideways so as to offer less surface area. And we waited for the second sharp turn on our evening commute.