Ah, to be Different

A haircut like this

I’m sure everybody has wished at times that they had a camera handy. Actually, these days I’m probably one of the few who wishes that because pretty much everybody else does have a camera/video recorder with them at all times (which leads to the inevitable question of whether the world is actually going increasingly nuts – as evidenced by constant proof, or whether it has always been like this – just without smart phones).

Anyway, on one such day a few years ago during my morning commute, I encountered a guy I simply couldn’t stop staring at. I remember thinking that here, in the land of morning calm, where deliberate, public displays of individuality are traditionally the domain of a small number of unfortunate souls who for some reason never learned to appreciate the pure beauty of social conformity, was a strange place to find a guy like this.

If you google-image “Alternative Korean Guy”, almost all captions have replaced “Alternative” with “Handsome” – this guy is about the most “Alternative” on the first page.

Number 1 “Punk Korean Guy” on Google-image search.










The guy I’m talking about looked almost entirely unlike the pictures above. I quickly ran a mental checklist of all the super-freaky dudes I have encountered over the years and decided that yes, the guy sitting opposite me on the number six line that morning was their one true leader.

Dr Marten’s Boots



His spotless black lace-up boots looked about an hour old.


Pants like these

Carefully tucked into the boots were a truly remarkable pair of pants, the like of which I have never seen in daylight, before or since. Come to think of it, I’ve only seen shiny black skin-tight PVC pants such as these on stage, and even that was quite a while ago.


A shirt like this



The pants themselves collided hideously with the frilly, wide-collared, brand-new looking pale blue shirt he had somehow procured from the nineteen seventies.




A bow tie, like this

The master stoke however, was the bright purple bow tie. This diabolical genius generated multiple waves of nausea as one colour (and decade) of immaculately selected bad taste clashed violently with the next (the boots were ok), and I couldn’t bring myself to look away.

It wasn’t just the outfit, but the huge amount of time and effort that had obviously gone into its selection and presentation. Not for lack of trying, I could not find a wrinkle, stain, or single speck of dust on this guy.

A haircut like this

Of course, any individual prepared to put such a huge amount of time and effort into his physical appearance (this guy could bring the most narcissistic drag queen to tears of inadequacy) could not leave anything to chance, so, in the unlikely event that this young man somehow failed to attract the levels of attention he obviously craved, his whole ensemble was topped off with an equally meticulous Mr T style mohawk.

I didn’t feel bad for staring at the guy. After all, people don’t go out at 10am looking like that by accident. He was cool… like, liquid nitrogen cool, and by his posture alone it was evident that others should acknowledge this.

South Koreans (generally) prefer to find their cool within a singularly powerful, seemingly impenetrable clique of forty-eight million. I wondered if this guy was from Japan. The subway carriage was not crowded and so like a peacock displaying its plumage he spread his arms and legs to occupy as much space as possible. He was quite tall and the sight of him leaning back into the narrow moulding of the subway seat, making a concerted effort to look as relaxed as possible was pretty funny (those subway benches aren’t really built for comfort) and I let out a bit of a chuckle. His eyes were closed, but in the same way he could sense I was watching him he knew that my subdued laughter had also been in his direction and two briefly flickering eyelids displayed his contempt for my conformist ignorance.

I drifted back into my own youth in Australia, with its armies of angst-ridden, disaffected middle class teenagers. Competition for attention is much stiffer there, where individuality is so highly prized… where every conceivable hairstyle has been worn and there are no new places to safely stamp extra holes through one’s own head. I was a member of those ranks once. Twenty years really do pass far too quickly.

The ultra-flamboyant guy sitting opposite me in the subway was in his early twenties, and not confrontational in any way. He was just quietly pleased that some attention was being payed to him. The weird thing is (I’m still getting to that), after the obvious effort that had gone into his grooming and wardrobe choices, he seemed to be in entirely the wrong country. Nobody else in the subway carriage could see him. Staring at their hand-held televisions or intently observing something interesting on the floor, the other commuters were ignoring him with a level of expertise that to my knowledge is possessed only by the Koreans. The poor guy. He had somehow managed to weird himself completely out of existence. Ironically enough, I looked down the carriage again to discover that the two older businessmen sitting nearby were staring at me in a manner not dissimilar to the way in which I had been staring at Mr Mohawk-in-a-bowtie. With my receding short black hair, black suit, grey tie and dress shoes, I looked just like those businessmen, except for the minor fact that I am not Korean. For this reason alone, those two middle-aged gentlemen continued to watch me as though expecting me to spontaneously combust at any moment.

I wondered if young plastic-pants felt resentful of the fact that I needed only to have left my apartment to be stared at.


  1. Although I couldn’t shake the feeling that something they’d gotten it wrong, I was always encouraged to see Koreans going out of their way to look weird. I’m not sure if this guy was just imitating something on TV or if he was actually part of a subculture, but it’s a shame that so few people are really active in underground cultures anymore. I thought that it was just something that never gained traction in Korea, and while that’s probably true, there definitely seems to be less of it since I came back to the US as well. Here’s hoping that the youth are still getting weird in meaningful ways in some parts of the world.

    • He was something… I’m not sure what exactly – I don’t think there’s a label for this guy, whoever he is.

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