September 23, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno
When I was 21 I traveled to Europe on a six week backpacking tour. I fainted in the Sistine Chapel and spent four days in an Italian hospital. I got rehydrated on an I.V. drip, ate better food than anywhere else in Italy, and entertained the seventeen elderly women in my “semi-private” room. I never got a bill. Calling my Mom from the hospital was hard. But I never felt as far from home as the day I tried to call home from Paris.
At least back then, to call America from Paris with a calling card you had to go through the operator. And the operator only spoke French. Only French. She would not even listen if you broke into English. At that moment, I felt so far away from home, so incompetent, so alone, so utterly lost. I could not do something as simple as make a phone call. I wrote in my journal that night “The ‘foreign’ in foreign country is when the operator does not speak English.”
Living in a foreign country means that at least once or twice a week I have to do something amazingly ordinary that I simply have no idea how to do. The daily chores of living take on new significance when you realize that you cannot do them the American way, and you hadn’t realized there was a Korean way. Having now spent a full month here in Korea, I thought I’d list some of the challenges that put the “foreign” in foreign country.
Public Toilets: Toilet paper, if provided, is on the outside of the stall. Thus you have to decide in advance whether to be environmentally sensitive and conserve paper or always take enough for the worst case scenario. Signs on the door saying “Foreigners” or with a picture of a toilet mean you will find a western toilet. Otherwise toilets are Korean style (see photo).
Doing laundry: Since I do not have a dryer, I have to plan laundry around the weather. Doing wash on a rainy or humid day means clothes can mold before they dry. Since it has been actively raining or over 75% humidity almost every day, some days get organized wholly around laundry. When I do get to wash, I have to be careful how I hang things. Otherwise unexpected visitors at the front door get a beeline view of all my underwear and bras.
Trying to mail a package home: Post offices do not sell international mailing boxes here. You pick used boxes from the box pile provided at shopping centers, turn them inside out so they have no writing on them, and use them to mail packages.
Paying a bill: No one mails payments to companies in Korea. Instead you transfer money directly from your account to theirs at the bank or an ATM. Also no one gets bank statements in the mail - you put your passbook into the ATM and it automatically records every deposit, withdrawal and debit card use since last you updated your passbook.
Taking out the trash: Koreans are amazing recyclers. Food goes in the orange and yellow bins (I’m hoping they aren’t meant for different kinds of food!). Paper, glass, metal, plastic, and Styrofoam have their own large sacks. You have to use your town’s garbage bags purchased at the local market.
Buying groceries: Koreans charge 5 cents a bag for every bag you use at the supermarket and appreciate your bringing your own. You do your own bagging and you have to move quickly - the people behind you are always in a hurry. Chickens at one market come cut up, but not at another - you have to ask (I avoid that section of that market, since heads on chickens goes past my comfort zone). Bananas can only be bought in complete bunches (20) but apples depend on the market - six at one, seven at the other, a dozen at a third. You bag your own produce and then walk it to an assistant, who weighs it and sticks a label on it (kind of like the bulk section of Hannaford - but with an assistant). It pays not to get the number of apples wrong.
Finding an address: Even Koreans agree that finding a street address is incredibly hard in Korea. Buildings are numbered based on when they were built, not their location on the street, and less than 20% of streets have actual street signs. All directions are relational (left at the temple, right a block after the supermarket, we’re the store behind the bank) which means having a good sense of everything ELSE in the neighborhood is useful for finding a particular location. If you are new to the country, you walk a lot - and you try to accept it is about the journey, since you may never find your destination.
So daily life has its challenges, but there are compensations. Telemarketers and survey people hang up on me as soon as I answer in English. Every supermarket trip or dinner out is a foray into new foods and new tastes. And I’ve never had such a sense of satisfaction from taking out the garbage, paying a bill, or buying apples.