Day One: Nobody in this Country Speaks English
This morning, HCB and I woke up in Korea for the first time. I bounded out of bed at what turned out to be 3:30AM, but it wasn’t until the lazy hour of 6AM that the two of us really got rolling. We explored the facilities and found them to be as swanky as we had expected. Kids, we have squash courts. Now, I’ve never actually held a squash racket (it’s a racket and not a paddle, right?), but it’s nice to have the option. Add to that the sauna and the jacuzzi’s and the GIGANTIC pool and you have a pretty well appointed gym. After mapping the basement levels, we ate a free continental breakfast (served every weekday) and climbed onto the free shuttle to HCB’s school.
Getting to the shuttle was shocking. You guys, it’s cold here. As a Californian, I am not equipped physically, psychologically or sartorially for this kind of cold. It’s hibernation inducing, this cold. But neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night shall stay the professor from attending his department orientation, so we successfully braved the elements. We only just barely survived thanks to the amazing insulating properties of incessant whimpering.
Once we made it to his department office, HCB was introduced to his assistant. Although neither of us caught this kid’s name, we love him. He’s the first person we’ve met in Korea with a conversational grasp of English. Everyone else we’ve encountered has seemed really unhappy to be talking to us. Take the women behind the desk at our apartment for example. Before I explain further, bear in mind that we live in an apartment complex set up and owned by the Korean government for the expressed purpose of housing Westerners. Knowing that, one would expect the staff of DMC to be, if not fluent in English, at least competent. Nope. This morning we approached what amounts to the concierge desk and asked for some help figuring out the best bus route to campus. They consulted each other in Korean, wide-eyed with panic. Have you ever been daydreaming when you really should have been listening intently to something being said? And then the person turns to you and asks a question that would have been easy to answer if you’d been listening, but you weren’t and now you don’t even understand the question and oh my God, what do I say? Well, the look on your face when you felt that feeling was the look on their faces. Oh my God, won’t they just go away? their eyes said. We have seen that same look on many unexpected faces: the stewardesses on the airplane; the guy who picked us up from the airport; the staff of HCB’s department; every cabdriver ever; and the woman serving food in the cafeteria at his English speaking college. We have been spoiled by European travel. In France or Germany or—God bless it—the Netherlands, everyone has a degree of English competency that ranges from fair to doctoral-thesis caliber. Not so in Korea. The country is so new to globalization and the density of English-speakers so low that, although I think almost everyone has taken some English, very little of it is usable. Imagine staffing an entire country with students from Señora Morales’s Spanish 2 class. The coverage would be less than complete.
But then there is his assistant: a gift from God sent in the form of an 18-year-old Korean undergrad. He walked our confused asses all around Seoul, setting up bank accounts and buying cellphones as he went. We were made giddy by the first two hours with him and then totally exhausted by the second two. There is so much to do and it all takes so much time, but at least we have help. For the time being our mantra will have to be: this will become more manageable.
Much love to everyone back home.
DME + HCB