Traveling solo in a non-English speaking country
I never ask for directions whenever I travel in Korea.
I knew, since the first few times I tried, that I will either get 1) a brisk wave of the hand the moment I utter “Excuse me…”, an embarrassing turn down even before I get to ask my question; or 2) the person I asked for help will voluntarily WALK me to my desired destination no matter how far or out-of-the-way it is for him, just to avoid any conversations. One funny incident was when an ahjussi (a middle-aged man in Korea) walked with me through several streets, all the while just leading me to the nearest taxi stand!!
Most Koreans still use their own language as major mode of communication. Even a Kpop group I recently watched on Youtube unapologetically received their international award with partly Korean language injected in their acceptance speech! In my experience, only around 20% of the people I met in the four times I’ve been to Korea can engage in an English conversation. This includes the tour guides and subway tourist information center personnels, young sales agents selling makeup and skincare products in Myeongdong, and the man in charge of my hostel’s reception area.
I find it funny that of all places I can go to, I picked a non-English speaking country for my first solo travel. It's hard, but definitely not impossible. Majority of South Korea’s street signs are still in Hangul (their own alphabet), even in a city that's already marked as tourist-friendly such as Seoul. How do I go around then? What I learned along the way is how useful and dependent I am with my apps and a pocket internet. The moment I leave my hostel to explore, I will whip out my phone, connect to the internet, and navigate the streets by using Google Maps. I know it’s not the ideal scene for the street smart travelers, but it works for me! I treat it as if I’m in a real-life Nintendo game figuring my way on my own, eyes glued on my phone’s screen. In Jeju, a province in South Korea known for their beautiful mountains and beaches, I only have the bus to go around which I find harder to navigate than the train. Whenever I can’t read the bus signs, I input my destination in Google Maps and follow the moving blue dot heading to the red pointer just to make sure I won’t miss my stop!
Sadly, I encountered bad experiences due to language barrier. One happened in Jeju when my thrifty heart finally decided to take a cab. It was half of the day already when I noticed that there are few buses and bus stops in the island, it will take long walks and even longer waits before I reach my next destination. It was so time consuming which I can’t afford for my short trip. The cab driver I was able to hail offered me a really good deal for an hour and a half drive to my guesthouse, with two stop-overs along the way. With minimal English, he said something in Korean while lifting 6 fingers to indicate his price for the service. Wow, I thought, 6000 Korean Won is such a good deal for the convenience of a private driver! We stopped by the touristy Hello Kitty Museum and then Jeju’s popular green tea place Osulloc where I bought a matcha spread and powdered tea for my dad. My cab driver even offered to take my photos, waited for me outside the museums while I go around, and made several surprise stopovers for photo ops along the road, overviewing Jeju’s famous beaches and Mt. Hallasan. Instant tour guide!
When the sun has already set and we were finally about to head back to my guesthouse, my cab driver decided to type in the amount I owed him in his phone’s calculator. It was a facepalm moment when it read 60,000 Won! I knew it was unintentional and partly my fault for not clearing things up before I closed the deal, so I just nodded while counting my money inside my bag with sweaty palms.
As with anything, along with the bad comes the good. Also with language barrier, I experienced first hand how kindness transcends the spoken language. One time, I was waiting for the train heading to Cheongpyeong Station on my way to the Garden of Morning Calm. The cold was so intense at that time since it was already late November, almost nearing winter. I was wearing a pair of knitted black gloves with holes for the fingers, while holding my phone to make sure I’m getting on the right subway. To double check, I searched online for a photo of The Garden of Morning Calm and showed it to an ajumma (how they call elder women in Korea) who was watching me for a while already. It must be because I look every bit of a tourist to the locals, with my red camera hanging on one shoulder after I used it to take photos of a small plot of red trees right across the platform (touch of autumn to post on my Instagram, hehehe). I pointed to the railway then to the photo on my phone, then asked ajumma, “Is this the right way to this?” The old lady analyzed my photo before nodding, then she initiated the small talk.
“You’re going to meet friend there?”
“Oh, no! I’m traveling alone,” I replied.
“Ahh!” she responded with a smile, then scavenged through her bag to take out a rectangular pack.
The old lady handed it to me, then I realized I’ve encountered this stuff before during a cold spring trip in Japan. Assuming I had no idea what it was, she took the pack back from my hand and opened the plastic wrappings. Inside is a green bag made of thick gauze around the size of my palm. It looks like a big piece of Chinese jackstone. I’m not sure what’s the crumbly particles inside the pack, but when you rub it between your hands as demonstrated by ajumma, it turns warm for a number of hours. A good weapon for winter travelers. I copied her while blurting my thank yous. Warm hands, warm heart.
"Action speaks louder than words", this statement is even more resounding to me while I was alone and had no one to talk to in Korea. I annoyingly forget details like dates and names, but never the kindness of strangers I encounter in travels. There's Muici, the cute Korean boy I played with during the whole one hour flight to Jeju Island. I also had a few seconds encounter with an oppa who helped me carry my luggage when he saw me struggling to pull the giant bag up the subway’s steep staircase. Ahhh.. just like in Kdramas! Haha! And of course, there's my Korean roommate at the Jeju guesthouse who, even though I didn't asked, just showed me where the free hair dryer is in our room while pointing it to my damp hair. I was grateful, but didn’t have the words to tell her that my hair is really just like that every single time I go out, haha!
Sometimes, I still hope we had the chance to talk and share our stories. There are times when I just want to blurt my corny jokes, but never had the chance or the right words to pull it off! I missed chatting and laughing, but I am also grateful for these experiences as they test my patience and character. It made me appreciate human beings beyond their words. Indeed, the language of kindness is so genuine that good memories and good feelings are formed even in silence.
My JejuAir playmate Muici:
The heat pack I received from ajumma:
A patch of autumn right across the train platform:
Finally, a decent travel photo with myself in it! A very artsy picture taken by my cab driver in Jeju during one of our many stopovers: