Living as an expat, you get to realizing culture shock comes in daily life-sized capsules called Language Barriers; but unlike vitamins, these will eventually wear on you. They mimic your inability to do the simplest things.
Do I feel stupid despite my MFA degree?
To an expat living in a new country, it’s the everyday, mundane things which quickly become your greatest enemies.
Beauty, Skin Care & Health Products
Being here, I realized that I micromanage my life in unusual areas.
I find pleasure in reading the ingredients of what healing powers my “miracle beauty products” possess. I also like knowing I’ve got the right product and am using it correctly!
Skin care ingredients: There’s a lot of whitening chemicals in the products here, as well as an expansion on the product line of choices- tonics, emulsions, essences, cremes, etc…
What the hell to choose to do the job?
I spent 10 minutes assessing sanitary pads and tampons, attempting to see through the package, wondering if it will fit my size, flow, scented needs. Like a contestant on Let’s Make a Deal, I ended up frustrated choosing a package and only to discover at home, I made a wrong choice.
(Do you know what sizes they are? Is it a medium flow or pantyliner? Scented or not? Individually wrapped?)
Are you using bleach, detergent or fabric softener to do your laundry? I’ve not accidentally bleached my clothes as of yet but I would love to use fabric softener soon. If only I knew what fabric softener looks like.
Also, with foreign countries, you’ll never know how strong or weak their products can be in comparison to the U.S. My first day, when I bought the all-purpose cleanser to clean my apartment, after 5 minutes of using it without gloves, I discovered it was not doing good things to my skin. Being able to read warnings and caution labels would help.
I’ve no picture of Korean restaurant menus as of yet. Why? It pains me merely to look in the direction of all-in-Hangul (aka the Korean character) restaurants. Of course, being Korea, they’re everywhere.
Yes, I know Hangul and it takes me time to sound out each character to read an entirety of a word. And even if I do pass the first base of reading, it’s an unlikely guarantee I’ll understand the meaning of what I’m reading.
What’s in the product? Are any unusual animals used? Butter or lard? And my favorite keyword search: “How much fat?”
Attempting to read the ingredients or the servings content section of your food is like playing the game Where’s Waldo? with words and your search is only good if you know what you’re looking for. Ingredient labels on the back of food packages aren’t always easily recognizable; sometimes, you don’t have the universal “Servings/Content label”as you see in the picture below .
The only word I have patience to scour my packages for is FAT… 지 방 . At least the word is short and easy.
Shows you where my eating priorities are!
Utility bills, important documents and bill pay websites
How do you recognize a bill?
Sounds like a dumb question? A bill (I think) just came in the mail today– no envelope, just a folded paper with a wallpaper of Hangul and a bunch of numbers to make my brain go mushy. One familiar universal graphic stands out as reminiscent of a “gas bill”… the meter readings! An educated guess! Still, I flipped the bill over and over several times for more clues– for the exact dollar amount I was to pay and to whom.
My gas bill
Then there’s the How? How do you pay for it?
Korea is a cash-based society, so you either pay via cash, bank transfers or automatic bill pay. I go to my bank’s website, Daegu Bank, and while there’s an English version of the website to deceive you into thinking an English God exists in this country, the menus to perform main functions (such as make transactions) are in Hangul.
… which defeats the purpose of having an English version website.
My co-teacher has to help me to find the function only to discover my bank doesn’t allow for automatic bill pay via internet (unless I go into my bank in person, which I can’t because I have work at these hours). My co-teacher instead, registers me with Giro (an Korean internet bill pay site, which I imagine is similar to Paypal but for utilities). Speed click-click-clicking through website menus, she asks me for:
• my bank account information,
• my resident alien card number,
• my bank password,
• my bank’s secret pin number,
… the list goes on… click-click-click!
Oh my Korean God! My coteacher could’ve had me pay for the mortgage of her apartment and I wouldn’t be wiser. All this disclosure of personal information (which makes one vulnerable to identity theft in the States) is something you’ll have to get used to in Korea, when you don’t know the language.
Your work computer
Sure you’re a computer whizz and living in a PC savvy country. There isn’t a computer or software program you can’t figure out and navigate within a day or two. So you think. The unfortunate problem is that your computer, like everything else here, only speaks Korean.
Solution: Just go into Settings and switch the language settings, right?
Let’s say, you get that far (everything is still written in Korean). Now, part of your computer knows a bit of English. Unfortunately, it’s a very small and useless part.
What about the fact you can’t install OpenOffice.org or that your printer connection now doesn’t work because your now English-speaking computer doesn‘t speak to your Korean printer? Sometimes, it’s easier to revert and just work with your Korean computer than Anglo-Saxonize it.
Universal icon buttons are one godsend and the fact, I’ve got a portable USB drive that allows me to take my work home and do it on my Mac feels genius! But what about those annoying caution boxes that keep popping up when I work on my Korean computer? Well, aside looking for universal icons clues, you basically, just keep clicking on buttons until the “Caution” boxes go away. It might be possible you’re downloading a Trojan Horse virus. But you wouldn’t know.
Dropping in at the store pharmacist when you’re suffering an ailment is like a visit to a witch doctor. You have to trust implicitly, what the pharmacist gives you, as well as instructions on how to take it; and that’s assuming your doc has understood what you were saying in mime and broken Korean.
Side-effects or conflicts with another prescription? Unless you’re willing to attempt a line from your Lonely Planet survival phrase book, pray that Korean medicine is good enough to detour the bad ‘side-effect’ route. Don’t ask, just swallow the pill and pray to the Korean God to let you see the light of tomorrow.
Have you ever scribbled off directions for a foreigner and thought nothing of it?
Did you ever think that maybe a foreigner (new to your language) couldn’t read your handwriting? Especially if your handwriting is as legible as a doctor’s signature? I don’t know if there’s a cursive or scripted way of writing Hangul, but one thing is certain– my reading skills in Hangul require crystal clear legibility. I need to see wide spaces between characters! (The picture below is actually a decent example but certainly not one that I normally get… it’s usually a lot worse)
Also, what about appliance directions? Ever wonder what your washing machine directions might mean? While icons are helpful, some of them only beg more questions.
Sometimes, you just want to scream… “Just Show Me Pictures!!!”