The other side of the world

Arriving in Pusan, Korea was an experience I’ll never forget. It seems like yesterday when I think about it. After a nice flight and smooth connections from Halifax, Nova Scotia, I was met by Mr. Yoon. He was looking for foreign passengers in the airport. Foreigners stick out like sore thumbs so he spotted me easily and asked, “Are you Mr. Jeff?”

I had no idea who this guy was or if I should trust him. I politely answered “No.” Then he asked if I was “Mr. Stebuh”. I supposed I was and the next thing I knew we were cruising through the city in his tiny Tico. Jeff turned up the next day. He had missed his connection in Seoul.

It was about eleven at night so I couldn’t see much as we drove through Pusan but I did feel a sense of mystery and awe since this was all so new to me.

He brought me to a yog-won, which he said was near the school. A yog-won is similar to a motel I was told. We dragged my luggage up three floors and checked in. I was given a key and Mr. Yoon came with me to see the room. It had a small area to leave my shoes but I walked on in exhausted from the flight. The floor was covered with yellow linoleum; there was a TV, telephone, dresser and mirror. Blankets and pillows were spread out on the floor. It also had a private bathroom. Not having read much about yog-wons I wondered where the bed was. I didn’t ask though, the floor looked comfortable enough. Mr. Yoon said I should take off my shoes at the door or the manager would be mad.

The floor was warm due to on-dul heating I later found out. Hot water pipes run through the floor, heating it and the entire room. A logical concept since heat rises. I believe this evolved from ancient times when people in Asia burned coal under the floors of risen houses to heat them. Most yog-wons don’t have beds but the floor is quite cosy.

Mr. Yoon left and said he would come back at 10:00am the next day. I walked in the bathroom. There was a sink, toilet and shower with a hand-held nozzle. The shower was not separated from the rest of the room. The water from the shower went into a drain in the middle of the floor. Plastic slippers were provided to keep your feet dry when the floor was wet.

I couldn’t call home when I got settled in the room (as well as I could). The phone wasn’t operating for international calls. After several attempts, I hung up. To my surprise it rang. I answered saying “Hello?” and was yelled at in Korean. I supposed someone was angry because I had occupied the line. I left the yog-won and walked out into the street. I was afraid to go very far for fear of getting lost. No one spoke any English! I walked into a store but cannot remember what they sold. I motioned a telephone gesture to the clerk who understood what I wanted and passed me the phone. I tried again to no avail. It was late so I returned to the yog-won a little sad and disoriented but slept fairly well on the on-dul heated floor.

I woke early the next morning in anticipation of an interesting day. I showered and put on a shirt and tie that my father had given me and shown me how to tie a week before along with a sports coat that my uncle said was too small for him. I was told a professional appearance was very important in Korea. I walked out onto the street feeling good. Looking around, I saw a comic store and walked in. There was a public phone and I got through. What a wonderful sensation went through me when I heard my mother say “Hello?” in her beautiful, polite tone of voice, albeit on the other side of the world. I said so far so good and they were happy to hear it.

I returned to the yog-won with a smile on my face but emptiness in my heart. Mr. Yoon came to meet me at 10:00am sharp. We walked to the institute. Once inside, friendly faces greeted me and Mr. Yoon said I could just look around and check out the place. It was all brand new.

Culture shock is a term frequently used to describe how people feel when they land in a foreign country. I didn’t experience culture shock though and never do really. There is certainly a period of adjustment one goes through the first time they find themselves in an unknown land but it is more like jumping into a swimming pool for the first time. Disorientation, bewilderment and surprise are feelings that suddenly go through you. It goes beyond what you can imagine if you have not lived abroad. Travelling is very different than actually living somewhere. Certain people cannot cope with such drastic changes in their lives and are simply not meant to be there. They become negative, nasty people who can say nothing good about anything to anyone. They should go home. Their narrow minds do not accept difference.

Immersing yourself in a different culture is a fascinating experience full of surprises, good and bad. It’s like throwing yourself into a work of fiction sometimes. I walked into a supermarket for the first time in Pusan near my apartment by myself. After about an hour of wandering through the aisles inspecting, touching and smelling things I had never seen before in my life, I walked out empty-handed, and hungry. I had no idea what this stuff was! I managed to locate a restaurant (which are fortunately plentiful), walked in and sat down.

When the ajuma (literally aunt but commonly used term for women older than you) came to serve me all I could do was shrug my shoulders and pat my stomach with a hungry look on my face. She laughed and gave me my first Korean meal. To this day I don’t know what I ate but it was good. Hunger is the best seasoning but I really enjoyed it. I’ll talk more about food later. I got up, paid in a currency I didn’t know existed just a month earlier and walked out to the street. Looking up and down I realised I did not know in what direction I should proceed. I couldn’t read a billboard let alone get to my school or even my own apartment! I re-entered the restaurant and managed to get the woman to call my hog-wan (private extra-curricular institutes), of which I was lucky to have the number. I guess the conversation she had with my boss brought quite a smile to her face and she was happy to help my lost soul. More to come in my next excerpt…..

Stephen Whelan

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