I knew that moving to Korea would present challenges. While my adventure thus far has been nothing short of a blessing, my first hour in Korea presented a clear and present learning curve.
It all started when I exited the baggage claim. I filled a cart with my overpacked luggage load and proceeded toward the customs line.
I had nothing too exotic to declare. However, to be safe, I followed the rules like a genuine square. I had one large bag of California almonds. As I joined the line, an airport employee gestured me toward a different line. Like a newly-minted foreigner, I smiled, shrugged my shoulders, and complied.
I proceeded to follow a tall, middle-aged, American-looking man wearing a camouflage jacket. As he approached the alternative line (which was suspiciously empty), I looked above. The sign indicated a special customs line for U.S. military personnel. I can see how being a 6’4” tall, moderately fit, young American man with a large amount of luggage in Incheon International Airport can lead people to that conclusion. In a way, it felt flattering.
I returned to the mainstream customs line and made it through easily. The customs agent read my card with a squint on his face that either said, “what does this chicken-scratch handwriting say?” or “why did he waste his time declaring this?”
“Almond?” he asked.
“Yes. Nuts,” I replied as matter-of-factly as possible.
He waved me through.
I proceeded to the airport lobby – the must-be-a-half-mile-long airport lobby. My next lofty goals came to mind:
- Acquire a 100-won coin.
- Call Hotel SKY and ask for the shuttle.
- Meet the shuttle at the pre-designated area (3rd floor, door #7).
After one purchase of Evian water, I checked step one off of my mental list. “This is easy,” I thought.
Next, I approached a woman manning the airport information desk. I tried to ask, “Where is the telephone?” in Korean. By the look she gave me, I might as well have asked, “Why is the sky elephant?” I received a stare blanker than a new whiteboard.
“Phone?” she asked, accompanied by a banana phone gesture.
“Yes.” I nodded, slightly embarrassed.
She pointed behind me. The pay phone bank was 15 yards behind me. Come on, Ian. Pay attention.
I approached the phone bank, found one that took coins, and inserted one – clink! Through the dial tone, I set my phone and Evian on the counter and dialed the hotel phone number. The echoes of silence through the receiver were bad omens. Suddenly, a Korean woman’s pre-recorded voice said something through the phone, followed by an older English-speaking woman. “You have not dialed enough digits. Please hang up and try your call again.”
Damn. I hung up. Fortunately, the phone returned my full change. I tried again and got lectured by the same two women through the phone with the same words. After the third try, I imagined a hint of exasperation in their pre-recorded voices. I hung up, looked to my right, and realized I needed to enter an area code, even for a very local call. I learn new things every day. I tried three more times with no success. Each time, the pay phone took pity on me and spit out my 100-won coin like, “God bless you, sir.”
Fed up, I decided to go to a different phone. However, once I put my recycled coin into the slot, panic struck. Where was my cell phone? Where was the only device on which I wrote the hotel phone number? I left my only lifeline to the hotel at the other pay phone bank. I hurried (pa-li-pa-li) back to the other phone, checked the counter, and was overcome with gratitude that Korea is a relatively safe country. My phone and water bottle were still there.
I re-gathered myself, found a new pay phone, mashed the area code and phone number, and finally heard what sounded like a real, unrecorded person. “An-young-ha-say-yo.”
“Hello? My name is Ian Schneider. I have a room tonight and I would like to use the shuttle.” I was too frustrated to practice Korean at this point.
“Meet the shuttle at door number seven on the third floor,” she replied.
“Kam-sa-ham-ni-da,” I said. I guess I wasn’t THAT frustrated.
With that, I hung up. The phone click-clacked my coin back out like, “this one’s on me. You need this more than I do.” He was probably right.
Everything else went smoothly. I waited by the terminal, braving the sticky heat. Ten minutes later, the shuttle arrived.
I made it to the hotel, I was able to purchase a late checkout, and I finally exhaled. After navigating my first set of cultural obstacles, I was ready to grab a drink.
At the end of my posts, I will show pictures taken in the preceding week. They don’t necessarily relate to the story, but they can be informative.
When trouble strikes, it’s good to have options. Sometimes I need more excitement in my emergency exits.
I did get that drink later – one bottle of soju. It seems that using pretty women to sell alcohol transcends the cultural divide.
This is a typical lunch and dinner spread during orientation. Needless to say, we ate very well.
We made our own bibimbap on a cultural field trip. It’s hard to be humble when your food looks this good :P.
This is a covered open-air market in downtown Gwangju.
The view of Gwangju from our hotel was amazing.