My First Hour in Korea

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:

  1. Acquire a 100-won coin.
  2. Call Hotel SKY and ask for the shuttle.
  3. 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.

Photo Corner

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.

20993838_10213257637417358_1027038153952909321_nThe view of Gwangju from our hotel was amazing.

7 thoughts on “My First Hour in Korea



      1. yes i want to communicate with you. so pleased you are happy and enjoying your adventure. the open air market reminds me of the casba in turkey. have fun. misssed you when at your home this weekend. grandie x0x0x0x


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