I have only two long-term goals in my life: 1) Give a resounding TED Talk someday 2) Live on every continent before I’m thirty years old.
I don’t want to just visit every continent (and yes, Antarctica is excepted…also, I’ve arguably already done that–My region in Chile is called Los Magallanes y Antartica Chilena for a reason), and seek after the fleeting touristic jaunts that some travelers make their goals.
“I want to set foot on every continent…Oh look, a three-hour tour of Morocco. Perfect! Africa-Check.”
That’s like saying I’ve been to Milan because I spent an hour in the train station once or twice. All the nuances of life in that place are lost, and a place is distilled to the narrow window through which one can gather information in the span of a short time. Reality is distorted, bending proportionately with the brevity of the visit.
Living somewhere implies depth of experience. It branches out of the tourist attractions into the grinding of everyday life. Living pushes one to experience both the unpleasant and the wonderful, the confusion and the clarity, the bizzare and the familiar. I have visited many places, but I’ve truly lived in very few.
Since my goal is to live on each continent before I reach 30 years old, I’ve come up with a system to help me determine whether I’m living in a place or not. The qualifiers are mostly experiences that must happen, in no particular order.__ Pay bills __ Buy underwear __ Legal recognition (i.e. passport, ID card, visa, alien registration) __ Study or work __ Become sick enough to visit the doctor __ Navigate a new health care system with at least marginal success __ Travel hours using public transportation __ Decorate a place to live __ Learn a language __ Make friends of the nationality where one is living __ Read a newspaper __ Send a package or letter __ Get a haircut __ Remain at the least three months __ Learn a new recipe __ Offend someone gravely __ Learn to apologize __ Get a phone __ Lose weight AND gain weight __ Experience at least two seasons __ Become a regular in at least two businesses __ Welcome a visitor from back home
My new home in Suwon, Korea has been checking off the list at double the speed of the three other continents I’ve lived on up to now. My second day, I was asked to travel an hour and a half alone to training, using only the public busses. I’ve learned a new alphabet for the first time since I was three. I’ve learned at least three new recipes from combinations of the amazing ingredients available in my local stores. I decorated my apartment. I’m losing weight. Soon, winter will end and I’ll have my first spring since 2010.
And today, this happened:
I was lucky enough to get to navigate the Korean health care system and visit not one, but two doctors! My Korean learning is progressing very slowly, due to the huge inherent differences between it and any other language I’ve ever attempted. This meant that my medical needs needed to be spelled out mostly through gesture.
I wandered around in the building of a health clinic for several moments, able to sound out the signs but clueless as to what they meant. A nice man approached and directed me upstairs with a laugh, seeing my absolutely lost expression.
“Second floor, second floor!” Apparently floors are counted in Chinese numbers.
I walked into what I believed to be a clinic, and stumbled through “Hello.” That’s as much as I can say, so I just pointed at my left eye and said in English, “Doctor?” The young man behind the counter laughed a little, then gestured for me to sit down.
When it was my turn, I pointed to my eye again. The doctor sighed, typed something into her computer, and showed me the Korean equivalent of Google Translate. Eye Doctor.
“Um…where?” “Where?” Furious nodding. She said a bunch of things in Korean, gesturing down the street. “Um…what? Um…Ok…”
I scurried away before they could try to make me pay anything.
I’d seen an eyeglasses store in the building two down from mine. I pulled out my phone and checked the time. 3:15 PM. I had to teach at 3:40. Worth asking anyway, to find out how long it would take or when they would close. I walked in and again pointed to my eye.
“No, no…third floor! Third floor!”
I went up the five flights of stairs to the third floor (numbering of floors is a little confusing here), and walked into what I hoped was an eye clinic. The two women behind the counter greeted me with expressions of Oh boy, here we go. I pointed to my eye again.“Doctor?”-English “Yes. Your identification number?”-Korean “Um….” “ID Card?” -Konglish (English/Korean hybrid) “No ID.”- English (To the other receptionist) “Oh no, what are we going to do with this one? Do you speak any Korean?” -Korean
Vigorous head shaking no. She removes her own ID card to show me the number. I have no ID yet, since I’m so new to the country.“ARC Card?”-Korean “No card.”-English “Oh no. Well, let’s try to get her into the computer. Korean name?”-Konglish/Korean “No Korean name.” -English “Ahhhhhh. Write here, please.”-Korean
I wrote my name, birthdate, phone number, and address of my school.“Monroe name?”-Konglish “Coleen name.”-Konglish. 3:25 PM.
She put my name onto a patient form, and gestured incoherently that I should follow her. I hesitated, and she gestured more clearly. She rang the doctor, who came out and washed his hands. Luckily, he spoke more English. He asked me a battery of questions, then checked my eye. His assistant pushed my face into the instrument with force, her hand pressing into the back of my head and preventing me from moving at all.
“You have, uh, two disease.”
Diseases? What the hell happened to my eye overnight?!
“One is a sty, on your eyelid. The other is conjunctivitis. It may be viral or bacterial.” Oh, not diseases. Just disorders. Phew.
“I want to make sure it gets better. Take these antibiotics and eyedrops. You need to come back tomorrow.”
The assistant released my face from the instrument. She then took me aside and put two sets of drops in my eye. I’m blind as a bat without my glasses, so even gesture was lost on me. It was a total language barrier. She physically grabbed my arm and led me to a seat, where she turned on a heating lamp for unknown reasons and promptly walked away. I sat obediently for about five minutes, not sure what the lamp was for or what she’d put in my eye.
The whole ordeal took less than 20 minutes, and cost only about $15 even with no insurance. The prescription (with official stamp in red ink) in hand, I did the Korean Hustle to get back to my building in time for class.
Three hours later, I went in search of a pharmacy. The first one I tried turned me away, gesturing “No” at my prescription. I walked off wondering why it’s called a pharmacy if it isn’t one. I thought of crossing the street to ask the poor receptionists where a pharmacy was, and the prospect of another massive language barrier loomed.
But what luck! As I walked into the building I passed another pharmacy, this one labeled “Medical Pharmacy.” Worth a try.
The pharmacist spoke perfect English, filled my prescription, and I left only $10 lighter in the wallet.
Korea is rapidly becoming a new home.