“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Solo trips could sometimes appear to be frightening especially if you have constantly worried parents who still have no confidence in your transition to being an independent adult————or if your target destination is a country with a totally different language and culture from yours.
Last year, as a result of one spur-of-the-moment flight ticket booking for Seoul, I had to face a few friends and family members who were worried about me since the language and culture in Korea were very different from that of the Philippines’. Not to mention the season for the dates that I mindlessly booked : WINTER. At that time, I ended up questioning my life choices.
Luckily, I have spent a few months studying at the Korean Cultural Center and I honestly believe that it made a huge difference with my trip. I enrolled in Elementary Korean which took place on weekdays and in Korean Traditional Dance which was held on Saturdays. Not only did I gain new knowledge and skills from my lessons, but I also had the chance to make friends with lots of interesting people and, of course, my Korean instructors. Our Traditional Dance class instructor helped me plan for my trip by accompanying me to the KCC library on our class breaks and showing me book references about the Seoul Subway system and the spots in Seoul which I should visit. She also readily answered my questions about the different provinces in Korea and even researched the best transportation options that I could take.
Armed with a neatly folded subway map stashed in my thick winter coat’s pocket, basic Korean knowledge (thank you, KCC and K-dramas), and a promise of return to my parents, I embarked on my so-called SEOUL-o trip last December 2014. Around 15 minutes after deplaning, my basic Korean skills were immediately put to test when a nice Chinese grandma asked me to help her fill-out her arrival card at the immigration. She tried to signal me that she did not speak English but understood some Korean so she kindly asked for help in filling out the form. I do believe that in times of panic our brain does wonders so I was able to help her complete the form by simply pointing at the items required and saying ireum (name) , jikeob (occupation), nara (country), and so on. For more difficult words, skills in charades are a must. I do remember fumbling for the translation of “signature” but ended up saying “yeogi sign haseyo”.
The cultural pointers taught to us in Elementary Korean class saved my life as it made it easier for me to quickly find my accommodation under the freezing temperature in Seoul. I went asking around in Korean and even surprised a few when I referred to Starbucks as byeol da bang or ssu bak as it was taught in class. Though Koreans are also knowledgeable in English, I just thought that it felt different when you make an effort to converse with them in their own language.
Reading the hangeul was crucial. Knowing the number system was also helpful especially when you’re buying tickets or simply trying to say how many bowls of ramyeon you wish to order or ice cream sticks you wanted have.
For tourists with basic Korean skills like mine, I still suggest that you try to converse with the friendly locals and try not feel shy or intimidated with your language level. Wear a smile on your face and greet the ahjussi selling odeng (fishcake) in the neighborhood or the nice imo at local restaurant.
Trust me, they see your effort and they’re willing to help. I did so once when I stopped by a small food stall along the Hongdae area. The local vendors and customers asked me where I was from. After introducing myself in Korean, they were all smiling and asked me which province in particular did I hail from. I answered “Tacloban” . Suddenly, the local costumers recognized it and blurted out “typhoon!” (as typhoon Haiyan badly struck Tacloban) and asked me how things were going. To my surprise, the local customers ended up buying all the red bean cakes and fish cakes in the stall, gave them to me and wished that I enjoy my short vacation in their country. It was an act of kindness and hospitality that I would never forget despite the language barriers that we had.
As the days passed, my comfort grew and my anxieties faded while I toured around Seoul. I made a few friends and even hopped on a bus to stay for a few days at Gangneung in the province of Gangwon. Being able to communicate with locals, though sometimes difficult, made me forget that I was actually on a solo-trip.
The helpfulness of the locals that I experienced was overwhelming. Some helped me carry my bags up the subway’s staircase, a kind auntie rubbed my hands warm and offered me some hot soup on her stall when she noticed my nose getting frozen, and a sweet father and daughter even offered me a ride to the airport stop on my way to my flight when they noticed me dragging my luggage under a light snowfall.
Despite my short 9-days trip, I learned more about Korea, its people, and their society. I realized that a tourist does not need to be fluent in the country’s language to have a smooth-flowing trip. Sometimes, the only things you would be needing are politeness, respect, knowledge of how to say “please” and “thank you” in their local language, and a smile. So go out there, be brave, and say ahnyeong to Korea. 🙂