No, I didn’t get arrested in South Korea. Sorry to disappoint you. But what happened is a crazy story in itself with a harsh lesson learned…
You see, living or traveling abroad offers its fair share of language barriers and misinterpretations. Sometimes these language mishaps wind up getting worked out pretty quickly or they spiral out of control into what can only be described as “hilariously tragic”. Want to guess which one happened to me?
So, there I was- a young and carefree girl just out of college having the adventure of a lifetime by moving to South Korea with my best friend to teach English. Without speaking the language, without knowing the culture and without a smart phone to help us (it was 2012, give us a break), we immediately planned an adventure-filled weekend 3 hours away by bus. We left the big city from the main bus terminal called ‘Sasang’ and successfully made it to our destination where we spent an entire weekend kayaking, fishing, paddle boarding, and making new friends. Success!
When it was time to go home, we moseyed on over to the modest little bus terminal this village had running to get our tickets. Guessing by the stares from small town Korean folk and the utter lack of English signs in this place, it was safe to assume that foreigners were a rare sight to see down here. We tried reading the signs in Korean to find the Sasang bus terminal with no avail.
We approached a young college-aged Korean girl wearing huge frameless glasses and told her we needed to go to Sasang bus terminal. She repeated it back to me a couple times and we both were cheerfully satisfied that we understood each other. She walked us to the counter and helped us buy 3 tickets to Sasang; one for me, one for my best friend, and one for a fellow American teacher who we quickly learned was afraid of her own shadow. Nothing to be afraid of here, however, as we were quickly in our seats and on our way home.
After about an hour, we started seeing signs for our home city of Busan. “Right on track,” we thought. Then, we started seeing signs for our city in the opposite direction. And then we noticed we were on a highway heading in the completely wrong direction. I quickly hopped up and headed to the front of the bus to try and confirm with the bus driver that our bus was headed to the Sasang bus terminal. This dude didn’t speak a lick of English, but he, too, was repeating to me ‘Sasang’. “Ok,” we thought, “don’t panic, yet”.
After another hour and a sinking feeling in our guts, we asked a fellow Korean if we could use his then state-of-the-art internet phone to identify our current location. Well well well, what a surprise…we were in the middle of nowhere in the complete opposite direction of home. My best friend and I burst into laughter, as that was the only thing we could do. Our coworker, on the other hand, went into complete panic mode. “It’s dark, it’s late, we have work tomorrow, how are we going to get home…”. You know, a typical melt down.
The bus pulls into a tiny village with one restaurant at about 10pm. The bus driver apathetically shouts at us in a heavy Korean accent, “Finished! Get off!” and points out the door. We ask him where the bus station is and he shouts again, “bus finished”! With a mischievous grin and a nod towards the restaurant, he says, “Police. Police.” There, sitting outside the restaurant finishing his dinner, was one policeman. I calmly approach him and pray that he speaks English. Hallelujah, he does- at least, enough to understand our predicament.
After waiting ten minutes for this guy to finish his soup (he was not about to be rushed) he tells us he is going to take us home. “But home is 3 hours away,” we discussed amongst ourselves, “there’s no way he’d drive us all that way.” We were right. Over the next three hours, we were driven to three separate check points where we were handed from police car to police car, each one waiting for us on the side of the freeway with their lights flashing in the dark.
As the last wild ride pulled up to the front of our residential building, we noticed the director of our school sitting at the restaurant out front. Her jaw drops as she sees us climb out of the car, disheveled and dirty. She runs over to the police car with horror on her face. As the police explain to her what had happened, waving our bus tickets in the air, and she points her finger at us and exclaims, “Your bus tickets are for ‘Saesong, not Sasong”!
At the end of the day, everyone had a laugh at the silly foreigners who almost didn’t make it home. We learned an important lesson that day: when dealing with a foreign language, the littlest mispronunciation can mean the world of a difference. We were lucky that we made such a rookie mistake in a country full of trustworthy, honest, and kind human beings who had our best interest in mind. Nowadays, with translation apps like Queble, sticky situations like these are totally unavoidable. Having a smartphone has totally changed the way I travel and has allowed to take more control over my journey, especially when I’m traveling alone. I wouldn’t take back anything that happened that day, but from now on, I hope there will be no more cop cars in my future.