KT Tunstall wrote a song a few years ago that I feel should be the theme song of almost anyone who lives abroad. There are a few lines in particular:
“Miniature disasters and minor catastrophes will bring me to my knees….
…. And I need to be patient and I need to be brave
Need to discover how I need to behave
And I’ll find out the answers when I know what to ask
But I speak a different language and everybody’s talking too fast.”
Life has a way of keeping us in our place, and ensuring we don’t get too cocky. It reminds us with the subtlety of a sledgehammer that this is not our country, culture or language. Usually this happens when I’m in a hurry… 😀
I was on my way to a friend’s birthday party on Saturday night. I arrived at the bus stop in time to see my bus pulling away. I waited for a few minutes, trying to read the destinations as the buses whizzed by at breakneck speeds, rarely coming to a complete stop to let passengers board. Finally I managed to read one as the bus hurtled towards me,”Ulsan dehakyo [Ulsan University].” Perfect! It wasn’t a bus number I recognized but that was where I wanted to go. I flagged the bus down and got on, feeling quite proud for having read the destination.
I settled in, spent a few minutes watching the intoxicated gentleman in front of me try to stay upright long enough to press the “I want to get off” button, checked my phone for messages, then looked out the window. Uh oh.
I made my way to the front of the bus and asked if the bus went to the university.
“No,” the bus driver replied, looking startled. “It comes from the university.”
Chuckling, he let me off at the next stop. Gingerly I descended in my pretty party shoes and watched as the bus roared off in a cloud of smelly exhaust. Where was I? I could hear frogs and crickets somewhere off in the darkness – not a good sign. The university is in a densely populated, brightly lit part of Ulsan. This was neither. I was standing under what appeared to be the only street light for miles.
I started walking back the way I had come. It was hot and humid, and cars roared by, splashing me as they drove through puddles. And then it started to rain. My carefully straightened hair began to frizz until it had attained helmet-like proportions, and my pretty shoes squished and squelched with every step.
After about 20 minutes, I found a bus stop. A little old lady with a huge bag of dried peppers sat on the bench. She also had a bucket full of squirming somethings I didn’t want to get too close to. She appeared startled by my appearance, and then scandalized by my tank top. (Koreans will wear skirts so short their underwear shows but bare shoulders and even the slightest hint of cleavage are shocking.) I checked the bus schedule. Thankfully a bus was coming soon. I tried asking where we were but a disapproving stare was my only response.
The old lady and I got on the bus when it came. There were 4 other people, 3 of them wildly intoxicated. One older gentleman staggered over to sit beside me.
“You beeeeerrrrryyyy beeeeauuuuuutipul!” he slurred, peering at me.
“Um… thank you,” I said, hoping we would get to somewhere I recognized soon.
He nodded, looking pleased with himself. His friends gave him the thumbs up. He cleared his throat and leaned towards me.
“You beeeeerrrrryyyy beeeeauuuuuutipul!” he slurred again.
I thanked him politely and tried to smile as one of his friends wobbled over to join us. I mentally blessed whoever had banned smoking on buses. If someone lit a match, these two sweet but inebriated gentlemen would no doubt prove to be extremely flammable.
They took turns telling me I was beautiful until I got off, ten minutes later. I was beginning to feel a little intoxicated myself from the fumes they were exuding. 😀
As I made my damp and bedraggled way to my friend’s party, I made a mental note to never again take a bus with a number I didn’t recognize.