Crisis in Korea

When Sylvia and I were staying in the motel, I’d been very excited to discover an unsecured wireless network called “iptime” that, with a lot of coaxing and encouragement, allowed me to briefly browse the net. So when I discovered the same wireless network in my apartment, I realised that I had a golden wijacking opportunity. (Wijack (v): to hijack someone’s wifi for your own nefarious use. Wijacker (n): one who wijacks.)

I managed to use this network to Skype with my family for about half an hour or so on Wednesday night. Isn’t modern technology wonderful?  We are 13,000km apart, one party on a wireless dongle at the beach and the other on an unsecured wijacked wifi from the coffeeshop a block away (as I later discovered) and we could communicate with relative ease through a computer screen.

At home, my computer won't even connect to the internet in the study from the TV room next door. True story.

On Thursday morning I took a taxi to the bus stop again, as I’d miscalculated the time needed to depart my flat to make it on time for the 8:10 bus. (The stop is about a 20 minute walk away.) The knowledge of the bus stop’s Korean name given to me by the cab driver on Tuesday came in very handy, as this taxi driver spoke less than no English (yes, that’s possible). I do enjoy taking the bus – the views are so pretty! It’s about a 40 minute trip from the stop to the school.

Once at school I had the first period free, then the fourth-grade class arrived and I had to introduce myself. There was the usual incredulity at this white girl being from Africa. The head English teacher then made me speak Afrikaans to the kids (I’d told her that there are 11 official languages in South Africa, and mentioned Afrikaans as an example). Their reaction to the phrase “Goeie môre klas, ek praat nou Afrikaans met julle” made me wish I knew some Xhosa and could do the clicks properly – their expressions would’ve been priceless!

I helped out in the lessons by modelling pronunciation of the listen and repeat exercises, giving marks for their dialogue role-plays and handing out stickers to the winning groups. After lunch, which included an amazing stew-type thing that I ate with the rice and made me very happy, I spent the afternoon internet-ing it up before leaving at 4pm, an hour early, to go to the hospital and receive my medical check results. (These results are needed to apply for one’s alien residence card at immigration.)

Before I went to the hospital I decided to stop and draw money at the only bank I knew had a Mastercard sign: I was running low on cash and I knew I’d have to pay for a taxi to immigration the next day as well as an application fee for the card.


My card didn’t work.

I tried at all three ATMs at the bank, tried different cash-withdrawing options and even stuck my card in upside down. No luck. I went to meet Sylvia at the hospital, and told her of my dilemma. She kindly lent me 20,000W, enough so that I could eat. I stopped at the Ti-amo on the corner to send out a few desperate messages, then after dining on a single cheese wedge at home, I went to the Ti-amo across the street and sat there for four hours, hoping for some kind of response from the bank.

Thank goodness for Twitter. @RBJacobs, also known as the FNB guy, responded to my tweet almost immediately, telling me to email him with details of the problem. I felt bad about using the coffeeshop’s internet without buying coffee, but I promised myself that as soon as I had cash I would return and have coffee there. At one point the proprietor approached me to ask if I wanted coffee, but I must have looked so wretchedly miserable that she said “no problem” and backed up. As I left, still with no word from the bank, I assured her, “Coffee tomorrow!”

I stopped at the FamilyMart (convenience story, equivalent to a garage shop) where I bought a barbecue chicken sandwich, because I was starving. It was my first sandwich in over a week. There are no words for how delicious it was.


I had a quiet morning at school the next day, making more posters (English-speaking countries around the world) and attending two classes (grade 4s and 6s – we did dictation, fun times). I explained my money situation to my mentor teacher as best I could, telling him I would let him know via email what was happening. He gave me my “Register Attdance” (“Who do I give it to?” I asked. “No one! You keep it.” Ok, so I sign in every day…and only I see it? Ok then) and showed me the protocol for leave: the form has to be signed by the mentor teacher, the head teacher, the vice principal and the principal – yes, in that order. The principal got quite worked up (not in an angry way, fortunately) when I dared bring him the form to sign before the vice-p had signed it. I apologised profusely, saying “Mistake!” Sigh.

I left school at about 4, reaching town by 4:30. I was saddened but not surprised when my card failed to work, again; this meant that the trip to immigration would have to be postponed. I asked the bank staff (Citibank, styling themselves as an “international bank”) for help, but they couldn’t do anything as they can’t make international calls from there. Epic fail. I waited at Ti-Amo while Sylvia went with Michael to immigration and applied for her card. I sent a few more desperate emails out into the world, feeling absolutely stranded. There’s no feeling quite as awful as being in a foreign country (in an island in the middle of the ocean, nogal) where no one speaks English, with no money and no way to contact anyone. What made it even worse was that my parents were travelling back from Durban that day – thank goodness for cellphones, I say.

And thank goodness for Sylvia. She went with me to try to draw money at a different bank: again, no luck. I tried to call FNB using my Telkom WorldCall card from a phonebox: it didn’t work (of course). She then lent me enough cash to keep me alive for a week. We went back to my flat as we had plans to meet up with Michael and the others at the coffeeshop across the road (not Ti-amo, a different one. Yes, we spend a lot of time in assorted coffeeshops). What happened next should not surprise anyone familiar with Murphy and his Law:

I locked my key in my apartment. To be accurate, I didn’t see it hiding under my file and left the flat without it, and closed the door. (Whether it was Sylvia or I who did the actual closing of the door remains a disputed point.) To cut a long story short (because recapping this, the undoubtedly worst day so far, is giving me heart palpitations), Sylvia went to meet the people at the coffeeshop while I went to the basement to find someone to help me. Naturally, the guy did not speak a word of English, so I ended up turning on the waterworks full blast (don’t judge me. I have no shame and really, worst. day. ever.) until he managed to get hold of the EPIK housing guy who translated over the phone for us.

So now we know how Murphy works, right? This is what happened next: We arrived outside my apartment, me still sniffling audibly and he with screwdriver in hand. We stared at the door. On some impulse he reached out and turned the handle.

It opened.

I stared at it in horror.

He stared at it in frustration (I’m assuming), probably thinking the Korean for “bloody foreigners…!”

I turned to him. “I am so sorry,” I gabbled. “I really thought it was locked; you see my friend closed the door and she probably didn’t close it properly…”

He stared at me, then smiled a little smile and shrugged. “No Englishee!”


He then proceeded to give me a demonstration on the proper workings of the door, then after another conversation with the EPIK housing guy in which I apologised profusely, the maintenance dude left hurriedly as I called more “sorry’s” after him down the corridor. He was probably thinking the Korean for “crazy female foreigners”!

I went downstairs and joined the others at the coffeeshop. They were playing a game not dissimilar to the one Sheldon and the rest play in season 3 of The Big Bang Theory (you know, the one with the warlocks and sprites and bunnies and potion cards) – it looked very complicated. Afterwards we wandered around debating where to go for dinner. We ultimately decided on a Japanese restaurant close to where Michael and his girlfriend live, in the older part of Jeju City. And what a good decision it was.

The best thing about eating out in Korea is that no matter where you are (ok, except McDonald’s) they will bring you banchan, for free. So everyone ordered one main dish, but they just kept bringing us the most incredible food, which we hadn’t even ordered and which we weren’t paying for! Highlights: delicious soup, amazing noodle dish and one of the best things I’ve eaten so far, pumpkin tempura. The sheer memory of it is making my mouth water. It was incredible. The sushi, when it finally arrived, was also pretty good. And the entire meal, including soju for the table (mixed with vinegar to make it more drinkable) cost about R50. Definitely winning.

Not your standard South African California rolls...

After the meal we made our way to where the nightlife was, in search of soju cocktails. The streets in the area were incredibly narrow, and full of people, just walking, everywhere. Korean bars and so on are strange in that you’re expected to eat, and not just drink. At some places you can get away with just ordering drinks, but at others they’ll insist that you eat. We found a place and ordered strawberry soju cocktails – most delicious and they didn’t make us order food.

On Saturday morning I made the happy discovery that FNB had come through for me and my bank card was once again working. RB explained that it had something to do with FICA, and the bank needing copies of my ID book. This blows my mind because I’d visited my branch before I’d left, told them I was going to South Korea for a year, and they made copies of my ID book. I really don’t know. But if there’s any bank I want to deal with from halfway around the world, it’s the bank that responds to my tweets. Thanks guys. Brand plus!

I spent the rest of the weekend sleeping, blogging (I returned to the Ti-amo and had coffee there, like I promised), and watching Fringe. I bought groceries on Sunday which included a jar of peanut butter (at the exorbitant price of R35), spaghetti, and spaghetti sauce (also known as the only things I recognised in the whole shop). On Monday the actual teaching would begin…

Because when youre living in a foreign country, even something as mundane as the weekly grocery shop is a strange and photo-worthy experience.

PS Yes, those are naartjies. Everyone keeps calling them Jeju oranges and presenting them upon me with a flourish, as if I’d never eaten them before. Sigh. They are naartjies, trust me. You couldn’t get anything more naartjie-like if you tried. The only difference is that the naartjies here are slightly sweeter than the ones at home. That is all. They’re delicious though, and of course it’s so nice to eat something familiar!


7 thoughts on “Crisis in Korea

  1. We so enjoy your ‘war stories’ Ma’amselle! Imagine the rich storehouse of experience which right now seem awful but over which one day you’ll laugh most heartily!

    How about getting a spare key to your apartment made, and having Sylvia or someone else keep it for emergencies like this? No repeats of that particular escapade.

    Are you learning one Korean sentence a day?;-)

    Be safe and keep smiling!

    • Thanks Mr Simpkins :)

      Re the key: I’m not even supposed to have one. All the doors in my apartment building (and in most Korean apartment buildings) have electronic locks. They’ve been promising to set mine up since I moved in, but when the guy from the housing department came to do the inspection, he discovered something wrong with it, so I’m still lugging my key around. (It’s on a long brightly-coloured beaded lanyard attached to my bag, so really, it’s amazing I managed to lose it at all.) I’ll sort it out as soon as I get back from Seoul :P Also starting Korean lessons at orientation, which should kickstart my language learning ;)

  2. Murphy is such a bitch! Quite funny though that you were never locked out in the first place :-D

    And R50 for the entire meal??? WOW!

  3. I LOVE your posts! I really enjoy reading about your big adventure in a very strange place.

    Many years ago, before cell phones, I went somewhere with my son, who was still tiny. And because I was harassed and I had my hands full, I locked my keys in the car.

    I walked with kid and paraphenalia to a payphone, and phoned my husband at work. He was unimpressed with me, and had to leave work, drive home, get the spare key, come to help me, and then go back to work. All in all about an hour wasted.

    After I called him, I went back to the car to wait for him there. And saw the back door on the opposite side was unlocked…

    Realising that the only thing worse than making my husband go through so much schlepp to save me, was making him do it FOR NOTHING, I quickly left some of the stuff I was lugging in the car, and locked it.

    He never knew just how blonde his wife had been that day..

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