Communication Breakdown

So, having been in Seoul for an entire 5 days now, we're starting to get the hang of things.  Son #2 and I have been navigating the subway system competently and I have been bold enough to make some cash transactions in stores (as long as there are digital readouts on the register:  I don't know my Korean numbers yet.)  However, every time I start to get a little smug and self-confident, something happens to put me back to square #1 and remind me that, yes, you are in a foreign culture.

Since language is very much a barrier, getting ready to move into our apartment has been a bit of a challenge.  Mr. Logical's company provides the services of a a group of  'relocation coordinators' whose job it is to help us negotiate our way through the forest of Hangul all around us, and they have done a very good job so far, when we remember to call them.  The problem is, one isn't used to anticipating when one will need their services, and even the most mundane-sounding task can suddenly be brought to a standstill by lack of communication.  I'm also discovering that the hand gestures, head-nodding and dumb-show (along with a smattering of Latin-based languages) that got me comfortably through Europe (and occasionally, the US,)  really don't help much here.

Yesterday's example:

Mr. Logical receives a call from one of the relocation coordinators saying that the apartment manager needs to have workmen access the apartment to re-seal and/or caulk the apartment windows, which should be done before we move in next week.  Mr. Logical and I coordinate a time for me to be there to let them in, and this is conveyed (via the coordinator) to the building manager, who (presumably) conveys it to the workmen.

Son #2 and I take the subway across town and manage to get into the apartment.  Exactly on time, the workmen appear at the door.  Nodding and bowing, they remove their shoes and (as far as I can tell) gesture questioningly at the bedrooms, asking for permission to enter  (since we have no furniture and no one is actually living in the apartment, there is really no need for such delicacy, but it's certainly appreciated.)  I make expansive gestures with my arms indicating that they may go anywhere in the apartment, and Son #2 and I retire to the living room, where (due to having no furniture yet) we stand around awkwardly.  The workmen enter all the rooms, opening and closing the windows and discussing them gravely with each other.  The box of tools and supplies they have brought with them remains in the entryway on the floor.

After making a circuit of the entire apartment, the one I assume to be the senior workman approaches me, bows, and, waving his hands expansively, bursts forth into a torrent of Korean.  I understand nothing, and shake my head helplessly.  He waves his arms again, points to the window, and says something else.  I do not understand.  I say this.  He shakes his head.  We are at a standoff.  I do my best to indicate that he may begin his work, and it's fine with me.  He keeps gesturing at my windows and explaining in Korean.

Son #2 (with what I feel is outstanding presence of mind) pulls out his cell phone and accesses a language translation app that he had downloaded a few days earlier.  He navigates it to Korean-English and hands it to the workman, but he doesn't understand how to use it and - naturally -we can't explain it to him.  More discussion between the workmen, the phone is handed back, and the four of us are back at an impasse.  I am desperately trying to tell them, "Yes, do whatever it is you have to do, it's fine with me" and they keep gesturing at my windows.  I can't understand why they are asking me for permission to do this stuff when, after all, that's what they've come to do.

Suddenly, I remember the relocation coordinators.  Naturally, I do not have their number, so this means a call to Mr. Logical who is up to his ears at Customs trying to arrange delivery of our belongings and hardly in the mood for a chat with a desperate wife.  I get the number, call the coordinator, describe my situation, and ask her to talk to the workmen.  I then hand the phone to the workman and wait while more discussion ensues in Korean.  At the end, he bows and hands me back the phone.  

When I ask the coordinator what's going on, I can hear the amusement in her voice.  

"He says there is nothing wrong with your windows and he doesn't need to do anything to them."

Oh.  Right, then.


Hails said…
That never stops. :) You need to make a Korean friend, pronto! Maybe one of Mr. Logical's work contacts? When my landlord or a repairman or someone is pouring forth a flood of questions, I call my boss or a colleague, very apologetically, and hand over the phone. I felt bad about it at first but sometimes it's the only way, and they're always happy to help. At least in Seoul you'll be able to find doctors, dentists etc. who are fluent in English and possibly even native speakers. Here in Daejeon, I avoid going to the doctor unless I fear I might actually be dying - having your boss sit next to you and ask you all sorts of personal questions from the doctor is just plain awkward!
Trish said…
What a palaver - how funny! You'd think he would have just bowed and shuffled back out of the door.

Your son had great presence of mind with theb phone translation thing. See what technology can offer these days!
MsCaroline said…
@Hails: well, in theory, that's precisely what the 'relo coordinators' are being paid to do. However, I keep making the mistake of forgetting to call them and have them on standby. The same is true of our Korean acquaintances: it just doesn't occur to me that I might need help...I assume I'll get better at anticipating things...eventually.
@Trish: Yes, my son has continued to show great presence of mind (better than his mother) since we've arrived. I knew about that app but never even thought of it!

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