Often, living in a (very) foreign country makes you feel a bit like a child.
When you need someone to take you to the doctor, for example. When people take pity on you and try to speak slowly with big, positive smiles, and pat your arm encouragingly when you manage to say something correctly. When you don’t know where to get off the bus, and rely on an elderly lady – who seems to have taken charge of you – for assistance. When you go to an unfamiliar restaurant and don’t understand the apparently complicated ordering procedure, so eventually, feeling confused and overwhelmed, you just point to the table next to you and shrug, hoping you’ll be brought whatever they’re having.
But despite the feelings of helplessness this can bring on a regular basis, it also brings childlike delight in small victories. Navigating your way around a new city without assistance, for example, brings huge feelings of achievement. Having a short and simple conversation in the language gives you a glow of pride. Figuring out how that complicated restaurant works and marching confidently back in to order for your friends makes you feel momentarily grown up.
And that is why I am about to say a sentence with childish joy that I never thought I would utter. Today, I went to the doctor’s all by myself!!
I had to go back for my eye check-up before they’d give me more antibiotics, and my director – on her way to take my new colleague for her medical check-up at another hospital – dropped me off across the road like an anxious parent. Now, there is the clinic, look… call me if you need anything… you remember where to go? I half expected her to shout “Be careful crossing the road!” as I shut the car door.
I went into the clinic and checked the Korean-only notice board to remind myself of the correct floor… I went in and reported to the reception desk… I understood when I was told to sit, to follow, to wait… I had my check-up… I had my sore eye bathed and medicated… I did the laser thing (still no idea)… I listened and responded to instructions from the reception staff as they gave me my bill and prescription… I went to the pharmacy (and tried not to show my excitement that the pharmacist talked calmly to me in Korean as if assuming I could understand, without the usual hesitancy and embarrassment that people tend to show when they encounter a foreigner and fear that they won’t be able to communicate)… I returned to work alone, clutching my medicine and feeling like I had achieved something far more impressive than I actually had.
Truth be told, the only reason I was able to find the correct department was because I’d been there 2 days ago. The only reason the reception staff were able to deal with me easily was that they recognised me from that time and probably now have my problematic foreign name filed under ‘waegook’ (‘foreigner’) for easy reference. The only reason I understood what the doctor and the nurse said was because it was safe to assume that they were simply repeating everything they said the first time, and also because they mimed any new parts. It’s also fairly easy to understand a pharmacist’s instructions about medicine when you know key words like “after”, “food”, “times”, “water”, and numbers. But still.
I went to the doctor’s, all by myself! I feel kind of the way I did the first time I was allowed to go into town with my friends, with no parents. Yes, today, I am a grown-up. At least for a little while.
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