Monday, July 6, 2009

Life Lessons

So, I was strongly debating whether to admit this or not, hence the long delay in recounting this sad tale. But, there's a good chance I will have a scar from it so I won't be able to keep it a secret from you all forever.

Last Saturday (6/27) was the three-month anniversary of my move to Korea. It was a very special day for me because three months is a quarter of a year, and I had to go to Japan and come back just to reach that day. So, I originally planned to invite a group of my friends who had never met each other before to 강남 (Kangnam, one of the social hot spots in Seoul) for a night of eating, drinking, and talking to celebrate. I told my friend this during our Japan trip, and he said that his friends had something planned for Saturday evening/night and I should cancel my plans and just go hang out with his friends instead. Reluctantly, I found a compromise and changed my plans to lunch so that I could do both things. Then, on Friday (the 26th), he said he just plain didn't want to go because meeting my other friends would be uncomfortable for him. Anyway, my lunch bombed because of the plan change and only one friend could come. Because it was a female friend and only one, my guy friend agreed to come, later, with his friend. They were both cold to my friend and she was very uncomfortable, despite my best efforts to lighten the mood. So my little anniversary celebration was a complete bust.

When we were parting ways to head home, I was expecting to go meet those other friends for food, drinking, and overall merriment. I was informed that the plan was canceled. I changed my plans on MY special day for them, had a terrible celebration, and after all that, those plans that had caused me so much trouble were canceled. On top of that, I had just learned from an email from my mother that one of the family cats who was my brother's closest companion, died at the age of 14 (I think). Also, it was nearing my grandmother's birthday (July 3rd), and it's only been about a year since she passed away. I was NOT having a good day. So I begged my friend to hang out with me at least a little that night to make up for ruining my day. The bars and clubs in 서현 (Seohyeon) are open until 5 or 6am, when you can take the first bus or train home. He finally agreed to stay until midnight and take the last train home. We got some food and drank some 소주 (Soju, Korean sake) and when he left I went to my room mildly drunk and prepared to crawl into bed, miserable.

At this point, my acquaintance whom I had recently me through another acquaintance called to say she was in 홍대 (Hongdae, another social hot spot on the other side of Seoul) with her friends and she really wanted me to meet her friend who also composes piano music. I said it was impossible because the buses and subway were closed and I couldn't afford a taxi. She said she would pay for the taxi and all I had to do was hand the driver the phone and she would give him directions.

About an hour and a half later, I arrived in 홍대 (Hongdae). She paid the taxi driver and bought me a beer, and we walked to a nearby club. I had met one of her friends before, so we talked a little bit, and I talked to the friend she wanted me to meet. I was proud of myself for using Korean so much because they couldn't speak English well. I had some fun dancing with her a little, and then they started buying rounds of shots. In Korea, if someone older than you gives you a drink or some food, you must consume it. It is your cultural obligation. Almost all of my friends are older than me, including this group. I won't say I protested... I was having a REALLY bad day. The next thing I remember is people helping me up because I had fallen on my face on the ground. Then I was sitting in the entryway with all of them around me and a cool, damp cloth in my hand, trying to stop the bleeding on my nose, watching as there were more and more circles of blood on the white cloth each time I checked to see if the bleeding had stopped. I talked to a Russian girl who was being checked out by a black guy. She said she liked black guys, so I told her to talk to the one checking her out. This was after she asked if I was okay and I responded that I'm clumsy even when sober and I'd be fine. Apparently I'm an articulate drunk.

My friend said that she had called one of my friends and that he was coming to get me. He lived in 수지 (Suji), which is about 2 hours away from 홍대 (Hongdae). He had to take a taxi because of the time. I don't even know how much it cost him to come to my rescue, but it had to have been expensive. In the meantime, my friend and her two friends took me to a restaurant, and I vaguely remember trying to eat something and make conversation a little. When my friend finally arrived, he glared at my friend, and took me out of the building. He frantically looked around for a hospital, but there weren't any, so we got into a taxi and went to the nearest hospital with an open emergency room.

We ended up at 신촌연세병원 (Sinchon Younse Hospital, i think was their odd English spelling). They took three or four x-rays, put three stitches in my nose, and gave me an antibiotic injection in my hip. The whole time, everything was in Korean, I was in pain and exhausted, and I was so ashamed of my stupidity. Luckily I was still drunk enough, around 5am, to experience the wonderfully pain-numbing effects of alcohol, because I didn't get any anesthetic or numbing injection for my stitches. I just concentrated on my friend's voice as he told me what they wanted me to do in English. The total cost of that emergency room visit, as I don't have any insurance in Korea, was 141,970 won. With the current exchange rate, that's about $112. Each of three subsequent check-up visits has been 18,880 won, or about $15, including a private consultation with a doctor, re-bandaging, and another injection. My three thrice-daily medications which I took for a week totaled about $20~$25. I got my stitches taken out on Saturday and I have to return again this Friday. The bone should take about a month total to heal, and is well aligned and only barely broken so surgery is not necessary. The swelling has gone down, and I can finally remove the bandage and wash my face tomorrow.

So here are my life lessons:
1. When upset, drinking is only a good answer if you are with people you can trust.
2. Don't trust anyone you met through a gangster, even if he's only a part-time gangster now.
3. Never go somewhere far away in the middle of the night, especially to meet someone you barely know.
4. Appreciate anyone who will take a 2-hour taxi ride in the wee hours of the morning to come to your rescue and who apologizes that he can't afford to pay your hospital bill.
5. Korean health care is cheap and efficient; mock American health care in comparison.
6. Korean health care is maybe a little less sterile and confidential than American health care (three patients to a consultation room, less use of gloves, although still very sterile)
7. Be wary of girls. (I already knew this one, but was trying to cultivate female friendships).
8. Living alone is lonely. I don't really know what to do about that right now.
9. Emergencies in another country are perhaps the scariest thing in the world. Without my friend, I don't know what I would have done. Note: the friend I was out with did NOT take me to a hospital. She waited 2 hours for my other friend while eating and drinking more with her friends, as I sat next to her with a gash in my nose and dried blood on my face. It took me three days to get all of the dried blood out of my nose with Q-tips, and somehow I had ended up with blood on my forehead and up to my hairline. I can't imagine how bad I looked when my friend rushed me out of the restaurant.
10. Never make the same mistake twice. I promise myself and my readers I will never again drink so much that I don't remember what happened the next day. This was the first and the last time. Many people black out every time they drink and have never been injured. I have no such luck and no intention of testing my bad luck any further.

Anyway, on a lighter note, some observations made on a rainy day:
1. On the bus, a young woman was literally drying herself from head to toe, including inside her shoes, with tissues.
2. A man with prominent tattoos (extremely rebellious in Korean culture) was nonchalantly carrying a bright purple umbrella. Purple is just a color here. There is no gay connotation.
3. Many people use umbrellas to protect against a light mist.
4. Many buildings have an apparatus that holds a long, thin plastic bag that you put your umbrella in to prevent the floors from getting too wet. On a rainy day, exits of large buildings are littered with these plastic bags. It seems strange to me because Korean culture is very conservation- and recycling-focused. Even fast food restaurants separate trash into liquid, paper, plastic, and other, and there is a little tray for unused condiments and such.


  1. Found your blog randomly through some other expat site and I have to say your story is quite interesting. Your overwhelmingly positive attitude is extremely refreshing and even a bit inspiring. I'm a fellow expat (from Chicago) but my situation is completely different. Anyway, good luck and I hope everything works out extremely well for you in Korea.

  2. P.S. if you think Korean health care is cheap, you should find some way to become a part of the national health insurance program. I know that it is open to most (if not all) foreign residents, including students. the premium is dirt cheap and that $150 bill of yours would have been closer to $20 or $30 with the coverage.

  3. Wow thanks :) I love when people stumble on my blog and like it! ^^ It's nice to know I'm doing something unique and interesting.

    Because of my visa situation, I can't get a foreigner registration number, so I'm pretty sure I can't get foreigner insurance, just like I can't get a bank account or my own phone plan. But apparently I have some emergency insurance that might reimburse me, so I'll send the bills to my mom in America nad she'll see if that can be arranged.

  4. When I made those earlier comments, I had just read a few of your entries including, obviously, the latest one. I decided then to go back and read your story from the start and I have to say it was a fascinating read. You are quite the talented writer. The way that you express your experiences, thoughts and feelings is tremendously engaging. I don't want to feed your ego any more than it already has been (according to your newest post "Fame") but I could not stop reading once I started - it was more entertaining and engaging than many of the published books I have read, and I am an avid reader. With a little bit of polishing you might even have a future as a professional writer.

    Anyway, I wish I could offer some advice pertaining to your visa situation but it seems like you have already researched and explored your options. I feel bad for you in that you are someone who is obviously genuinely interested in Korea and wants to be a resident, yet you have to keep leaving the country every 3 months to stay here. All the while we have many foreigners who come here just to make some money, party and "get laid" (more on this later) who have had no problems obtaining an E-2 Visa.

  5. Thank you ^^ I was thinking of trying to publish my experiences later, once I've reached what could be called an "ending" to my adventure, so It's nice to know it's a compelling read.

    Sometimes life isn't fair, and the thought behind the visa regulations is a good one, so I can handle this strange existence for a year. People will always use a system, so there's no way to stop those opportunistic foreigners from leeching off desperate Koreans.