I didn’t know what to expect of Seoul.
My very first experience with this sprawling metropolis was in December 2013. I was there for a two-weeks holiday but in my mind I was already evaluating it as a place to live as I knew I would be coming back a short while later to make it my home.
It was not love at first sight. As I looked at the cityscape spreading in front of me from the big window of our lounge in our swanky, modern flat on the 13th floor of a block in the borough of Gangnam I felt a little pang. The view was pretty but there was nothing in this comfortable flat or the streets downstairs that made me feel at home.
In fact everything was so removed from the reality I was familiar with, the architecture, the language, the people, the evident lack of ethnic diversity, that I could not help but feeling isolated and cut out. As I pondered on the fact that I would move there with no job to be with my husband, I was struggling to find an answer to the most immediate question that grappled me: what will I do with myself?
I tried to imagine my future day-to-day life in South Korea.
Would I eventually find a job? If not, how easy would it be to find an English speaking class to keep me entertained? Where would I meet people I could actually have a normal conversation with? With S. At work would my conversations just be a silent monologue in my head or virtual dialogs with far away friends through the Ether?
While I was intrigued about discovering a culture so different from mine in that moment in time I could not get myself to see where it could lead me.
When you step into the unknown and have a total lack of familiar references it is hard to keep a clear vision.
I was finding it hard to come to term with the mixed feelings. I had not expected this; I was dealing with my first instance of culture shock.
Simple mundane routines were being flipped upside down. In order to operate the washing machine I had to take out a dictionary.
Practicality was lost in translation and I had no idea where to shop for my groceries. Despite the streets immediately out of the apartment being jam packed with businesses and outlets, it was not immediately easy for my untrained eyes to work out which of the neon light signage would lead me to what I badly needed.
And even when I finally stepped into a small supermarket in the underground floor of a nearby building I spent ages sifting through packages and products to identify what I was looking for. Cryptic characters that I had in fact already learned to read, composed words that meant nothing to me.
It was a sensory overload that was hard to come to terms with. I had just stepped beyond my comfort zone.
Even going to the toilet at home one day became an eventful moment in itself.
Our apartment is modern and technological. We open the front door using finger print recognition or by tapping in an access code (no need for keys), the lights in the hall are motion sensor activated, there is a pull down TV integrated in the kitchen furniture and one that pulls out over the jacuzzi bathtub.
We can even call the lift and see when it has reached our floor without having to step out of the apartment.
We are lucky, these are small unnecessary luxuries that come with high end accommodation; from what I have read in my incessant research, with maybe the exception of the electronic door locks, I don’t think all of this is standard and neither are the technological toilet seats in our two bathrooms.
Equipped with buttons to heat the seat, wash and dry your privates all in one place, who needs the Italian bidet?
They are Japanese toilet seats in fact..with buttons mysteriously labelled in Korean (of course) and made even more intriguing by some rather ambiguous icons.
One day I got fascinated by the panel on the wall next to the guests’ toilet. For some reason it suddenly seemed a marvellous idea to brighten an otherwise dull visit to the toilet.
How wonderful, I thought!
Beaming with expectations of gentle music and the melodic sounds of foreign chatter I pressed what I assumed was the ON button of a wall integrated radio. Panic broke out.
As soon as I released the red button the whole apartment echoed with a screeching alarming voice loudly repeating the same unintelligible message in Korean.
I had just pushed the emergency alarm and I was clueless about how to switch it off.
There I was, frantically pushing random buttons in the attempt to undo my mistake and totally horrified at my very private moment being sabotaged by an optimistic assumption.
In my head I had formed this disturbing image of the porter breaking into the apartment to find me totally confused; eyes bulging out and inappropriately exposed.
Luckily that was just my imagination playing up. Hubby saved me instead, by finding a button in the lounge that would quieten the maddening racket I had started off.
I was relieved but only for a short moment, for when I finished with the toilet it took me a considerable effort to work out how to flush it. I was terrified at the idea of randomly trying any other button and wondered wether the next attempt would see me unintentionally launch a rocket into North Korea.
So that’s how my introduction to life in South Korea started; it was a totally unceremonious beginning.
Yet, I am not easily discouraged. I have uprooted before in my life to know that moments like this are normal when moving to a new country.
I was determined to make it work and I knew I needed a project.
Fair enough after just two weeks my initial perception was turned around and by the time my holiday was over I had already started to get used to and actually fancied the idea that this was going to be my home soon.
I had a first peek at some beautiful places and appreciated the incredibly hospitable and kind people; in fact when I departed I was actually sad and already looking forward to coming back.
My new chapter of expat life in South Korea will start very soon: 23rd February to be precise. If you enjoyed this story keep tuned and sign up to this blog to receive updates by email and keep up on the next stories of our life in Seoul.