Travelling–the great journey into the unknown. Dun dun duunnn. . . They tell you the world is vast, and you sort of understand that when you begin to travel. But nothing quite seems to prepare you for that first step off the runway and into a whole new world. Luckily, at least in the countries I have visited, that new world has seemed just familiar enough (they had normal American toilets and a Dunkin Donuts. . . always a plus) that I wasn’t completely dumped into culture shock.
However, I was recently asked by my supervisor to draw up some tips for fellow students visiting countries where the language is a barrier. I got to thinking about it, and I decided to focus on what I learned on my most recent visit to Korea. By miracle alone, I had the luck to be roomed with a local girl for the first two weeks, or I have no idea what I would have done. Travelling in a new country without the benefit of language proficiency is difficult, but there are a few things that can make your life so much easier.
1. Foreign Maps
If you have a problem speaking the language of your target destination, get a map of the city/province/country in the area’s native language. While you might be able to read your English map, the people you meet there may not (particularly an issue for taxi drivers as I tragically discovered). Then figure out your most frequent stops and circle them on the foreign map. This way, if you cannot communicate with the person getting you to your destination, at least you have a guaranteed way to show them where you need to go. Nothing transcends language barriers like a picture. ’
2. Translate Ahead of Time
Your stay will be far less stress-inducing if you get certain terms translated before you visit. The most important terms are anything you happen to be allergic to. Take a small piece of paper, and write at the top the word “Allergies” in the target language. Then beneath it make sure you have an accurate list of all the items that you have to avoid. The easiest thing is to laminate it and stick it in your wallet. This will come in very handy. You won’t always know what is in the food or environment, and it is usually difficult to explain what you are watching for. Being able to pull this list out and hand it to them will save you time and perhaps your life.
Other ideal terms would be basic directions (left, right, straight, stop). These are good to have in case you need to tell the driver where you are going, and it would help to have them on hand when you cannot carry around a dictionary. Addresses, directions, and important location names (train, airport, hotel, taxi) are good as well. You don’t have to know full sentences, one word conversations can get you far. Just don’t be caught somewhere where you cannot communicate how to get home. They can only offer you as much help as you can explain that you need. Side note: the term I found the most useful to know was surprisingly not “yes,” “no,” or “Hello.” Rather, being able to say “I’m sorry” communicated everything–your confusion, your helplessness, your non-intention of causing difficulty. So long as I said “I’m sorry,” people were always more than happy to help.
3. Know Thy Wealth
Know how to recognize the basic changes in money and always verify before making an agreement. In Korea, the exchange rate was approximately 1000 KRW-1USD, and as a result, things generally ran about parallel with a few more zeros tacked to the end. However, they had a tendency of adding additional extra zeros to the tag and hoping foreigners would wait until too late to verify. This lesson I almost learned the hard way, when I nearly agreed to a $400 taxi ride. After that, I always kept blank paper with me, and, if I was agreeing to prices orally (which usually happens in bargaining countries), I always wrote the price down and showed it to them. If they said yes, all good. If they said no, well I was saved the difference between a $90 pair of jeans instead of $9.
4. Know Where to Get Help
It may seem obvious, but it is important to have the phone numbers and addresses for certain places that will give you help. As with so many students, the people in my group blew this step off. We assumed nothing was going to happen, it was just on the odd chance, what were the odds that we would actually need an ambulance? Well, as Murphy’s Law is always in play, whatever could go wrong did go wrong. Almost 10 people at the hotel broke out in horrid swelling and rashes from allergic reactions to the soap used on hotel sheets. We suddenly needed not only a hospital, but one that spoke English. Another time, we discovered an unconscious pregnant woman passed out on the steps, but no one had the police phone number (and it wasn’t 911 to our horror). The situations worked out, but things would have been a lot smoother if we’d known these details ahead of time. Don’t count on your luck holding–if it can go wrong, it will.
The most significant is your embassy; they will always know how to speak your language and will have a translator available. Tourism Centers are also especially helpful. Some in Seoul even offered free international calling, so we could fix all the problems that arose back home without being charged an arm and a leg. English speaking hospitals, police phone numbers, and any numbers of people in charge of your program. Know who to call for help and keep the information on your person at all times; you never know when you’ll need it.
5. Man Your I-Pods/Smartphones/Tablets
When you are lost and alone, nothing is more comforting that having the ability to pull out your electronic device and find a dictionary, translator, and map handy. I took my I-pod with me, and it came in handy hundreds of times. There I downloaded several apps that I didn’t have to have internet for (internet always cost and we weren’t there long enough to get a plan–there was no free wireless). Subway maps, city maps, the tourism apps, language apps, translators, and dictionaries. I used them all hundreds of times, and there are some for nearly every country in the world. It saved me space in my bag and the aggravation of being lost and confused.
While these five tips certainly did not solve all of my problems, I discovered that they were especially helpful. I was surprised to discover that people didn’t warn us about these issues before-hand; we had to figure them out as we stumbled into problems and through trial and error. Don’t learn the way we did. Be prepared ahead of time, and the rest of your trip will be so much more fun.