This past weekend I went on a church wide retreat with my placement site, Jumin Church. I was told to bring long sleeves, a water bottle, and a towel. At 9:30AM on Saturday, I got in the car with a driver I didn’t know, to drive to a place I didn’t know, where we would spend the next 36 hours doing who-knows-what.
I have gotten pretty good at following along with the crowd, observing, and generally flying as low under the radar as possible when I stick out like a sore thumb simply by existing. I smile and nod a lot. I try not to ask questions unless I have a translator available. Everyone I have met is so hospitable and wants me to feel so comfortable, that I can feel their frustrations when I have a problem they can’t understand.
At the first meal, the young adults graciously took me under their wing, so I wasn’t the lonely girl in high school eating lunch in the bathroom. We ate together, laughed together, and played rock/paper/scissors to decide who did the dishes. I lost, and had to help with the washing up. Not a big deal! Happy to help! Three of us dutifully lugged everyone’s plates and chopsticks into the kitchen after the rest of the congregation were done, and quickly washed everything. I knew how to do meal time. I was set.
I was set, that is, until breakfast. See, I prefer a breakfast of coffee. But with the wonderful culture of feeding here, just coffee was not an option. The other young adults, more wise in their ways than I, had disappeared off on an adventure, or were still sleeping, or getting ready for the day. Not the point. The point is, I tried to get coffee on my own, and wound up eating breakfast with the Real Adults. And the Real Adults don’t play rock/paper/scissors to decide who does the dishes at the end of the meal. Can you see my dilemma?
My plan, which my fun anxiety brain started concocting the moment I was handed a plate and pushed towards the buffet, was, “Oh, I’ll just watch when someone else takes their dishes and then follow them.” I have used this very smart plan in coffee shops and restaurants here when I’m not sure of the bussing policy. Works like a charm. Except when a very sweet lady at your breakfast table tells you, “You are finished. You can go,” in a way that implies leaving right now is the correct and only option. Remember the part about me going with the flow and not asking questions.
So I got up, took my plate and coffee cup, and kind of helplessly held them up in a shrugging fashion. The people at my table began speaking in Korean and pointing at the kitchen. So, intuitive as ever, I took them to the kitchen. In the kitchen, an older woman spoke and gestured in a way that I can only assume meant, “NOPE!” So here I was, standing in front of the entire dining area, on a raised platform in front of the kitchen, holding my plate and empty coffee cup, frustrated, and about three steps away from a full blown anxiety attack. Several people tried to help by gesturing back to the kitchen and speaking Korean, and I tried to explain (in unhelpful English) that the Kitchen Guard did not accept my offering of dirty dishes.
Finally, I spotted a young adult who speaks a bit of English. She was getting in line for her morning coffee. With frantic eyes I desperately asked her, “Please just tell me where to put this plate?!” She, seeing my pain, looked around and decided the sink of the coffee shop was the correct receptacle for my dirty plate and cup. Looking back, this was almost definitely not correct, but I took the lifeline where it was thrown. Then my fight or flight kicked in, I ran into the woods, sent a frustrated voice message to a friend, listened to a podcast, and looked at some trees. Then it was over. I joined the day’s activities. Nobody else remembers that I didn’t know where to put my plate at breakfast, and if they do, it’s not a big deal to them.
Sometimes you don’t know where to put your dirty dishes. Most of my frustrations here are along the same lines. I still don’t know how to check my mail, pay my electricity bill, or where exactly my trash goes. I am learning every day. But I took the bus on my own, bought the correct trash bags, and cooked myself dinner on a gas stove without setting off the fire alarm. Win! I am constantly reminding myself to celebrate the small victories, and not sweat the small failures. It’s usually just not a big deal.