Language barriers must have caused some real ruckuses over the thousands of years of interactions between cultures in this world. Here in South Korea, we are experiencing a tiny bit of that, but we now have translators built into our cell phones. Still, we often find ourselves baffled by the language hurdles.

We are staying among a group of Chinese refugees who have little English, and who in turn live on a South Korean island where few speak Chinese. Interactions in the community end up as triple threats when we must translate our English to Chinese and then they must translate whatever we said into Korean, which they don’t speak.

This all came to head in the last few days as I have been sick with what I think is a food allergy to citrus juice. The inflammation has dropped from my nasal passages to my chest, which is normal for me when I have ingested something citrusy. I have no idea where I encountered citrus juice, but we have eaten many unfamiliar things over the last two weeks, and anything could have been sauteed in orange or lemon juice, and I wouldn’t have known it. (Yes, the latest version of Covid has been considered, but I have no fever at all, and it seems like the very familiar pattern of an allergic reaction that I have experienced numerous times previously.

So yesterday, the pastor and I went looking for a pharmacy, hoping to find a decongestant and cough suppressant. We drove down to a seaside village where there was a pharmacy he knew about. No matter how I tried to communicate with the pastor and then the Korean pharmacist, the best we could get from him was a negative hand wave brushing us away. I’m not familiar with Korean sign language, but I’m pretty sure he was saying, “No, we don’t have that,” or, it seemed to me, “No, don’t bother me.”

I showed him an internet picture of a common over-the-counter decongestant packaged in Korean packaging with Korean labels – hand brush, “No we don’t have that.” Okay, so I tried using the translator on my phone to say, “Do you have some medicine for a decongestant or a chest cold?” Vigorous hand brush, interpreted, “No, we don’t have that,” or maybe, “Go away.”

Really? You’re a pharmacy and you don’t have any decongestants. I guess Koreans don’t get colds or nasal inflammations – that’s a place I’d like to live. Oh wait, I got mine while I was here. Darn!

The pharmacy was a total bust, so the pastor made a phone call to one of his church members who works in the city near the hospital and told him what we needed, all in Chinese, so I have no idea what he might have said. But I know there is a pharmacy associated with the hospital. We returned to the hotel where we are living, and just after lunchtime, the church member showed up at the door with the decongestant he found. It was Theraflu, which would do. I thanked him and quickly poured it into a glass of water and chugged it down before running to class. I had been feeling better most of the day, but after that, I took a turn for the worse. The sore throat came back and so on. By evening I was pretty much laid out again.

I got to looking at the Theraflu package and couldn’t read the Korean, so I looked up the ingredients online. This particular kind of Theraflu included the ingredient citric acid. So in taking the cure, I just ingested the very thing that I am allergic to. Back to zero! I guess I should have checked first, but we had to run to class, and I have used Theraflu before, so I never suspected it.

We have two of these in our suite. This one freezes everything. I would just use the other one, but neither one hold very much.

Language is as good a barrier as any other fence in separating people (didn’t the Bible say that somewhere)? The other night before all this started, Gail and I were very tired from a week of teaching English and settled into our room. Because we were tired, we were also very punchy and were laughing at about anything – I guess our filters were worn down.

We have two small refrigerators in our room, and one of them freezes everything we put in it. I have been trying to fiddle with the thermostat dial to adjust the temperature but have had a hard time finding the right setting – all the markings on the dial are in Korean. So I got my flashlight, got down on my knees, opened the door of the fridge which sits on the floor, and peered up into it. The thermostat dial is up near the top of the fridge at the back. I removed everything to get at it and shined my light up onto the small dial. Then I held my cell phone translator up to it and pressed the camera setting. This is a pretty neat little feature – the camera focuses in on the text you are trying to translate, and voila! the Korean symbols turn into English. It’s really a modern miracle.

Here’s what I got from my translator while practically standing on my head, holding my phone up into the back of the refrigerator: one end of the dial translated, “Hey.” The next notation said, “River.” Finally, hoping to solve what was fast becoming a perverse mystery, I fixed my attention on the final small letters at the other end of the dial – all I wanted to know was which way I needed to turn it to raise the temperature in the fridge so it wouldn’t freeze everything. It flashed back and forth between two translations: “Egg Sanctuary,” and “To the Castle!” Frankly, I didn’t know which one to believe, but by now we were both on the floor laughing uncontrollably.

The Korean thermostat in question

Long story short, everything still freezes in that fridge no matter how I set the dial. If I choose “Hey,” yup, frozen solid. If I turn it to the other end of the dial toward its enigmatic “castle,” we still end up thawing our sandwiches before we can eat them. Language barriers again. If you think about this at all, you will begin to understand why there is so much confusion and hostility in the world. There’s a lot of misunderstanding. You can lead a horse to water, but you might end up going up the river to the egg sanctuary.