I went out early this morning, on a shopping trip. I don’t do too many of those these days, for obvious reasons, but we needed some items, and as long as it’s early enough I don’t feel as anxious due to the smaller number of people within my personal range.
Target was first, which was easy. In fact, I can drive there without even remotely thinking about it. I think it has something to do with rote memory, because I’ve been there so often. I got everything we needed there, and usually that meant I was either on to Hannaford for groceries or headed back home. We didn’t need groceries of the Hannaford type, however, so I thought of going straight home.
But instead of doing that, I looked at the remaining items on the list.
My wife has gotten big into all things Korean, and while it started with kpop, that was just the start. Now she’s learning Korean, and making Korean dishes for meals. These remaining items were Korean food items that were not to be found at Target, or Hannaford. She made mention before of going to the Korean grocery store near her job, so I had a brilliant idea.
I would find this Korean grocery and procure those items for her, as a surprise. The first part of this plan was solid, as a quick search yielded results I could plot into my GPS. The second part was not as successful, because once I got there, and went inside the store, I had absolutely no way of knowing how it was set up. There were five others in the store in line to check out when I arrived, so I had no chance to ask the clerk to assist me.
I figured if I searched hard enough I would be able to find the three items I needed.
I was wrong. Fifteen minutes later, with the line as long as ever, I was starting to think I needed the clerk’s help if I was to have any hope of finding these items. So I got in line. Eventually I made my way to the front, and she asked me what I needed. I turned my phone to her.
“I need these items that are not checked off,” I told her. She looked at me blankly.
“I don’t know items,” she said. “I don’t know English.”
And there it was. I felt so foolish. I have never been in a situation before when I could not communicate in some way, but I knew no Korean characters. I knew no Korean phrases. I knew nothing beyond gesturing to my phone and pleading with my eyes. She obviously pitied me, for not knowing the dominant language in the store, and I just wanted to get out of there.
I nodded to her, thanked her for her time, and beat a retreat. I don’t know how my wife does it. Maybe the little Korean she has learned has given her some way to communicate beyond my rudimentary trials. Perhaps she can pronounce the words that I wouldn’t even know how to start saying. All I knew was that, instead of surprising her, instead of leaving the store happy and joyful, I left with a pit in my stomach, realizing how little I know of world culture, of anything beyond my little bubble.
It is something I cannot blame on this pandemic, but this pandemic put it into stark relief for me.