Language Gap: The Garbage Bag Hunt Down

Not knowing the local language means that sometimes misunderstandings occur. But what about when there is no understanding whatsoever? Today’s edition of how-can-the-foreigners-look-like-more-fools-than-normal? we have the garbage bag hunt down.

In Korea, you must buy specific garbage bags to your area. From what I have read online, this is because you are paying into the garbage collection system in your area when you purchase these bags and therefore only garbage in that community’s trash bags will be picked up on garbage day. Interestingly, garbage in these bags can be seen on the side of roads, just barely off the sidewalk, just piled up (the bags are really quite small) ready to be taken away instead of off to one side or kept in back alleys.

But back to my story; we needed to find these garbage bags but our searches in the grocery stores had thus far failed. We decided to do the when-in-doubt-ask-your-Korean-coworkers routine and get some suggestions. Turns out that these bags are sometimes kept behind the counter.

Okay, off to the Info desk at our local Lotte Mart to request some bags…well, we didn’t really find an Info desk as some big stores have, but there was an especially large cash desk that maybe would be big enough to fit some garbage bags behinds, so I went to ask. “Do you have garbage bags?” I said slow-ish and politely, but she spoke no English. Err…. How does one mime ‘garbage bags’? Well, luckily for her, I had just gotten off from working with my kindergarten students and had thus spent the day miming other English words. I proceed to mime: cutting up vegetables…. putting some in the trash bag….then tying up the bag… and throwing it aside… She looked at me, clearly concentrating and really giving it an honest try to understand. Then she burst out laughing and I started laughing along with her. She motioned for me to wait and called over a younger woman who was working nearby. I asked her where the garbage bags were. Darn, no English either. I think she thought she knew what I was talking about and search around pointing at things with me saying no… no… when a high school age girl saved us both. From what I understand, all Korean students learn English in school, but most people don’t use it much and therefore lose much of it. It makes sense, however, that a high school student would have more English than the average 30 year old. Anyways, she asked what I was looking for and then translated for me to the woman. “Ahhhh!” she said, and quickly walked to a different area of the store and showed us the bags. I gave a couple bows and thanked her in Korean. Both of us smiling at the ridiculousness of the situation, we went our separate ways.

Turns out, they keep the bags in specially locked plastic boxes, similar to what you may find some electronics in, at the front of the store where in Canada you will find the chocolate bars and magazines. For under $5 you can get about 20 bags. They, again, are quite small but they have very good recycling so not that much actually ends up going into them so 20 bags will last you a while!

Bounty Collected!


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