The ongoing blog of the Tomchak family, in Wheaton IL USA

Walking Busan With My Personal Translator

By on June 20, 2012 in HDR, Photo Post, Text Post, Travel with 0 Comments

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As has become my habit on the first full day somewhere new, I woke up and went for a walk to see what I could see. I absolutely love exploring areas I’ve need been to before, taking in the sites and just following the thread of interest as I walk around.

I did however have two objectives to take care of while walking. First, I had to find a place that I could use my ATM card to get some local currency for the exchange of goods and services. Second, and very importantly – I needed some accessories to get my power situation sorted out. While I was smart enough to do the leg work before leaving and get the proper adaptors and voltage converts prior to my trip, I was just stupid enough to leave them unpacked on the kitchen floor at home. So, at most I could plug one device in at a time, but I have a lot more than one thing to plug in.

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No big deal, there are tons of stores all over, and after all I’m in Korea where electronics are king! But after  4 hours of walking, I didn’t find what I needed. Nothing even close. I found several Starbucks, Seven 11 stores and a Baskin-Robbins (seriously, I did), but nowhere that sells the simple and common items that I need. I realize now that I’m not going to just stumble on it and need to put more effort into it.

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So I walk for another hour but with the focus of walking toward anything that looks like a shopping district, and then give up. Time to get some local help from a cabbie. 

At home this would be a no-brainer. But when traveling in a country where so few people speak English, it becomes a challenge. That is, unless you have some nifty translation software on your phone.


Using my iPhone and a program that I have come to love in the last 24 hours called Translate from iHandy, the language barrier has become a lot easier to deal with.

With my iPhone and this awesome app (there are several others but I really like this one), I was able to communicate directly with the cab drivers. You just type in your message in English, and it converts it to whatever language you like. BUT, it will ask speak your message out loud as well if you prefer that. This is a good way to learn some basic phrases too. Just type in something you want to learn to say natively, like “Thank You”, hit the translate button and then play the audio to learn how to say it properly. Anyway, I started by going to an electronics store, thinking it would be something like a Best Buy.

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When I got there, it was nothing like a Best Buy. Yea, it was the local version of a electronics store and it did look promising at first, but as soon as I was inside I could see it was just that – mostly electronics (cell phones and computers). So again, I broke out my phone and started typing.

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The man that was helping me (or should I say young boy) called somebody over who spoke just enough English to say…

“Not on shelf, don’t have. You not see, not have here. You need hardware store”. In reality it didn’t come out that concise, but using flapping hand gestures and arm movements helped improve the accuracy of his english.

So, disappointed (it has been over 4 hours since I left the hotel and I’m getting hungry, and realizing this is not as simple as I expected it to be) I headed out, thought about what to do next, and then started typing. I hailed another cab and showed him this.


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The cab driver I showed this to (they would always pull up and roll down the window, and before I got in I would hand them my phone with the translation up full screen) read it, seemed to think about it, and then nodded yes. So I got in, and he took me to a location I would have never stumbled on myself. Not only that, even parked in front of the store he had to point out where it was. It didn’t look like anything really, just some miscellaneous store front. But sure enough, I seemed to be at the right place as soon as I walked in – even if it didn’t have a ACE logo out front.

A man walks out of the back room and greets me with a bow, and I return the hello. I say “English?”, and he shakes his had no with some slight disappointment. But that’s OK, at least he didn’t seem to have an attitude about me not knowing Korean. And now the dance of communicating and understanding begins.  What I need is somewhat simple, but is also not a standard request. Because I really have two issues to solve and they are not directly related.

First I need a voltage converter because there is one piece of gear (my wireless router) that will not handle 220 current. So I need a 220-110 converter that has a US plug on it.

Second, I have several other devices that work with 220, but need plug adapters to work with the local outlets.

Third (I guess I had 3 problems), I need a power strip that works with 220 voltage, but needs to accept US plugs. If it does not accept US plugs, then I need to get adaptors from US to Korean to work with the power strip handles 220 voltage.

SO…one simple iPhone screen will not do it.

What follows is a virtual transcript of how my conversation with the hardware store merchant went over the course of about 20 minutes. In between each entry was lots of miming, pointless speaking of english phrases by me, and things flying off the shelf and being demonstrated for me to show his efforts to help me out.

Read it from the bottom up to see it in order.

Hardwarestore transscript

They man was very very nice, and it meant a lot because as anybody that has traveled to a country where you don’t speak their native language, sometimes you get some attitude, rolling eyes or just disinterest in helping you. But this man was willing to go through all of the charades and help me out, and all of it with a smile. I was very pleased, and my only regret is that I didn’t get a picture of his store or of him. He even waited outside with me to make sure I got into a cab OK, and then waved bye and went back inside.

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In the end, everything I bought worked perfectly, and I’m not ready to start editing as soon as I get that first bit of footage. Shooting starts today.

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