When I first arrived in South Korea, back in the summer of 2009, I was given a small room with a TV and a bed in it. The bed was bare, and there was a package of sheets and things on it. Alone in my new room, I opened the package and began making the bed. I put the sheet and the blanket on, and placed the pillow where my head would go. There was one other item in the package. I looked at it. It was a rectangular piece of dark blue fabric.
“Oh, how nice,” I thought. “A welcome mat.”
The welcome mat sat outside my door for a day, until I met the other native teachers. They came over to my apartment and looked down at my doorstep in astonishment.
“Why did you put your pillow case outside your door?” one of them asked.
“It’s a pillow case?” I said. “Jeez, I thought it was a welcome mat. Guess that explains why it was in the package with the bed stuff.”
Things like this happen when a person finds himself in a foreign country. It can be overwhelming, and that’s when logic begins to start slipping away. In Brazil, I had a similar experience. Checking into the Stone of a Beach hostel, I was given blankets for my bed. But then Raul, the hip stoner who worked there, explained that there were no towels.
“Sorry man,” he said. “No towels today. They’re all dirty.”
That settled, I set out into the warm Rio afternoon to purchase towels. At a cheap market, I found what I was looking for. I bought two towels and went back to the hostel to shower. Soaked and relieved to be clean (I hadn’t showered since getting off the plane), I grabbed my towels to dry off, and that’s when I realized what I’d actually bought.
“These aren’t towels,” I said out loud to myself. “They’re f**king pillow cases!”
Again, I had mistaken pillow cases for something more useful. For the remainder of the week, I showered and dried off with my two white pillow cases. On the roof of the hostel, where the bar was, I delighted my new hostel friends by telling them about my difficulties with pillow cases.
“I’m supposed to return the towels when I check out,” I said. “Maybe I’ll just give them the pillow cases.”
“No,” my new friend Anthony chimed in, completing the joke, “then they’ll be like, ‘Why are you giving us these welcome mats?’”
The oddest thing – and the reason I felt compelled to write this – is that when I think about my first trip to Korea, or my trip to Rio, remembering the pillow cases always makes me laugh. There were wonderful things I saw – Cristo Redentor in Corcovado or the Gyeonbok Palace in Seoul – and yet the thing that perhaps gives me the most pleasure is the stupid pillow cases that I thought were welcome mats or bath towels. In all life’s grand moments of sadness, disappointment, and even joy, there’s an undeniable comfort that comes from those small moments of awkwardness. I remember laughing with those strangers up on the roof of the hostel on that warm night in Rio, during a trip I took by myself, and right then, while we laughed, I didn’t feel so very much alone anymore.