It’s hard to believe but last July marked 10 years that I studied abroad in South Korea. While I had done international traveling before (a summer as an exchange student in Mexico when I was in high school, a class trip to Europe after graduation), Korea was different. Korea was on the other side of the world; Korea was a country where I didn’t speak a word of the language let alone understand their alphabet; Korea was hard; Korea was like being dropped on another planet. In short, Korea was like nothing I had ever experienced before, which was both good and bad. And so with such a major anniversary, I thought it would be neat to look back.
Note: This is the first of three retrospectives I’ll be writing as I mark my study abroad anniversaries. Next up-Costa Rica!
The bravest thing I’ve ever done
Sure, I’ve led a pretty sheltered life so take this with a grain of salt, but I would think that anyone who just turned 19 and boards a plane from New York to Seoul alone AND navigates getting to one’s Seoul hotel from the airport alone is pretty darn brave (this was me by the way). Sure, there are people who travel all over the world alone today but how many of them were having these experiences when they were “still a teenager?” While leading up to my 15 hour direct flight on Korean Airlines from JFK Airport to Seoul I was dreading the whole thing, it really wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined it would be. I didn’t really sleep (I never do). However, I was seated next to two extremely nice Korean American women who were going “home” to visit relatives. They were just amazed that this young white girl was flying to Seoul alone. I can only imagine how much more awesome the flight would have been had there been on-demand programming (this was long before airlines introduced that).
Personally, I’ve always found airports to be like a safety net, an insulated bubble if you will-signage is generally decent and luckily for me, in my native language, there are lots of people to ask questions if you need assistance. So my apprehension after landing at Seoul’s Incheon Airport only grew once I passed through immigration, collected my luggage, and went outside…leaving the building. At the time, the only way of getting to downtown Seoul from the airport on public transportation was via bus (now of course there is a train). However, there were numerous buses all going to various areas of Seoul, a huge and sprawling city. It was at this point of buying my ticket and boarding said bus that I really started panicking internally even though I remember saying to/asking the driver, “JW Marriott-you go there, right?” (I was staying the night at the JW Marriott hotel). He said the Korean equivalent of “yeah yeah” (as most bus drivers are apt to do). Well, I ended up getting off a bit before I needed to, although the bus driver was nice enough to make the blurry eyed white American aware that it wasn’t my stop yet, I was the next one. I also survived my first cab ride the next day to the university I would be studying at, when all I had was a piece of paper with the university’s addressthe bell hop had written in Hanguel (Korean script). While these things may not seem like that big of a deal, what all were you doing at the tender age of 19?
The shoe was on the other foot
While I went to a racially diverse city elementary school with a pretty even percentage of white and black students, in high school, my classmates were basically all white and it was somewhat the same at my extremely small all-women’s college. It wasn’t until I got to Korea that I was the minority and saw what it was like to be the “odd one out,” the one whose looks don’t belong. I did see other white people; (Seoul is home to a pretty sizable expat population and there’s also a huge American military base nearby where soldiers and their families live). However, in many areas I went to, both in Seoul and definitely in other parts of the country, I saw no diversity. Korea is very much a homogenous country and while I experienced no discrimination during my time there (it was only a month), I have read accounts from other travelers/expats in Korea about being discriminated against simply for being a foreigner. Peering through the looking glass does put things into perspective. Not to mention, nothing is worse than being continually gawked at for no reason other than looking different.
I was somewhat (possibly a lot) narrow minded
In relation to food. While I embraced just about everything having to do with the Korean culture, I failed miserably on the food front. A part of this I know had to do with my age-I was 19, Chinese was the only Asian food I’d had on a regular basis and even then I know it was nothing authentic; I also didn’t like fish, which was served at just about every meal. The university where I studied provided three meals a day but nothing (at the time) was more repulsive than smelling spicy fermented cabbage at 7 in the morning (the national staple of kimchi is eaten three times a day) or finding out that the main course for lunch was squid (and no, not deep fried, marinated in olive oil, just squid). So due to feeling hungry all the time since I was living on white rice and corn flakes (this, thankfully, was provided at breakfast), I became the type of person travelers hate-I was the fast food munching American. When time permitted I filled up on things like KFC and Burger King, both of which were located in the expat neighborhood of Itaweon, and when I didn’t have the time to take the subway, I would either get sweet rolls and croissants from the French style bakery near to the subway station or ice cream bars from the local convenience store. Thankfully, my love of Korean food has grown exponentially since then (although I still don’t do squid) so I would like a return trip there if only to try more of the food.
Squat toilets-just say no
While the capital of Seoul is this amazing modern mecca, squat toilets still exist, namely outside of said capital, predominantly in more rural areas. The first time I saw one I had a “wtf?” kind of moment. The first time I had to use one I shuddered long and hard. I’m not sticking my nose up because yes, when in Rome, but in a country that is so technologically advanced, so GDP rich, and it has holes in the ground that you literally squat over (complete with modern plumbing and all), you have to wonder why these still exist? I’d like to think that 10 years later not a single squat toilet remains in Korea and yet I know this is ridiculous thinking.
I knew next to nothing about Korea before I went, including the fact that the war never ended; North and South Korea are still technically at war. While the media will have you think otherwise with North Korea this, South Korea that, it wasn’t until the Korean War in the 1950s (that’s right, in your parents’ lifetimes-well some of you), that the Korean peninsula became two countries. For thousands of years, it was just Korea. Sure, there were different dialects and cultural customs, but that’s the same in any country. I learned that many South Koreans oppose reunification because they feel “their” country will be dragged down by the North Koreans since they are decades behind in things like education, technology, and research. And unlike in Vietnam where North and South Vietnam were reunited following war’s end, the Korean people are still separated. Many relatives that were separated once fighting began were forever separated. Reunification visits between relatives only started in more recent times and even then, they are at the “whim” of the North Korean government. You had parents, siblings, children, dying before they ever got to see their loved ones again. Seeing as how the United States was involved its own particularly brutal and long civil war, to me it would behoove the American educational curriculum to teach more about the Korean War.
My month in Korea showed me that I probably wasn’t meant to study abroad for a semester in Asia. While my Spanish major pretty much dictated where I would go, my college still had a reciprocal agreement with a university in Japan, a scenario I had somewhat seriously considered. But deep down I knew (then) that studying in Japan for the semester wouldn’t have been the best thing for me. I do think, though, that 10 years later, I’m a different person older and wiser, and probably could do it and enjoy myself immensely.
I wish I had been more
While this basically applies to every destination I visited in my early years (i.e. when I was still in college), it really holds true for Korea since I haven’t been back to the Asian continent since. Not that I haven’t wanted to but obviously coming from the East Coast, it’s quite expensive to get to and it’s extremely far (I’ll waste my total allotment of paid time off just on recovering from jet lag). So, I wish I had been more adventurous in the things I tried; I wish I had taken better photographs; I wish I had been the detail conscious individual then that I am now.
And yet, another part of me wouldn’t change a thing. While it only lasted a month and while there were undoubtedly numerous difficult days and times, I had the experience of a lifetime, one that few 19 year olds will ever have.