I’ve gotten some emails over the past year from individuals who have randomly stumbled across my blog (hearing from my readers makes me extremely happy). The reason they contact me is that I’ve studied abroad in South Korea, a country not nearly as popular as other destinations such as England, Italy and Australia. They’re emailing me to ask the kinds of questions that perhaps their study abroad advisers can’t answer since they haven’t studied in that country themselves, nor is it information that the Frommers guidebook to South Korea would cover. Therefore I thought it might be a good idea to start a new post series related to questions about the three countries where I studied-South Korea, Costa Rica, and Spain. Here are some of the queries I received concerning living and studying in South Korea.
-What was it like to study abroad in South Korea?
Intimidating. Overwhelming (at times). Fun. Unforgettable. Chance of a lifetime. There are not enough adjectives in the world to sum up my experience in South Korea. It was my first time to Asia and from the moment I stepped off the plane at Incheon Airport, I was in another world, literally and figuratively. Although I had traveled a fair amount before then (to three Western European countries and as an exchange student experience in central Mexico), nothing compares to seeing a centuries old giant statue of Buddha located up on a mountain, or a royal palace that was built before the English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia was ever founded or the DMZ, even more meaningful with what’s currently going on in the world,
-Did you know any Korean prior to studying there?
No. While I loved languages, I attended an extremely small college where Korean was not on the curriculum. And unfortunately my Spanish wasn’t of much benefit (i.e. no benefit) even though French and German language instruction was gaining in popularity according to my Korean classmates. I bought Korean language CDs which I listened to on the 15 hour plane ride over. However, after trying out some phrases with a Korean classmate and having my pronunciation constantly corrected even though I was mimicking what I had heard, I gave up. By the end of my time in Korea, I had more or less mastered the Korean alphabet, at least when it came to recognizing characters. Being able to read the characters in complete sentences and words was another matter.
-So how did you get by if you didn’t speak any Korean?
Well, it helped that I lived in Seoul, capital of the country as well as its largest everything. (Don’t worry there are a lot of other major cities in Korea too.) Also, Not knowing how to speak, read, and write English automatically gives Koreans a major advantage when it comes to the job market so in many instances I was around individuals who were all too anxious to try out their English speaking abilities. However, there were still many times when no one spoke English; in those cases you resort to either pointing (hand language, universally known) or you honestly ask multiple people until you find someone who can help you.
-What was the hardest part about studying in Korea?
As odd as it may sound, for me it was the food. Of course I encountered a few language difficulties, but nothing that was traumatic or frustrating to the point I wanted to say to heck with it all. Bu the food was tough. I stayed in a university dormitory and three meals a day were provided. While breakfast did include cereal (most likely for the benefit of the American and Canadian students), it also included some native specialties such as kimchi, and at lunch, under the sea creatures that featured one too many tentacles for my liking. I often felt famished throughout the day and so when time permitted I would take the subway to nearby Itaewon which us home to a plethora of Western fast food establishments (KFC and Burger King). When I didn’t have the time to do that, I would buy myself ice cream treats from a nearby convenience store or pick up some rolls and pastries from a French bakery that was adjacent to the subway station. It’s not that I didn’t like the things I ate-I still like Korean food-but when you eat it all the time and try some delicacies that you wouldn’t or shouldn’t think exist, your stomach is going to rebel. I didn’t eat out too much on my own since most menus were only in Korean and ordering could be a real gamble.
-Did you ever feel unsafe?
Not at all. Although I’m sure crime certainly exists in Seoul considering how large a city it is, I never once felt at risk. Granted, I think I went out to a club once when I was there and abstained from any hardcore partying/alcohol imbibing, unlike some of my fellow classmates. However, I still was out on the streets extremely late some nights (i.e. past midnight) not to mention I traveled throughout Seoul on my own on foot as well by subway. It’s a city where it seemed much of the population were extreme night owls (at least on the weekends) and walking the streets at 1 AM wasn’t that big of a deal. One more note,this never made me feel unsafe, but people would gawk at me continuously, most likely due to my red hair (which in some non-western cultures has an evil connotation attached to it). The gawking definitely got on my nerves at times, since I neither sprouted a horn nor had three eyes.
-Would you recommend studying abroad in South Korea to others?
I would, provided you’re studying in a major city there. Granted, I don’t think many universities in rural areas of Korea would attract foreign students; however, if you have never been to Asia and don’t know the language, stick to the major cities where you still have access to major comforts and conveniences, not to mention a sense of familiarity.
-Would you do it again if you had the chance?
In a heart beat.
Anything I didn’t cover? Feel free to ask!
|You’re never too old for dress up! Donning traditional Korean attire-hanbok|