| annyeonghaseyo - hello |
I have been in Korea for less than 3 weeks, but honestly it feels much longer. Time seems to pass differently when everything is an adventure: translating food labels at the grocery store, visiting cat and dog cafes (yes those are two very real things) and accidentally getting to second base with random metro passengers during rush hour.
"Why there?" That was the question I was asked again and again when I first announced my plan to study in SK. People were shocked, but for me it seemed so obvious, natural even, that I would end up living in a country that had already influenced my life so greatly. Because of my personal connection to SK through my brother and my slight obsession with SK's estranged neighbor, North Korea, it made sense to end up here of all places. More than anything I craved a culture vastly different than my own, and that's exactly what I got.
Life in SK can be utterly complicated, especially due to my obsolete language skills (for the time being) and interactions can be painfully confusing and embarrassing. A typical task goes something like this:
- The international office tells me to register for classes but the university portal is not compatible with my mac computer and so I must go to the library.
- But I don't have an ID card to get into the library so I have to explain my dilemma to someone who does not speak English before I can get in.
- Once I do get in I can't figure out how to login to the computer because it's in Korean.
- I try 3 different computers before finally finding a solution, but not being able to register for the class I need because of an error in the system.
- I am told to email the professor of the respective class, but of course his email bounces back and I have no other way to contact him
- On the first day of class he is not expecting an international student and decides to conduct the entire introduction of Applied Ethics in Korean (although he did write "philosophy" on the board which was a big help).
That was just registering, getting the book for class was an entirely separate and equally lengthy process.
The funny thing is, I don't hate that everything is so complicated and requires a multistep process, it actually intrigues me. For each drop of absurd complexity, there is an utter simplicity that shapes everyday life and manages to keep the scale balanced. I do not have a phone plan, and as I walk uphill (because I am never not walking uphill) there are no distractions from notifications, calls or texts. I am forced to be more present. My kitchen shelf has a plate, mug, bowl, fork etc. all singular. Basic cooking leaves time for other pursuits.
More than anything my experiences are just different. SK is unique.
At orientation we were showed a video in Korean (with Korean subtitles - so helpful) the moral of the video seemed to be that if you are an attractive boy from Sweden, or presumably anywhere in the Western world, girls from Asia will fight over you and do anything to snag you as their boyfriend. What this has to do with a language immersion program, I'm not sure, and no further explanation was ever offered to me or the hundreds of students who sat dumbfounded in the auditorium. While out on the town I pass stores and restaurants with English names like Scissor Stalker or Thumb Coffee, signs that simply read "Yes" and notebooks with the saying, "Members: A little loving a little giving." Each grocery store has an aisle dedicated to spam, which Koreans are obsessed with. Spam can even be found in emoji form (aka spam man) on KakaoTalk, a popular Korean app for texting.
In my Korean language program I sit surrounded by 11 Chinese students and 2 Southeast Asians; I represent not only the United States but white Westerners everywhere. We are like little kids writing in textbooks that have an equal ratio of cartoon drawings to words. We compare how to say McDonalds or what a dog says in our mother tongues, respectively. Our teacher plays different K Pop bands during break and gushes with the girls about how handsome the famous Korean drama star Song Joong Ki (a graduate from my Korean uni) is. When we learn new vocabulary via powerpoint, pictures of each of us are photoshoped into each slide; I was most recently featured as a musician while the class clown, a guy from Malaysia, was pictured as a housewife. Learning Korean is incredibly difficult, there are days I want to chuck my textbook out the window, but I am incredibly lucky to have a passionate teacher who is so expressive that more often than not I can understand a language that is not yet mine. Above all, I am thankful to have the opportunity to be here and to learn so much.
In my other two classes there is a very obvious disconnect between Korean and Western academic culture. And I don't just mean like how my Confucian Culture professor used a microphone to speak to the class (all 11 of us). In all honesty it is a divide that makes me miss my university back stateside where discussion and debate are not just encouraged but expected. Although my Confucian and Ethics classes are taught in English, Korean students always ask questions in Korean, forcing the professor to play the messenger and translate on my behalf. I am not able to hear directly what my Korean peers think about our texts and thus it is extraordinarily difficult to gather their opinions regarding heavy duty topics like abortion and the death penalty. But something tells me I am not missing much anyway, students do not speak out in favor or against the authors or their arguments, instead they seem to have a very black and white objective of ensuring they understand the text, but nothing more. I wonder if the standardized testing cultures leaves students lacking a sense of creativity and curiosity. It is hard for me to simply sit back and listen when these controversial issues are influencing presidential candidates back stateside that will in turn potentially impact my own life and options. But this is precisely what I signed up for, a culture that holds little resemeblence to my own.
On a more serious note, being here in SK is changing me in the loveliest of ways. Months ago, I found a picture on Instagram of a couple standing in front of a little cottage house. They simply stood side by side while holding hands. As I am not one for PDA, the minimalist yet sweet sentiment left me intoxicated with the idea that I too craved a picture like that. And for months I've been mental noting buildings, stores, and humble abodes and thinking "this would be the perfect spot." And even though my mental map of the Jacksonville area was splattered with little red location points the way you see on google maps, I had no special someone to complete the picture, and more honestly, to complete me. Yet here I was in a new country, a place I did not know a single soul. And as I stood in front of such a beautiful piece of architecture I did not crave the presence or love of another human being. I was complete. Maybe it is Seoul or maybe the rush of a new adventure but the feeling of wholeness brings a sense of peace that I've yearned for a long time. xoxo
| cue inspirational quote |
"the world only exists in your eyes. you can make it as big or as small as you want." | f. scott fitzgerald