Semester Abroad: Fall 2011
Home University: Seattle Pacific University
Host University: Korea University
Why did you choose to study abroad in Asia (what was the draw to Asia)?
At first I didn’t have a choice about venturing to Asia. Since I am an international business major, I was going on the trip my school offers to China every year for students who want to study abroad. However, due to my severe peanut allergy, China was quickly taken off the table since it would have been too difficult for me to avoid peanuts and get adequate medical attention if an emergency did arise. So instead of China, I was offered the chance to go to either England or South Korea. At first I chose England, thinking it would be wonderful to visit the country of my ancestors, see the history that I’d grown up learning. I had never been abroad before and felt that England would be a relatively easy transition for my first abroad experience. Then I began to think why I wanted to be an international business student and why I wanted to go on a study abroad. The answer was simple: I wanted to be challenged and fundamentally changed. I wanted to be pushed farther than I’ve ever been pushed. I knew the only way to get that type of experience was to go to Asia. As a Caucasian with a pure Caucasian lineage, I had absolutely no experience with Asian culture. The East posed an adventure so great that I couldn’t pass up the chance to live in a place where I was unfamiliar with everything. I couldn’t pass up the chance to know that I chose to do something that would change my life.
Describe some of the cultural differences and how you deal with them and what are some of the most interesting cultural things you have learned?
What has struck me the most is not the cultural things I have learned, but the cultural things that I thought I knew but have now experienced. I chose Asia because I wanted to experience a collectivist culture and take a break from so much American individualism. Yet I was unprepared for what collectivist culture really meant. Once in Korea, you are no longer an individual person. Your identity becomes woven into your friends, your family, your job, your school. Every action and decision made it not made by thinking what you want, but made by what would be best for the group. A micro example of this is meals. It’s very rare to eat alone; meals in Korea are a time to build friendships and maintain relationships. When I return, I won’t remember how to order food for just myself because usually one person orders for everyone and everyone eats communally, as all dishes are shared. There is a joke that Korean’s are extremely indecisive and now I can see why! They never make decisions just based on themselves or even by themselves; it is all decided in a group.
At times, this can be extremely frustrating as I am so used to making decisions on my own and can be independent to a fault. Many Koreans probably view me as rash and insensitive since I will make decisions based on my time schedule or what I want to do. Yet as much as it is a challenge to get used to, it is definitely refreshing to see the accountability that Korean’s have. Since existence is about something greater than oneself, it is about honoring one’s family and one’s country; people are generally kinder and more respectful. We heard a story about a foreigner whose wallet got stolen (an extremely rare occurrence) and how it was returned to her the next day by the same man, who explained that he just felt too guilty about the shame he brought on his family by stealing! It has been such a blessing to encounter the warm uniqueness of Eastern collectivism first hand and I know I will have a very hard time adjusting back to fierce American independence.
How are the locals? Are they shy/outgoing, friendly, helpful, etc.?
The Korean locals are some of the most friendly, kind people I have ever met! I have been able to make so many new friends who have been so helpful in aiding my adjustment to Asia. Even people that I have interacted with for only a few seconds, such as store clerks, cab drivers, etc. have been so kind and eager to help me. Although many people my age are shy to speak English to me, many of the children and older adults have been incredibly forward by unapologetically staring for minutes at a time or even approaching me to comment on my eyes, my eyelashes, my fluent English, and ask about my heritage. In fact, I have regaled my friends and family at home with all kinds of funny stories about Korean’s fascination with my large, European shaped eyes, telling them about crying Korean babies who believe I am a big eye monster.
In addition, I have spent a few nights in a Korean household and those nights have been a special treat. Korean hospitality is unlike anything I have ever seen. Guests are catered to like kings and queens. Especially at meals, your bowl is never empty since after you eat out of it, the hostess will grab it and refill it immediately, even if you are stuffed. Staying with a Korean family has been one of the highlights of my time here, since I was shown so much respect and love. Overall, I have been so impressed and touched by the Korean people’s acceptance, kindness, and compassion.
What types of activities have you gotten involved in while in Korea so far?
Even though it took me a while to find a volunteer place that spoke English, I am lucky to have found a great one, called PLUR, which lets me do a range of activities. Right now, I go once a week to feed homeless men at a soup kitchen. It’s a chance to meet some expat English teachers, native Koreans, and see new areas outside of KU. It’s difficult to make conversation with the homeless men because they don’t speak any English, but they appreciate seeing a foreign face helping them out. Along with that, I go teach English to economically disadvantaged kids on Saturdays. In Korea, it’s very typical for students to pay money to get special tutoring on Saturdays to put them ahead of their class. The kids that we help out can’t afford that, so we help expose them to English free of charge so they aren’t left behind in their classes. Even if we don’t get a chance to teach that much, the kids love seeing foreign faces and hearing us speak fluent English to each other! With this volunteer program, I am also hoping for a chance to go on their next orphanage visit, where we get to play with and love on the kids there.
Finally, through the help of my GlobaLinks Learning Abroad residence coordinator, I am a docent at the War Memorial Museum of Korea. They need fluent English speakers to give tours for their Korean War section when foreign tourists, military, and dignitaries come to visit. This has been an amazing experience since my grandpa is a Korean War veteran who was a US Military Intelligence soldier. I grew up hearing his war stories and it honors me to know that I can contribute to the remembrance and respect of that war. As a part of the training, I have to memorize pages and pages of information that I speak about during the tour. Luckily, I love learning about war history and love to speak in public, so the challenge is assuaged by the fact that I love the job.
How do you think your experience in Korea will help you both professionally and personally in the future?
Studying abroad had definitely prepared me to enter the world of global business. As someone who hopes to travel the globe for my career, I now feel infinitely more prepared to do so. While here, I have been able to meet with some Korean business men and discuss the cultural differences that arise when Eastern countries work with Western countries. Since I live on the West Coast of the United States, many companies are looking for employees that have experience with Eastern culture, given that so much trade is done across the Pacific. Living in Asia gives me a competitive edge when I apply to these large corporations that I hope to work and travel for someday.
Along with that, many of my professors back in the States have referred to Asia as the “21st Century of Business.” I never understood that until I came to Asia and saw that saying in motion. Many of the now industrialized Asian countries were able to singlehandedly lift themselves out of poverty in an unparalleled amount of time. And they refuse to stop growing. Their industry is incredible, their work ethic is unmatched, and their innovation is exceptional. In Busan, we went to a famous political landmark house that holds conferences with leaders from around the world. Displayed in the foyer were large posters of plans that Korea had to economically develop itself and its surrounding Asian countries. In that moment, I realized that Asia will change the entire world, and am moved and awed that I will be a part of it.
In my personal life, study abroad had taught me so much about myself. It has taught me that I have a true passion for living in and assimilating to other cultures, as well as the guts to do so. I have developed a huge appreciation for how big the world truly is and the many adventures that await for me around the globe.
Why did you want to volunteer in Korea and how did it enhance your experience?
I have always been someone who does a lot of volunteer work and is actively involved in my campus and city, so I came to Korea already knowing I wanted to volunteer. I knew that volunteering would be the quickest way to connect to Seoul and experience real Korean culture. Through volunteering, I have been able to see another side of Seoul, the parts that aren’t in travel brochures. Spending time with the poor and disadvantaged has opened my heart to realness that only exists outside the gates of KU. Plus, it was wonderful to meet people other than students. Through my volunteer work I have been able to meet teachers, local Koreans, business professionals, and military. It has helped me to get a better grasp of the cultural and social dynamics that exist here, something that is a breath of fresh air from a campus where most people are all students around the same age.
What advice would you give to other students interested in studying in Asia?
1. I tried to think of an eloquent way to phrase this, but instead decided to go for a more direct approach. Piece of advice number one is: do it. Don’t make excuses, don’t hem and haw over it, go to your school’s study abroad office, find a program and a country you are passionate about, and find a way to go there. Don’t let money be the reason you can’t go abroad. There are so many financial stipends/scholarships out there to make sure students go abroad because those institutions understand how valuable of an experience it is. Even if you are broke by the end of the trip, the experience is worth it. Trust me.
2. Learn to be positive. You will encounter things that make you uncomfortable, things you don’t understand, things you dislike, and things that you will even hate. Always complaining about those things will not help you adjust and will in fact drive your companions crazy. I’ve already witnessed how a negative attitude can quickly destroy relationships when abroad. It is so easy to get mired in the swamp of negativity, and that swamp will quickly consume your whole life and negatively tint what could be a wonderful experience. Even if it’s painful, learning to be positive is essential.
3. Try new things. Everyone will tell you this, but this is advice that you should take wholeheartedly. For most study abroad students, they will never have the chance to visit the country or city they are studying in again. This is the time to embrace the range of cultural experiences. Force yourself to step out of your comfort zone. Purposefully try things that are uncomfortable, strange, and awkward. Most of the things you think you will dislike, you will end up loving. It just takes giving something a chance and having an open mind. Plus, even if it doesn’t turn out to be a great new experience, you will have a sense of accomplishment for trying something new and great stories when you return.
4. Be play dough. You will be stretched farther than you ever thought possible. This isn’t “rearranging a schedule because a co-worker is sick” or “changing weekend plans because of weather” type of flexibility. Understand that living in Asia requires flexibility of the entire soul and mind. You will cry, you will have awful days, you will want to go home, you will think you are the only one who feels this way, and you will not be the only one who feels this way. Don’t be too proud to admit when you are struggling. Don’t be too proud and think you can escape culture shock because you are a strong, well adjusted person who can handle new things. I made that mistake, and it knocked me on the floor when I was a month in and still didn’t feel comfortable, happy, or adjusted. Don’t feel guilty for missing home. It’s not weakness, it’s just normal, so please cut yourself some slack. When the time comes where things do feel normal and you do feel adjusted (which trust me, it happens, just probably not as quickly as you would like), and you return home and go through culture shock all over again, don’t just brush off what you’ve adapted to. Let it mold you and form you, let it change the person you were into the person that study abroad has made you.
5. And finally, the most important thing. The thing that changes a semester abroad from a tourist trip to a real cultural experience: let your heart be broken. It is so easy to spend the entire time only doing tourist activities, only associating with other foreigners, and just generally glossing over the country’s real culture. But this is a time where you should dare to be moved. Get involved with something that is going to ignite your passion and then put your heart into it. It is so easy to walk away with pleasant memories of nice foreign friends, of good times visiting touristy spots, and of drinking at bars. While there is nothing wrong with that, make sure these aren’t your only memories. Let something about your country’s culture get to you; let something affect your heart.
Tell me about the food? What is the strangest thing you’ve eaten so far?
The food here is soooooo spicy!! The Koreans don’t understand what you mean if you ask for a dish with no spice. They think it is a joke! When you are at a meal, it seems like every dish they bring out is red. Even though there are about ten different foods, they are all the same chili pepper color red from being doused in so much spice. I would like to say I’ve gotten used to such spicy fare, but I have yet to eat a Korean meal without choking on spice or sucking down water.
Koreans really enjoy a wide variety of seafood that I am extremely unaccustomed to, mostly including mini octopus and octopus legs. Nothing prepared me to see a dish of noodles with little dead baby octopuses on it that got popped into Korean’s mouths whole. I have yet to get up enough courage to try that, so up to now the strangest thing I’ve eaten is cold noodle. How they prepare this dish is they take noodles and set them on crushed ice and then put chili powder and spice sauce on top. So it’s basically like eating a spicy noodle snow cone!!!
Anything else you want to share? (pop culture, Korea Univ., fun activities, classes, etc)
Take time to enjoy the pop culture of the country you are in. When I came to Korea, I knew nothing about K-Pop, but have so enjoyed becoming familiar with it. I’ve started immersing myself in Korean dramas, Korean music, and Korean movies. Not only has this helped me out immensely with my language class since I’ve gotten used to hearing it spoken, but has helped me understand the Korean culture a lot more. Especially through the songs and dramas, it is easy to pick up the big social issues and stereotypes that pervade through the society.
Remember, whatever you decide to do, make sure you keep a journal and take a lot of pictures! People at home will be dying to hear about your adventures and see what you are experiencing. Plus, it will be nice years from now to look back on what you thought, felt, and did during your study abroad time.