june 14, 2016 | so long seoul
| annyeonghaseyo - hello |
I have been so swarmed with love these past three months, arriving via letters, a box filled with protein bars (shout out to the best momma ever), facetime calls and texts. Every other time I've been abroad I felt a sense of readiness to depart, even if I didn't particularly wish to leave; I understood that it was time to move on. But I'm not ready to leave Seoul. There is a sense of urgency, as if grains of sand, much like those of an hourglass, are rushing through the gaps of my fingers. Despite my best efforts I cannot save myself from my inevitable fate of hugs and "see you laters" and I squirm thinking about the quiet numbness that will engulf my body as my plane departs the Land of the Morning Calm.
People often complain about the way individuals present themselves and their lives via social media saying it does not accurately depict their life's reality. I cannot speak for everyone, but there is definite truth in this statement; however, I don't think that's always a bad thing. My photos on social media are joyful, not because they are fake but because I am genuinely joyful here in Seoul. The behind the scenes frustrations and sleepless nights do not cloud my experience as a whole and I see little reason for them to overshadow what I share with my family and friends scattered around the world. Just know that this has been a journey and my views on education, life, careers and love have most definitely been challenged and given the opportunity to evolve.
Moments and memories in the past few weeks have included:
- A class dinner at a pub where my professor bought us all beers and then asked us to tell our life story and love lives for 5-10 minutes each (this is the same professor who refers to anything controversial as "a hot potato")
- A trip to Busan, a port city in the South, which is home to not only the largest shopping complex in the world but the largest compilation of Koreans who behave as if they've never seen a Western before
- Field trip to the amusement park, Seoul Land, where many of my classmates refused to go on any of the rides that would be considered kid rides by American standards
- Singing my heart out at a 노래방 (karaoke)
- A trip to Jeju Island, an island Southwest of the peninsula where my Spanish friend and I looked quite out of place tanning in bikinis while surrounded by Koreans in long sleeves and pants (mind you it was hot outside)
- Perfecting my chopstick abilities
- Attending the International Rotary Convention in Seoul where I had the chance to meet up with an old friend and UNF professor and get to know Rotaractors from around the world
- Giving a presentation about North Korea which lead to developing a deeper understanding of the economic fear and sometime indifference South Koreans hold towards their northern neighbor and realizing that I make them incredibly uncomfortable by showing any interest or knowledge on the topic
It's hard not to feel a love-hate relationship with SK, although I think the same can be said for any country. There are cultural aspects that I once found so endearing but each passing week their charm is not quite the same. I used to stare in awe as Koreans did what they want in public (taking countless selfies or applying makeup) without fear that they might be judged. However, now I find myself getting annoyed when someone goes out of their way to cut me off in the metro because it's that same disregard for how other perceives them that makes rude gestures okay. Yet at the same time Koreans do care what people think which is evident in the countless cosmetic stores and plastic surgery and botox ads (the first sign I ever read in Korean) which prove otherwise.
In a class presentation recently a student posed the question, "What is your most friendliest image of the America?" No one gave their opinion on the America and so they proceeded to show us pictures of what the America is, at least in their eyes; hamburgers, cowboys, the statue of liberty, and Clinton vs. Trump. I think many Koreans have a picture of Americans in their mind that they aren't ready to part with. At times there is an evident us vs. them attitude which is most obvious when someone takes my picture without asking and talks about me an inch away which makes me feel like I am somehow less than a person. But to some Koreans (and Asians in general) I am an American or a Western before I am a human being, and I often feel that I do not receive the same level of respect. This attitude and the subtle sexism traced throughout daily life are some of the most frustrating challenges I face living in SK, which although I could definitely live without, have forced me to grow tremendously.
The most bittersweet part about leaving Seoul is that I will be returning in March 2017 to teach English. I will return to the city that I love but many of the people who have made my time here so fantastic will be missing. Nevertheless I'm excited to come back home to Seoul with fresh eyes and heart to see where my Korean adventure takes me next.
I would like to thank UNF, Alyssa Kyff, the Cascone Family, The World Affairs Council of Jacksonville, Rotary International and everyone who made this semester possible, I hope to continue to make you proud. And to my family, thank you for you unconditional love and support from thousands of miles away, I love you so much. xoxo
| cue inspirational quote |
"certain things they should stay the way they are. you ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. i know that's impossible, but it's too bad anyway" | j.d. salinger
april 10, 2016 | life blooms in seoul
| annyeonghaseyo - hello |
As the people of Seoul marvel at the recent blooming of cherry blossoms (while taking lots of selfies) I reflect on the blooming of my Korean adventure after nearly 7 weeks. My life here in Seoul is exactly that; a life. An Asian life filled with a tiring amount of classes, incessant bowing and most recently a new job. During the week I do not wander like a tourist, instead there are friends to see and places on campus to be; my day is full of obligations in the same way it is back stateside.
Most exchange students take 12 credit hours and by most I mean 99.9%. However, I fall into the 0.1% category and my schedule of 21 credit hours has been rather intense. Because I secretly crave the stress of nearly being stretched too thin, it made perfect sense to tack on a part-time job to my schedule. As of last week, I am the first ever American addition to my university's Giving Development Office. My position is split into two distinct roles: 1) A student assistant that provides insight to my Korean university by researching how American and Western universities raise funds from private donors and 2) an English tutor for my coworkers. I now instinctively stand and bow as non-office employees enter, which happens quite often as there are many visitors who stop by to see me, the American girl they have heard about, with their very own eyes. I refer to my coworkers by their position title for example, Deputy Director, which can be odd, but they are incredibly sweet and quick to remind me that we are more than coworkers, we are a family, and even though it's only been one week, I believe them.
My Korean classmates are very intrigued with Western culture, but I have learned that there is absolutely no correlation with loving Western culture and having had friendships or even conversations with Westerners. Recently while at dinner with two Korean classmates, both boys refused to eat, instead staring intently as I attempted to eat traditional Korean food using chopsticks (practice has yet to yield perfection). But as I reached for another bite from our family style meal and encouraged them to do the same, they looked at each other and let out a huge sigh of relief. They confessed that they worried all day that I wouldn't like the food and would demand something else; their irrational fear left me feeling mortified. It wasn't until I asked them if a bad experience with an immature American had prompted this concern that they sheepishly admitted they had never even spoken to an American other than to give directions. As we sat at our table, surrounded by walls coated in hangul scribbles, doodles and the Korean version of "(Name) was here," Minwoo, Hansol and I clinked our bowls of makkoli (Korean rice wine) to their first American friend.
I've become very comfortable with the odd and unexpected situations and encounters that I stumble upon daily. While walking on campus a middle-aged woman stopped me by grabbing my arm and inquiring, "Where are you from?" After asking me more about myself and informing me she had seen me on campus the day before (slightly creepy but in SK I'll let it pass) she asked if I had time to chat, but unfortunately I was on my way to class. In all of my courses I am the only American (excuse me, 'Murican) and consequently my professors have deemed me their personal walking factbook of all American culture, politics and language. What do benevolence and entity mean? Will Donald Trump be the next US president? What is the animal associated with playboy? I may need some backup on that second question though. Drumpf comes up a lot, unfortunately. In fact when I sat down at the welcome lunch my coworkers held for me, the first thing my boss asked me was "Abbie, what do you think about Trump?" We soon changed the conversation topic to practice English in a slightly more work appropriate way, which ended up being a lesson on the exact name of each finger (yes, you read that right).
Often times, tourists on the metro or street smile at me like our shared whiteness gives us some kind of special connection, and usually I pretend like I can't seem them (sorry if that's petty). I recognize that I'm a bit of a hypocrite though because all of my non-Korean friends and I have bonded over the very fact that we do not fit in. The friendships I have made with other international students and foreigners working in Seoul has been incredible; although instantaneous they are no less genuine. It is wonderful to surround myself with French Canadians, Chinese, Brits, Indonesians, Germans, French and Spaniards in addition to Koreans. xoxo
| cue inspirational quote |
"find the seed at the bottom of your heart and bring forth a flower" | shigenori kameoka
march 13, 2016 | a new journey. a fresh start.
| 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.
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
februrary 27, 2016 | greetings from the other side of the world
| annyeonghaseyo - hello |
When I've lived abroad in the past I write in a journal every day without fail. I'm still journaling, but my experiences in South Korea (SK) have been and will be crazy unique (in the best way possible) and although many people can understand life in Europe or other western countries, SK is not in the same boat, which is why I feel a blog is something I am ready to try for the first time. So pretend you're here with me in the land of Gangnam style and my apologies in advance for how bizarre this blog will likely end up being.
Before even arriving in Seoul, while waiting in the Taipei airport I realized I was surrounded by Koreans. In fact, I was the only person who was clearly not a member of the homogenous country. If my ombré hair and total Americanness didn't give away the fact that I wasn't Korean then 1) not taking a selfie and/or 2) wearing a medical mask did. In Spain and Germany I dyed my hair, changed my clothes and did everything in my power to blend in, but for obvious reasons I will never look Korean (although maybe a SK plastic surgeon would say differently). Even though I myself am hyper aware of being different I think Koreans only really notice when they see me attempt to use chopsticks, because let's be real, using flat metal chopsticks to eat a pancake is not an easy feat (that was me at lunch today).
Hundred of rules seem to guide Koreans through everyday life and it has been intriguing learning how to best not offend someone. For example, when accepting or giving something use both hands, if you only use your right hand than you must touch your left hand to your right elbow, and if you try to use your left hand you will be deported immediately. There are other guidelines as far as the drinking culture - you can never pour your own drink so I'm guessing if no one notices that your soju (watered down vodka) shot is empty then you're forced to loudly sigh or make a passive aggressive comment. Maybe there's a wingman/woman specific to drinking? I'll inquire and let you know. If you happen to be at a bar with your boss (as I'm sure you so often do) you must turn away from them when you take a shot, which I can only imagine would mean accidentally bumping into someone else, spilling your drink and embarrassing yourself even more (or at least that's just me). In any case bowing excessively to any and everyone you meet can never hurt and is very Korean.
There are 350 exchange students from around the world spending a semester at my university, Sungkyunkwan (SKKU for short) which is the oldest university in Asia. If you google Sunkyunkwan perhaps you'll see something about a scandal (that was a great first thing for my mom to see) interestingly enough there is a super cheesy Korean drama, I assume with a surprise scandalous plot that was filmed here. It is the most modern campus I have ever set foot on, and arriving to one of the the numerous sleek glass buildings makes the long walk uphill worth it. I foolishly thought that being at an Asian institution would mean a very organized and strict structure; however, classes start Wednesday and registration is a near impossible task that I am praying to finally begin minutes before classes start. I seriously think we should reevaluate the disorganized label Spaniards are stereotyped with, because frankly the Koreans have not proved much better.
If you're planning on coming to SK and want to fit in with the grade A fashion then bring your best pair of sneakers. I have learned while intently people watching on the metro that sneakers are an important fashion staple for girls and guys alike. Long wool coats are very much in style and regardless of where you go in the world, hipsters have the best circular glasses. Korean couples can be seen wearing matching clothes, everything from shoes, shirt, coat and backpack, and although I am eager to adapt to Korean culture I refuse to adapt to this specific aspect.
Koreans are so welcoming and lovely, they are eager to befriend you and ask for your Facebook name or KakaoTalk username (the equivalent of Whatsapp). They are delighted that we have come to their country and university and often remind us that they're here to help us if we need anything. I cannot describe what a relief that is because throughout the day so many questions pop into my mind like "how does recycling work?" or "how can I get a phone plan?" or "what's the name of this food because it's delicious" and luckily I'm only a text away from an answer.
I live with four other girls in a dorm near SKKU and they are so sweet. It is wonderful to have like-minded ladies to explore with and rely on when I need backup assistance with charades. Today I went with my 2 French Canadian roommates (Vivian & Catherine) to a palace in Seoul. The juxtaposition between the 600+ year old Gyeongbokgung Palace (which stands in front of a mountain, just to make it even more jaw-dropping) and sleek skyscrapers is absolutely incredible. Even though I've been to this palace about two years ago, I think I could go back countless times and still be awestruck.
On Wednesday I begin classes, and although registration is a little shaky for the 2 liberal arts night classes I will be taking, I am thankfully completely signed up for my Korean Language Immersion program that will be from 9-4 Monday through Friday until the end of June. I can currently say about 10 words, but that is soon to change and I can't wait to see the looks on Koreans' faces when I can respond with something more substantial than a "I don't know what on earth you're saying" shrug.
Oh and because there is a 14 hour time difference here, as a good rule of thumb for my East Coast American family and friends, there is a 99.9% chance that I am doing the opposite of you. While I'm dreaming, you're awake, and while you're dreaming, I'm living my dream here in Seoul. xoxo
| cue inspirational quote |
"throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country" | anais nin