Note: I had this all set to upload Sunday night, but unfortunately the wifi wasn’t working and I didn’t want to stay up any later than I already had to try and fix it… so here it is now. Enjoy!
No profound thoughts for this week, but plenty of stories to tell.
After the speaking portion of my midterm on Monday, I rested in my room for a few hours before meeting my buddy to get 빙수 (bingsoo). It was super delicious, and super decadent. After eating and chatting, we headed a few bus stops away to see a photography exhibit. The exhibit, titled “Impossible is Possible” featured the works of Erik Johansson, a Swedish surreal photographer. I found this intersection of culture and language particularly interesting, since I was in a Korean museum looking at a Swedish artist’s exhibit and some of the captions were written in English. Despite these differences, the overlapping ability to appreciate something joyful and imaginative made the exhibit very cohesive. I really, really liked the art, and even picked up a few gifts from the gift store (something I would NEVER do usually, as gift shops tend to be overly expensive). Unfortunately, the lighting was not designed with picture taking in mind, so I’ve only included a couple of the clearer pictures I took below. To make up for the lack of pictures I took, I’ll link to the artist’s website here.
Wednesday was a pretty chill day and I got to eat lots of good (junk) food. In class this week we mostly focused on learning 반말 (banmal) which is informal language. It was very strange to practice it with our teacher since 반말 is meant to only be used with people who are similar in age to you and whom you are close with. In addition, to practice using our vocab, one student called and ordered pizza to be delivered to our class. It was kind of hilarious to know that all of the Level 2 classes were ordering pizza at the same time, so the delivery man had a lot of pizzas to carry. I imagine after the second call from the school they must have realized what was going on, and that it was more than coincidence. I got to try a Korean specialty too — 고구마 피자 — sweet potato pizza! In addition to sweet potato, the pizza had ranch dressing, pineapple, and raisins. It was actually pretty delicious, although very unexpected.
After class, Victoria and I tried out the convenience store right next to our 고시원 and I finally got to try this ice cream I’ve had my eye on. It looks to be just soft serve in a cup, but I was very shocked to discover a layer of Italian ice at the bottom of the cup. It reminds me of going to Rita’s Italian Ice when I was younger, and I ended up getting another one later in the week. Very delicious and very cheap: my ideal snack type.
Friday evening, once it had cooled off a bit, I met up with my buddy again. This time we headed to a 시장 (a traditional Korean market) nearby to pick up dinner. We got a ton of food, but quickly realized that there was nowhere to sit in the area. We ended up taking the bus all the way to SNU, and sat outside of the biology department to eat. Even that wasn’t easy though, as we realized quickly that the plastic seal on our 떡볶이 (tteokbokki) was not tearing the way it should have. We ended up poking a bunch of tiny perforations around the edges with toothpicks before carefully tearing it all the way around the container. Although a little uncomfortable, we kept laughing at the hilarity of the situation. Then came time to pour the ice onto our noodles, and we realized we didn’t have any scissors to cut open the package. We walked over to the security guard’s office inside the building, but as he was in a back room he didn’t notice us, despite our efforts to politely get his attention. I can’t put into words how hilarious it was in the moment — calling softly to get his attention and repeatedly walking past the window hoping he would notice. Eventually, he came out and saw us and we were able to get some scissors. We ate very well despite the troubles!
On Sunday afternoon I met up with 이세원 and one of her friends from middle school in 강남 (Gangnam). It was super cool to meet her friend, Grace, who is from Korea but has lived in America for high school and is starting at university in the fall. She was very kindhearted and I had a really good time listening to the two friends talk. It is very different to hear close friends chat in 반말 rather than hearing my teachers talk. It was good practice! After getting ice cream, we all went to a Harry Potter themed 방탈출 (escape room) and actually made it all the way through. I had a fun time figuring out the clues, and again noticed how many things don’t require fluency to communicate.
Other Notable Events
These aren’t full enough stories to warrant their own section so I’m going to just leave them here 🙂
I found out that another one of my classmates is also a vegetarian, and after I mentioned I had really been missing oats, she offered to bring me some of hers from home. The next day she brought me a big bag and sent me a bunch of vegetarian restaurant recommendations. I never thought I would be so happy to see oats, but I was beaming.
I finally made my Wednesday/Thursday teacher laugh during class. We all had to make a sentence using a new grammar, and I said ““저는 여자인데 남자 옷을 입는 것을 좋아해요. 진짜 편해요!” It sounds much less funny when translated to English (not that it was very funny in Korean to begin with) but more or less I said “Even though I am a woman, I like to wear men’s clothing. It’s really comfortable!” It helped that I was wearing an oversized men’s button down that day, which I held up as proof.
On a more serious note, my Wednesday/Thursday teacher spent nearly 20 minutes talking to us about etiquette on public transportation, and the ways that men purposefully act in order to avoid harassment allegations. He brought this up because he wanted to explain why Korean men are reluctant to help when they see a women struggling with a heavy item. If they do offer help, he said it is typical for women to either say they don’t need any help, or to more plainly tell them not to touch anything. In a similar vein, he said that men have to be cautious during rush hour on the subways so that they don’t inappropriately brush up against a woman. Although the subways get super packed during peak travel time, it can still be an issue if a man bumps into a woman. I found this discussion really interesting, especially because my teacher was male. I didn’t exactly disagree with what he was saying, but I had to look at it through a cultural lens to better understand the reasoning. I plan on writing more about this in the future, but I still wanted to add this here so I wouldn’t forget.
This week I thought about a lot of different things, so I’ve been having a hard time deciding what to write about in this post. I’ll start with a little update on food/eating/vegetarianism and then move on to what I expect will be a somewhat scattered look at finances.
As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I’m a vegetarian, which has made things a little bit more difficult here in Seoul when it’s time to eat. Eating out is always a bit of a gamble because I can never be totally sure what is in a dish, and sometimes even asking for meat or fish to be removed doesn’t guarantee that all the other ingredients are vegetarian. Plus, for me personally, eating out all the time just isn’t financially sustainable. About 3 or 4 weeks ago, I started looking harder for real grocery stores, and have since then found a few decent ones. Although there is a lot of really cheap and affordable food in Korea, vegetables unfortunately do not often fall into that category. Furthermore, I’ve found it nearly impossible to find organic food (or distinguish what is organic and what is not). Growing up, I am so thankful that my mom made sacrifices to only feed us organic/locally sourced foods, but it has made my body more sensitive to food grown with a lot of chemicals. Recognizing that my previous eating habits are impossible to match while here has definitely been tough. In hindsight, I feel it is necessary to recognize my food privilege even more than before. I have always felt lucky to be able to eat the way that I do, and feel concern over global issues of combatting starvation as well as protecting farmlands etc. Being here has sharpened that view.
This week I discovered a super awesome YouTube channel (which I’ll link here if you want to check it out) with cooking videos of really simple Korean style recipes. Most recipes require very few ingredients, but have the option for more veggies to be added. Since my 고시원 provides me with rice and ramen, it’s been pretty easy for me to make most of the dishes. This is a big step up compared to how I was cooking before, since I was mostly just boiling vegetables and eating them with rice. Although I’m still not making anything fancy, it has made me feel better to be cooking actual dishes. That being said, I spent a lot more on groceries this week — but I’m hoping that this food will last me for a while since these ingredients like 떡 (tteok — rice cake), glass noodles, bread, and eggs last for plenty of meals. I’m including some pictures of meals from this week below, which aren’t super exciting or mouthwatering to look at, but I’m proud of them and I didn’t get up to much else exciting this week. I also like that I am able to cook Korean-ish cuisine for myself since I don’t go out to eat that often. While I was making soy-sauce braised tteok the other day, the 고시원 manager told me it looked and smelled really good, and she was impressed with the way I was making it. Although I never feel bad about situations wherein my foreignness sticks out, it was nice to be recognized as doing a familiar thing by a Korean person.
One conversation that I seem to keep on having is that of finances. While I have been fastidiously budgeting, I can’t help but think about the way my personal study abroad experience is being shaped/changed by my financial situation. A recurring comment amongst my other FGLI friends here in Seoul is that if we hadn’t been lucky enough to receive this amazing opportunity, we would be home, working. Of course, at Yale especially, everyone makes a big deal out of working or interning or studying every single summer, but for us we didn’t mean getting job experience just to add to our resumes, or finding a job in some amazing place. We meant working whatever job we could in order to earn some money. Without divulging the specifics of my own financial situation, it’s still easy for me to say that, during this trip, I have to plan ahead with my budget. I can’t just look at the sum of money I received through the generosity of the Light Fellowship, divide it by 76 days, and then spend it all. I have made other choices outside of this program that require me to cut down on my spending. I have future expenses that I need to save for. It’s not as simple as just living in the present and making the most of every day.
It can be really hard to realize that doing one thing means sacrificing in another part of your life, and as I’m doing it myself this summer I have gained so much respect for my family and the other people around me who have been doing this my whole life. The period of time where I began to really realize how much these sacrifices mean still did not give me the same insight as having to make them myself. This summer has been a gift to myself: I’m here, studying abroad for my first summer as a college student; and once this program ends I am heading to Italy with my family. These are experiences that I have always dreamed of having (like literally since I was in elementary school), and now that I am able to have them, I am more than willing to budget more, to cut down on unnecessary experiences, and to eat a little differently. Just being here is enough for me, and I am so grateful for it every day.
And the not so fun… this week on Tuesday I had my individual presentation, and then on Friday I had the first part of my midterm, so I was definitely busy with homework and studying. My presentation went alright, and I will probably update this post to include what I talked about in it at a later time. On Friday, I tackled the reading, listening, and writing portions of my midterm. I think overall it went okay, although the formatting of the listening part made it much more difficult than I anticipated. I still have the speaking portion of the exam left to do tomorrow (that’s Monday, July 8 for me).
On Friday, Victoria, Eunji, and I went to the coin 노래방 again and then headed to Lotteria to bluebook and chat for a few hours. For the non-Yalie readers: a long time ago the physical book of courses for each semester was known as the Blue Book, and the name stuck. Even though everything is now done entirely online, looking at classes and planning schedules is still referred to as “bluebooking”. In my typical fashion, I accidentally left my laptop in my room despite remembering to grab my charger and even a notebook to take notes in. We all had a good laugh about it, and Eunji and Victoria helped look classes up for me on their laptops while I took notes in my notebook, so it all worked out. It was really nice to just hang out and talk about classes and Yale, as I realized that has been one of the things I miss the most. Even at my busiest times, I can always find someone to talk to at Yale, whether that takes the form of “getting a meal” or late night runs to Gheav or sitting out in the courtyard. Although I love having a single room while I’m here, I do miss being so close to all of my friends, and being able to socialize whenever I want to. This summer has definitely felt a lot longer than I expected, and I keep being surprised by how excited I am to head back to campus in a couple of months.
On Saturday, Eunji, Camila, Victoria, and I headed about an hour south to a free concert. I had heard maybe one or two songs from the artists prior to the concert, but I still had a really fun time. For anyone interested, the bands that performed were Car, The Garden and Hyukoh. Live music is always a good time, and it was interesting to see the ways in which this concert was slightly different than others I have attended in America. One thing that made me laugh while also epitomizing Korean culture, was that before the concert started they ran a sort of kiss-cam. Whoever was live typing on the screen was pretty hilarious, and it was a fun experience to practice my Korean while laughing along with so many other people. It was pretty cute to look out and see everyone sitting on mats they brought, eating and talking. The concert definitely had a more relaxed set up and atmosphere than other outdoor concerts I’ve seen. Unfortunately, this concert was the last of the series, but hopefully we can find some other cool (and free) events to attend before the summer ends.
Note: Sorry about the short post this week! I had started writing a few different things during the week, but I didn’t finish any of them. Then, I kept thinking Sunday was Saturday and so I got this out a little late. Hope you enjoy anyway!
I’ve been thinking about why I like living in Seoul, or rather, temporarily living in Seoul. It can probably be boiled down to two main points: clean and quiet. I’ve never lived in a city as clean as Seoul (or at least the parts I’ve visited). I rarely see litter or cigarette butts, despite the number of people who still smoke. Even when the garbage is put out on the curb, the mounds are small and more or less tidy. The neighborhood where I live is not as busy as other parts of Seoul, but still has a decent amount of traffic. Despite this, it never feels loud or overly busy. One of my favorite things about walking to and from school is that occasionally all the street lights will be red at the same time along a long stretch of road. The silence and stillness during that minute is something I have never found in a city before. It feels as if the road is empty, despite it being full of cars and trucks and motorbikes.
It is pauses like these that remind me of how I am trying to pause myself this summer. I keep trying to create pockets of stillness and calmness amidst whatever is happening. During the past two semesters, I forgot how to pause. I was always either running full speed, or crashing to a stop. Now, I am trying to learn again, and I am looking to my surroundings to learn how.
Seoul’s ability to pause makes me think of it in a different category from any American city. As I learned in class this week, South Korea is approximately 70% mountainous. I always associate mountains with peace and solitude, and it is relieving to see this association maintained despite the urbanity. As I walk to class every morning, I am greeted by 관악산 (Gwanaksan Mountain). Whether rising up through clouds, or smog, or ringed with clear blue sky, I always feel its watchful presence — perhaps slowing our movements by a millisecond, perhaps helping us grow roots deep into the earth. I have long thought that cities could never be more than temporary stops for me. Places to visit, but never to live in. Although Seoul hasn’t changed my mind about that, it has broadened my thoughts. Maybe, in the future, I will find more clean, quiet, and slow cities. There is something very hopeful and wishful in my appreciation of this space.
This week schoolwork actually picked up a bit, so that kept me a bit more occupied. I have a presentation on Tuesday (July 2) and midterms at the end of the week, so I’ve been studying more often. That being said, I still did a few fun things!
On Monday, I met up with my SNU Buddy again, and we went for a campus tour. I ended up leaving before we saw all of campus because I promised Victoria to help her move to a new 고시원 (and she returned the favor on Friday when I also moved… more on that in a bit). We had a fun time laughing at some of the more impractical architectural choices, and I told her how different the SNU campus is from Yale’s. Mostly because everything at SNU is still quite new, and everything at Yale feels pretty old. The lack of air-conditioning in our dorms will never let us forget the “tradition” that comes along with an older university. We also had a light snack-y lunch that was super yummy.
On Wednesday I went out to dinner courtesy of the Light Fellowship at a pretty fancy restaurant. I even got all vegetarian dishes, which was a nice change. It was fun to meet a few new Yalies, as well as talk to the newest professor in the Korean department, who will start teaching in the fall. I even got to try Korean fake meat, which was honestly one of my favorite dishes of the night. I’ll include a few pictures of the food below, but not all of them since the night lasted ridiculously long and we were all stuffed before the main course even arrived. Nonetheless, I am very thankful to the Light Fellowship for giving me the resources to come to Seoul, and for treating me kindly while I am here.
On Friday, I moved to a new 고시원 that is much closer to campus. I also now have my own private bathroom and AC, which has come in handy now that it is starting to get consistently hotter. My new room is a slightly different layout (still tiny), but I like it so far. After helping me move, Eunji, Victoria, and I headed to Baskin Robbins. We tried the limited edition black lemon sorbet, which was pretty delicious. We explored a bit around SNU Station (right by where I live) and ate dinner at a convenience store. One thing to know about South Korea is that there are convenience stores EVERYWHERE. Trust me, the caps are necessary. There will usually be anywhere from 2 to 5 within one stretch of the road. They are all also equipped with hot water and microwaves, with larger ones having mini stovetops as well. There is usually at least a counter to sit at inside, and some have picnic tables outside. It’s super fun to eat at them for an authentic feeling (and extremely cheap) Korean meal. I am going to miss the convenience stores a lot.
On Saturday, Eunji and I headed to Coex Mall where we walked around and explored for a few hours. I tried 빙수 (bingsoo) for the first time and loved it. We also marked a few stores to return to towards the end of our trip when we will have a better idea of the remainder of our budgets. It was another fun weekend!
Wow! One month(ish) in Seoul! I find this kind of hard to believe. I’ve finished my third week of class and we’ve made it through five units already. I’ve learned some new grammar, a bunch of new vocab, and my fluency has already increased a lot. Time is definitely flying by, and I am starting to become more aware of how quickly this summer will be over. This week I want to focus my discussion on communication, and the ways I have been adapting to the language barrier inside and outside of class.
On to the discussion.
On Tuesday I met up with my SNU buddy after class ended. We headed to a restaurant to grab lunch (I had stone pot bibimbab which was DELICIOUS but I forgot to take a picture. Again. I swear I am eating while I’m here). After that, we went a couple of shops over and chatted in a café for a little longer. It was a really challenging but rewarding couple of hours.
At first, I felt very embarrassed of my slow speaking and the way I wasn’t constructing perfect, grammatically correct sentences, but I relaxed as our conversation went along. I had to ask her to repeat herself a couple of times, and sometimes we pulled our phones out to look up words on Naver (the Korean equivalent of Google), but it was a more ore less smooth interaction. She definitely did more of the talking, but I found ways to work around my limited vocabulary and still convey some of my personality.
We talked a lot about SNU and Yale, comparing the campuses as well as scheduling, class structure and registration, and social life. I managed to somewhat explain the concept of Greek life, and the role partying plays on most American college campuses. This was very difficult for me to explain, since Greek life doesn’t really exist in Korea. We were talking about the ways students have fun when not studying, and I wanted to explain that, although clubs exist, most are either closely related to academics or networking, or exist as a way to party. While drinking is a very common activity in Korea, the concept of a Frat House and that style of party is not really something that exists. We also talked a little about our families, and she told me about her time visiting America.
이세원 is super friendly and patient with my slow speaking. Our first meeting was pretty short, so I was relieved to find out that we had more in common during this meeting — we talked about tv shows and musicals and bonded over our love for The Good Place and Hamilton, among other things. I even managed to make a joke about having to use subtitles even when shows are in English. We’ll be meeting again next week, and I’m excited to chart my progress through how easy these interactions become over the course of the summer.
During my interactions with 세원 and with my classmates, one thing I have noticed is the universality of certain humor. One of the things I was most nervous about when coming to Korea was how my personality would come across to my classmates and native Koreans. I take a lot of pride in the way that I tell stories and jokes, and I usually make new friends through lots of laughter. My personality and humor are one of the aspects of myself that I like the most, so I was definitely afraid of having that stripped away by the language barrier. Unfortunately, I am nowhere near fluent enough in Korean to make the exact same kinds of jokes or tell the same stories. I’ve been pleasantly surprised, however, at how easily I’ve been able to communicate certain funny things. With the aid of a bit of pantomiming, I can still make my personality come through. It’s kind of fun to practice this different way of communicating, which although it feels very juvenile, is surprisingly effective. Because of the language barrier, I am forced to become a more active speaker — what I say will be very simple, but when aided by hand gestures and sound effects, I can still yield a laugh.
This type of storytelling has also been one of my favorite parts of class so far. All of our teachers rotate, so most classes have 3 or 4 different teachers each week. My Wednesday/Thursday teacher is the head coordinator for my level, and is absolutely hilarious. This is the same teacher who told the story about why not to get a dog as a pet, as I previously wrote about in a post a couple of weeks ago. This week, we had a couple more funny discussions.
One was a debate about what order you put your socks and pants on in, and what foot you put you pants/socks/shoes on first. It’s hard to capture in writing what was so funny about this discussion, because there was just a lot of very adamant leg patting, repeated shouts of “왼쪽” and “오른쪽” (left and right), and some very disgusted faces.
This teacher also loves to travel, and has tons of really interesting stories from his time outside of Korea. This week, he told us a fifteen minute long tale about meeting a blind man in Shanghai who “wanted to see the sights” — my teacher was apparently scared by this choice of words, but wanted to practice his English, so he ended up going with this man and leading him around tourist places. Not only was the way he told the story engaging, but he had me help him demonstrate the way he led the blind man around. I get called on to help demonstrate a lot because my seat is at the front of the classroom and closest to the teacher.
This kind of demonstrative and very sight-based storytelling makes it so much easier to share these experiences despite having such limited vocabularies. It also has revealed to me the skill of our teachers at being able to communicate more complicated ideas using only the words that we know. For example, I have no idea what the word for “blind” is in Korean, but my teacher was able to convey this key point to us by using specific grammar and words that we were all familiar with.
Highlights of this week…
Visiting a cat café, watching Toy Story 4, and going on a spontaneous adventure to Myeongdong with Eunji! The allergies were worth suffering through; the movie was funny, scary, and endearing, and I would definitely recommend it; and Eunji and I ate plenty of street food while having good conversation. So, of course, another good week in the books!
Edit: I finally updated this to include my weekly roundup of activities. Enjoy!
This week I want to talk about the “cute culture” and “couple culture” in South Korea, and the way it has contributed to my culture shock. Before I start, I want to acknowledge that this post is about exactly what I just said: culture shock. This is not meant to be a pro-Western society post, but rather a reading of cultural norms through the lens of a foreigner. My discussion of this is from an entirely personal view, which means that I in no way want to take a stance on one form of societal organization or the other. I am just trying to understand how to navigate day-to-day experiences while acknowledging my own self-comfort. Okay, disclaimer done, let’s get into this.
One of the things Korean culture is known for globally is the more “cutesy” elements (I’m sorry for using quotations marks so much in this one, bear with me please). In America, I have definitely seen the hyper-fixation on this one element of Korean society turn into fetishization. This includes the worshipping of K-Pop idols, the over sexualization of Korean men, and a borderline terrifying obsession with finding a Korean “oppa” (boyfriend). People like this are generally associated with the terms “Koreaboo” or more generally, “yellow fever” — both of which highlight the obsessive nature of these groups. That being said, I don’t want to talk only about the way Korean culture is perceived in the Western media and by these groups, but rather the ways I am seeing the real-life bases of these exaggerations.
One of the things that has been the biggest shock to me is the sheer amount of PDA amongst couples. This affection is almost never lewd or inappropriate; what has been shocking to me is its frequency. As a person who takes “skinship” (aka physical intimacy) very seriously, I am always aware of where my own body is, and the space it is occupying. Whether this means being hyperaware of the way my left leg and right arm are brushing up against strangers while sitting on the subway, or how close I am to my friends when I hug them, I always know exactly where my body is interacting with another person. With that being my own mindset, casual PDA is always somewhat of a shock to me, and I was definitely not prepared for the ease with which Koreans approach skinship in public.
In Seoul, it is not at all unusual to see friends, parents and children, and couples holding hands while walking along the streets. Handholding is much more prevalent and normalized for people in all different kinds of relationships. This I can understand pretty easily, since I am close to my own mom and often hold her hand, and with my close friends I sometimes walk hand-in-hand or with arms linked (so we can crack jokes — its hard to quip when you’re walking three feet apart and people are being loud).
The shock has specifically come for me in the “couple culture” aspect of this physical contact. In Korea, there is a lot of pressure to date, and it is normal to see couples everywhere. I’ve never felt as though there are an abundance of single people in New Haven, or Elmira, or Albuquerque, but now that I’ve walked around Seoul I’m starting to think differently (that’s a joke; I have no idea what the comparative statistics are). I’m starting to ramble, so I’ll cut to my main point: I have yet to get over the shock of seeing couples constantly grabbing on to one another.
The handholding I have adjusted to, but I think what has continued to shock me is the way couples “reattach” to one another, such as when they’re exiting a store, or after adjusting a bag or backpack strap. The constant contact with one another means that sometimes it isn’t handholding — its arm, wrist, or back holding. Sometimes, I think it almost looks uncomfortable, and there have been a couple of times when I see a boyfriend reaching out to hold back onto his girlfriend, and a worrying part of my brain is triggered by it. Since most people appear comfortable exhibiting levels of such frequent touching, no one else seems concerned by the speed with which people reconnect with one another. But to me, I can’t get rid of the instinctual feeling that the sudden movement is linked with something bad. I find myself checking the faces of the women as I walk by them, making sure that they are smiling and happy, not in pain or struggling to get away.
I haven’t figured out how to turn off this reaction, but I am slowly becoming desensitized to seeing these kinds of things. I realize that this seems like a pretty small detail to write about, but it has been one of the bigger examples of culture shock that I have faced so far. So, while I will continue to be alert of where I personally am in relation to everyone else, I hope that for the rest of my time in Seoul, I can relax around this “couple culture” a little more.
Now on to some more notable moments this week….
I tried eating in the dining hall twice, but unfortunately ended up with a stomachache both times. The week before, my friends who ate in the dining hall told me that usually the option that was labeled with fish products didn’t actually have any fish in it. I wasn’t so lucky, however, and decided not to try again for at least the rest of the week.
I went to another 노래방 with a few of my friends — this time trying out a 코인 노래방 (a coin noraebang) which was much cheaper but just as fun as the others. Instead of paying a per person fee (usually around $4 or $5) for one hour, you pay per song. For all four of us it only cost around $6, so it was a pretty good bargain. I want to learn some more Korean songs before the end of the summer so I can jam out more. And the real test of my reading ability will be reading the lyrics to faster songs (right now I can almost keep up, but not quite).
On Thursday I met my Korean buddy for the first time — she is a current SNU student who I will meet with every week or so to practice my Korean with as well as explore Seoul. She is super nice, and I’m looking forward to getting to know her better! This was also an interesting experience because I will be talking with her a lot every week, but am limited to what I know how to say in Korean. My grammar was not great, but we were still able to communicate with one another so I counted it as a success.
Thursday evening, a group of Yale friends and I headed to 한강 (the Han River). We walked along the river for more than an hour before renting bikes and biking along it for another hour. It was super beautiful and relaxing. The smell of the river made me feel surprisingly nostalgic, and I really appreciated the chance to once again escape into a more natural setting. I want to go back again soon, and at some point I want to walk across one of the many huge bridges that cross over the river. For dinner, we stopped at one of the convenience stores along the path. One of my favorite thing about Korean life is that many of the convenience stores have seating areas and are equipped with microwaves, hot water, and tiny stovetops so that you can cook the food you bought right there. This is what we did, and it was a fun experience.
On Friday, the level 2 classes did not meet and instead traveled to the National Music Institute to learn 사물놀이 (sa-mul-lo-li), which is traditional Korean music. It was actually super fun learning how to play, and our instructor was clearly very skilled. We were all very impressed during his demonstrations. I also found it very interesting to see the intersections of skill-based knowledge and language aptitude, since it was our basic functional knowledge of music (reading a sort of note system and keeping rhythm, etc) allowed us to understand what was being taught to us despite not knowing all of the grammar or vocabulary used by our instructor.
Friday evening, I went back to Lotte Mall with Victoria and met her aunt and cousin. We explored a bit of the mall that we didn’t go to last time, and of course visited the appliance store again. All in all, another good week, although I do wish I got out a little more.
This week I want to talk about my ABCs… struggling with ATMs, trying to find Balance, and the first week of Class. And yes, I will tackle them in alphabetical order.
Let’s start with story time! It seems that my whole “trying to figure out a basic life skill” thing is becoming a regular fixture of these blog posts. But I’m going to keep including them, because how else can I clue everyone in on how clueless I am? This week’s featured incident happened on Monday.
As I detailed in my second post, after the JFK fiasco I only withdrew $400 before coming to Korea. Between paying for rent, and assorted other necessary things, my money was rapidly running out. I planned on going to the bank on Monday, after my first day of class. After going out for lunch with my friends, I walked back towards my 고시원 in search of one of the many banks nearby. One of my Yale friends and I entered the first bank and after standing around awkwardly for a little while, I finally approached one of the workers and did my best to ask how to exchange money. The man took me over to the ATM and clicked through the options, and at the end some kind of error message popped up. He told me that I needed to go to another bank (I understood that much, but had no idea as to why this one didn’t work).
I headed down the street looking for another bank. I encountered a similar problem there – with an error message popping up and my card being returned with a receipt, but no cash. This happened at three different banks, and by that point I was mildly freaking out. This was the first time I had tried to use my debit card in Korea, and even though I had triple-checked with my bank that it would work, I was worried something was wrong. I started planning what time I could call my mom with the time difference in order to ask her for advice. I only had roughly $20 left with me, and I knew that any scenario where my card didn’t work wouldn’t be a good one.
I headed around the corner to my 고시원 and came upon the last bank along my walk. I decided to give it one last shot. The same thing happened as at the other banks — an error message popped up and my card was rejected — but this time the error message made more sense in the English translation than the others had. I decided to try one more time at this ATM but with a smaller amount of money. I waited with bated breath as my request processed, and finally, I heard the swish of money! Feeling extremely relieved, and a little foolish for trying to withdraw so much money, I finally headed home. My guess is that because I came later in the day and tried to withdraw around $900 in specific bill increments, the ATMs I had tried before didn’t have enough of those bill types in order to process my request.
Now that that’s out of the way, on to a discussion of this week more generally. You’ll notice that this post is structured a little different from the previous two posts. Now that class has started, I’ve done less exploring, and more (yes, I know, kind of boring) sitting in my room thinking and working on homework. Now that I’ve covered my letter A, I’ll move on to letters B and C.
As I sort of mentioned at the beginning of this post, one thing I want to cover this week is the period of adjustment and settling that I’ve entered. The first few days here had me suspended in disbelief. Visiting tourist sites added to this feeling as well, since I was seeing things totally unique to Seoul, and was constantly reminded of exactly where I was. Now that class has started and things are starting to settle down, I’ve been spending a lot more time by myself.
Class runs from 9:00am to 1:00pm and after getting lunch with some friends, I usually end up back in my room around 3:00pm and don’t leave again after that. Being in my room studying, or even just watching TV, is something very familiar to me. Sometimes at night, when I wake up temporarily, I forget where I am. This is something that happens to everyone, and happened to me frequently during the school year. Still, it has been accompanied by an added layer of shock when the sounds floating in from the window are entirely unfamiliar. Hearing snatches of conversations in Korean or the rumble of the city busses outside my window reminds me that I am very far from the places I have called home in recent years.
All this thinking has brought me to some disappointment. Every time I’m in my room alone, doing more or less nothing, and I remember that I’m really in Seoul, I feel disappointed in myself for not doing more. For not going out and exploring more, for not making more plans. The truth is though, that I’m going to be here for nine more weeks, and I know eventually I’m going to run out of major tourist spots to visit. I don’t want to burn myself out by feeling like I need to do everything all at once.
So, even though in these moments it’s hard for me to accept that I am going to have an amazing experience this summer even with these more relaxed days, I can’t forget that I’m really looking out for myself by doing this. I feel like some of my school friends don’t see me as introverted as I am, because I came to Yale with a support system already established from FSY (a summer program I attended last summer before starting in the fall) and therefore felt more comfortable meeting new people and embracing my new life as a college student. However, all of that social interaction, all of that change and turbulence, and the constant need to be “on” while at school, tired me out. Tired me out in such a way that when I was home for a few days before leaving for this trip, all I did was sleep. And when I say all I did, I mean it; I slept for at least 11 or 12 hours at night and took naps in the afternoon.
Now, being here, I’ve been forced to realize that keeping up that same pace all summer long is literally impossible. Reconciling with that and putting my own health first, makes it easier to accept these “do-nothing” days where I more or less act as a hermit. You’ll notice a lot more pictures from my 고시원 in my daily pictures from this week, and its not by accident. Striving for this balance between not having regrets and taking care of myself is something I can tell I will continue to struggle with and encounter throughout my experiences in college and beyond.
Now, on to a discussion of class! On Monday morning before class, I went to campus early in order to buy my books. I flipped through them, and noticed that a lot of the grammar content and some of the vocabulary were things I had already learned. I considered asking to move up to Level 3, but when the teacher didn’t arrive early, I felt it best to just sit through the day and see how it went before making the request. In hindsight, I’m very glad I decided to try out Level 2, because it became very clear from the first day that I would not want to move up.
Although not everything everyday is new to me, the way the class is taught is so different that I know I would be overwhelmed if I had moved to Level 3. Having the security of a slightly bigger base knowledge balances out with the fact that nearly everyone else in my class took Level 1 at SNU and therefore is already familiar with the way class runs. There were some words and grammar that I was unfamiliar with even on the first day, but more than that, I was nervous because of how confidently everyone in class spoke. For the first couple of days, I started feeling a little bad about myself — after all, class is only 10 weeks, which means that most of my classmates who studied at SNU had learned about as much as I had in one year in only 10 weeks.
Thinking about it more, however, I realized that the difference between me and my classmates was something to be proud of rather than embarrassed. Class at SNU is split into four blocks that are fifty minutes long each (or “one Yale hour” for those of you who are familiar) and runs five days a week. Class at Yale is also five days a week, but only fifty minutes a day. Doing some quick math on that, the students at SNU for Level 1 had taken 4 Yale weeks of class per week. That rounds out to 40 weeks of class at Yale, whereas I’ve only taken about 24 weeks of classes. And on top of that, many of my classmates have been living in Seoul for at least 6 months or more, and many have Korean partners or family. Once I realized that, I felt a little better about myself, and started to really embrace the structure of class.
This week, I was proud of myself for understanding 95% of a long story my teacher told about why we shouldn’t get dogs as pets. I was proud of myself for adapting to having class 99% in Korean. I was proud of myself for speaking more with my classmates, despite being one of the youngest people in the class. I was proud of myself for having to partner with the teacher during speaking practice and not getting too nervous. This week was full of small successes, and I definitely can’t wait to see where the rest of the semester goes.
I’ll close with a more detailed run-down on a couple of the days where I did manage to have some fun. Thursday was actually Korean Memorial Day, so we didn’t have any class. After class on Wednesday, a group of Yalies and I headed to the Seoul Forest, where we had several little photoshoots, and appreciated a haven of nature amidst the rush of the city. On Thursday, Victoria and I briefly explored 동대문디자인플라자 (Dongdaemun Design Plaza) before heading to 청계천 (Cheonggyecheon Stream). This was another chance to refresh and recharge in a more natural setting, and despite the gloomy & drizzly weather, it was a beautiful walk. Plus, we had a surprisingly good time just watching the many fish swim along in the water.
On Saturday, Victoria and I headed to the 롯데월드몰 (Lotte World Mall) in 잠실 (Jamsil), which is a HUGE mall that is split into two buildings, and includes an aquarium, a bunch of luxury stores, a food court, and a movie theater. We walked around for a while, ate at a Lotteria (think Korean McDonalds), and looked at fridges for about an hour before watching the new live-action Aladdin film. As far as the fridges go, I love looking at appliances (Ikea is a favorite place of mine to explore) and we had a good time reviewing all the different models while killing time before the movie. As for the movie, I would probably recommend sticking with the old animated one, although Will Smith definitely had some funny moments. Overall, the movie was fun because it was pretty stupid and bad. Either way, a fun day, and a good week.
A quick note pre-post: If you’re interested in seeing unedited (and more) pictures, I should be posting them on Facebook soon enough! And once again, this is a loooong one.
Day 1: Wednesday
For my first full day in Seoul, I actually did very little. I woke up early to get ready for the placement exam, before I realized it was at 10:00am and NOT at 9:00am. I saw for the first time just how long the bus lines can get in the morning, and the importance of being ready to go at least an hour ahead of time. But, me and my friend Victoria (who is staying at the same 고시원) made it to the test on time and found our way pretty easily.
The exam itself was not what I expected. The first part was the written grammar and vocabulary evaluation. Each question was set up like a short two-line dialogue, with blank spaces we had to fill in based off the other parts of the dialogue given to us. Although I was glad that I understood many of the words, it was more difficult than I thought to actually use context to understand what the right answer was. For many of the questions, I either knew all the words but not the grammar used, or knew the grammar but not the key words. After that, we had to do an interview portion as well. Going one at a time into the interview room, the test was graded right in front of you (yep, not the best thing for my test anxiety, but I made it out just fine). My interview wasn’t much of an interview — he asked me how long I had studied Korean, how much time I spent per week studying, and why I wanted to learn Korean. Then he asked what level I thought I should go in. I said Level 2 and he agreed.
With the more stressful part out of the way, other Yalies and I waited outside in a group for everyone else to finish. We stood around talking and getting to know each other for a while before most of us went to lunch together. We ended up going to a restaurant right around the corner from the placement exam. I ordered miso ramen, thinking it would be a safe vegetarian dish, but found ground meat on the top. An easy enough fix, but this first meal was certainly a reminder of the extra barrier being vegetarian puts on meal time. Although more expensive than I would have liked it to be, the food was good and it was a large serving. After lunch, I headed back home to the 고시원 and just rested for a couple of hours. My jet lag was still pretty bad, and although I felt a little guilty for not going out and exploring the city more, in hindsight it was a good trade off.
Victoria and I tried eating dinner in the kitchen for the first time, with good success. I can already tell that I will be eating many meals at the 고사원 to help save some money, and because it’s an easy place to get vegetarian food. Later that night, my suitcase arrived and I was finally able to unpack and really get settled in. I was mostly relieved that I didn’t have to go out and buy another outfit for the next day. I went to bed early, ready to go out and explore the next day.
Day 2: Thursday
I spent the morning editing my first blog post and reflecting a lot on the fact that I am actually in Korea. The sense of disbelief hadn’t really dispelled, and I’m not sure when it completely will. In the afternoon, I headed to 명동 (Myeongdong) with some other Yalies to explore. To get there, I took the subway for my first time in Korea! The subway is pretty cheap, and reliable. Although usually crowded, if you ride for more than a couple of stops you can usually find a seat. Aboveground, I passed by some amazing views as well. My first impression of the subway was to put it in contrast to the subway system I am most familiar with — New York City. The subways in Seoul are very clean, with clear signage everywhere, and while riding the subway itself, the announcements are clear and easy to hear, and are coupled with screens displaying the stop information. It took awhile to get to 명동, but the ride wasn’t unpleasant. This was in part because Victoria and I had accidentally taken the longer route there, but we were still in high spirits.
명동 is one of the largest shopping areas, with tons of high-end stores as well as streets lined with booths selling knock-offs. It is an area more common with tourists, and we definitely saw more businesses catering to foreigners. It was the first experience I had with wanting to practice my Korean, but as a foreigner, instantly being approached in English. We browsed through some of the shops, and I was excited to go through a plethora of t-shirts with very humorous English words on them (I’ll include a few down below). After exploring 명동 for a couple of hours, we decided to walk over to 남대문 (Namdaemun), which is a less touristy shopping area . After exploring some of the claustrophobically tiny and maze-like aisles of a department store there, we headed back to 명동 for the main event — street food! Once it gets dark, the streets of 명동 become filled with food vendors, offering everything you could want for only a couple thousand won. I tried 게란 빵 (bread with an egg cooked on top), 호떡 (a very popular type of Korean street food; a pancake filled with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts/seeds), and a red bean filled cake that I can’t remember the name of.
After eating, we decided to check out another popular Korean activity — singing in a 노래방! Essentially, a 노래방 (noraebang) is a karaoke room, which you pay for by the hour. They have Korean music, but also many English songs. We had a blast singing at the top of our lungs and even got some extra time for scoring high on some songs. Back home, I kind of hate karaoke, since I’m more or less tone deaf. The only time I will sing at home is when I’m in the car alone with my music blasting, when I’m dancing around my house with just my mom or older brother around, or occasionally very quietly under my breath while I’m studying (but only near my closest friends). Singing in the 노래방 was more fun than I expected, and while I didn’t take the mic and solo, I realized that participating in the act of it was more important than having a good singing voice. Cheers for self-growth all summer!
Day 3: Friday
For day 3 in Korea, we (a group of Yalies) headed to 광화문광장 (Gwanghwamun Plaza)! First, we looked at the statues of 세종 대왕 (King Sejong) and Admiral 이순신 (Yi Sun-sin), which are located just outside the subway station. King Sejong was the inventor of 한글 (Hangul) which is the modern Korean alphabet. Besides that, he is credited with several other improvements to Korean society during his reign, including the celestial globe, sundial, and a rain gauge, which are displayed in front of the statue as well. Admiral Yi Sun-sin was a naval commander known for his victories during the Japanese invasions of Korea. There is also an underground museum dedicated to these two men that we checked out.
The plaza was also the site of a protest. One Korean man approached us, recognizing us as foreigners and most likely Americans, and began talking to us about the imprisonment of the former Korean president, Park Geun-hye. This interaction highlighted one perspective of Americans that Koreans hold, and the way our presence in Korean society can change depending on the political ideology of the other person. I am nowhere near well-informed enough to post on the internet about this political division, so instead, I urge you to look up information on your own if you have questions about what is happening in South Korea at the moment. This encounter served as a reminder to me, and I hope to you as well, that we must be vigilantly critical of the news we consume, and to be wary of engaging in highly politicized talk when we may not be qualified to speak on it. Although I won’t go on a tangent about this, I felt it was necessary to mention this experience because it, along with the other experiences I’ve had so far where I’ve been stopped simply for being a foreigner, serve as reminders of the way being American in a foreign country inherently signifies something or other to locals, whether you want it to or not. Now, back to the sightseeing!
From the plaza, we headed to 경복궁 (Gyeongbokgung Palace) which is the largest palace in all of Korea. After the first gate, the Palace opens up and is much larger than it looks from the outside. I originally thought it was only one building (which seems foolish in afterthought) but it actually contains dozens and dozens of buildings. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, nearly all of the structures of 경복궁 were destroyed, and those present today are part of an ongoing restoration project.
Visiting 경복궁 was an interesting experience. Partly, because of the distinct clash between the high-rise buildings and the palaces, and partly because of the clash between people dressed in 한복 (Hanbok — traditional Korean clothing) and Balenciaga. Walking around, I was filled with happiness to see the mountains rising behind the palaces, the variety of trees everywhere, and the birds flying around. On top of this peaceful environment, however, was an interesting commentary on tourism and the preservation of culture. Anyone who wore 한복 could gain free admission to the park, which is a good marketing tool. That being said, it raised questions among us as to what is cultural appropriation, and whether or not it was really okay for non-Korean visitors to don the 한복 given its cultural significance. I certainly don’t have answers to this, but my stay in Korea as a foreigner will likely raise questions like this again.
My visit to 경복궁 also opened my eyes to how quickly I’ve adjusted to being surrounded by the Korean language. Walking through a place with so many tourists, compared to the homogeneity of other parts of Seoul, I was almost startled whenever I heard languages other than Korean being spoken. I found this very interesting because as a group we still mostly speak in English, and yet I have already adapted to the default background language being Korean. In most places that I have traveled in Seoul so far, other languages stick out immediately, and it was interesting to begin to notice this as one of the people speaking in a language that wasn’t Korean.
Aside from the beautiful views, we also watched a changing of the guard ceremony. Watching it filled me with the same kind of feeling I have when watching Indigenous dances on pueblo feast days — it’s the feeling of knowing you don’t, and never will, totally understand something, but appreciating its beauty anyway. As spectator, I was part of the dance, but kept separate from it too. After watching this, we explored quite a bit further, to areas with only one or two other tourists. Some of the courtyards were completely silent. It felt so far away from the city, even though it was still all around us. Funnily enough, I wrote in my application for the Light Fellowship (the Fellowship that I received and that has allowed me to study abroad this summer) about how one of my hopes for this trip was to capture the same vivid memories of the lands and skies in Korea as I have from other places I have traveled. Visiting 경복궁 definitely added to my fulfillment of that goal, and I felt rejuvenated despite the many miles we walked.
After heading back into the city and grabbing dinner, we happened upon the Seoul Pride festival while wandering around. This was another double-edged experience, as inside the barricade my heart was overjoyed to see so many families, young and old, gathered together to celebrate the freedom of love, while knowing that just outside was a large group of protesters. Progress is always difficult; in America, in South Korea, and all around the world these struggles are different but the same. Still, it was a beautiful night, and hope and love abounded. I was very happy to have this chance discovery and it was a fitting end to a day on the boundary of old and new.
Day 4: Saturday
After sleeping in for a little while, I spent a couple hours working on this blog post and catching up on some forms for school. I also played a couple of rounds of Uno on my phone with my friends from school (my future suitemates who I miss a lot). During this time, I had another learning lesson that incorporated both my lack of common sense and my inexperience with international travel. It goes like this: Before I left, I ordered an adapter off of Amazon for $12 or so. Once it arrived and I looked at it again, I panicked because I realized it was ONLY an adapter and not also a converter — but after some frantic googling I discovered that Apple products (aka my iPhone and MacBook) are dual voltage, and thus don’t need a converter to be used internationally. So, one disaster avoided. But then, I looked at it again, and (being the idiot that I am) didn’t think it was equipped with anything other than USB ports — meaning I thought I had no way of charging my laptop. I noticed some grooves on the front and tried plugging my laptop in but it didn’t seem right.
So to fix this problem, I last minute bought a converter/adapter from Best Buy for way more than I paid for the one on Amazon. But this one had a plug so I thought I was good. Fast forward to my first couple days in Korea. I needed to charge my laptop so I plugged it in to the Best Buy adapter/converter. Everything worked fine, and my laptop was charged in no time. Now fast forward again to Saturday. My laptop was down to 6% while I was working on my blog post, so I went to plug it in again to the Best Buy adapter/converter. Hm. Something was clearly wrong.
Since I have the older magnetic strip MacBook charger, there is a little light indicator on it, which starts green but quickly turns orange once it starts charging. Rather than changing to orange, however, the light was flashing green. My laptop wasn’t taking any charge. With my battery dwindling, I googled “macbook charger blinking green” and followed the recommended remedies … with no success. My laptop was essentially dead. I started googling the nearest Apple store, which is about 45 minutes away.
Looking at the adapter/converter again, I was hoping it wasn’t a problem with the charger after all, but just the adapter. I had first tested to make sure it was working by plugging my phone into one of the USB ports, but then tried it using the charge block and the regular outlet. Nothing. Even though my phone had the little lightning bolt indicating it was charging, the battery was going down instead of up. I messaged Victoria, my 고시원 neighbor, and asked if she had an adapter I could borrow. Finally, my laptop was charging! I asked her where she bought it, thinking I would have to go out and get a new adapter no matter what, when she happened to show me one she got at Daiso that didn’t work. Seeing it reminded me of the first Amazon adapter I had bought — I scurried back next door and looked at it again. Even though I had thought my charger hadn’t fit the first time I tried it, I tried again and found it actually did. A prime example of the ways in which I can be utterly oblivious. All that aside, my laptop was charging and even though I didn’t have to go get a new MacBook charger, I did realize that I never needed the expensive BestBuy adapter/converter after all. Live and learn, I guess.
In the early afternoon, Victoria and I visited the new 고시원 we’re both moving to in a month and put down the deposit. I have no complaints with my current living situation, but the new place is within walking distance of campus and has a private bathroom. These are not necessary upgrades, but since the rent is still within the budget, they will be nice factors to have. After a quick snack, we headed to 홍대 (Hongdae) to meet with our other friends. 홍대 is a more student-filled area, and with more foreigners. We walked around for a couple of hours, checking out the little shops and just exploring. Later in the evening, we headed to our second 노래방 of the week — our reasoning being that class starts on Monday and we wouldn’t have as much free time once that happened. It was just as fun the second time, but I don’t plan on going again for a while.
Day 5: Sunday
On Sunday, we collectively decided not to do anything big, and just rest up before class. I spent the morning taking care of some more school stuff online and editing more of this post. To celebrate our last day of freedom before classes start on Monday, Victoria and I headed around the corner from our 고시원 to Café Benne to get some ice cream.