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.