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.
A quick note: So as it turns out, I like to write. A lot. I had planned on making a blog post detailing my first full week, but looking at what I have so far it’s already pretty long. I decided instead to post my travel experience separately, and I’ll have another post about my first few days in Seoul up at the end of the week or so. Oh, and if you get tired of reading, the pictures and captions give a pretty good summary of my time so far too!
re: first day/JFK/travel trouble
Sunday! We left for the airport around 1:30pm, having to go back to the house only once because I forgot my Korean vocab books which I wanted to study on the plane. It was hot, and cloudy, and soon enough it started absolutely pouring. After a tense hour or so, the rain mostly cleared up, although we passed through a couple more bad spots on the way. Despite the weather, we made it to JFK around the original estimated arrival time. Then started the first of a series of annoyances which have turned me rather firmly against JFK airport (if I had a Yelp, I would definitely be leaving a bad review).
First, my mom and I found our way to the Aeroflot check in counter, hoping to check my bag and print my boarding passes so we could have one less thing to worry about while we waited. Unfortunately, I found I couldn’t check in until 9pm (4 hours before my flight departure), so we headed to the food court with both my suitcases in tow. After 2 slices of way overpriced and greasy pizza, we decided to go exchange the cash I had taken out of the bank earlier this week for KRW. I pulled my wallet out of my backpack and shoved it into my pants pocket as we started looking for the counter. We walked for maybe 5 minutes before I stopped. Something felt wrong. It was my wallet!
Frantically, we retraced our brief steps back up to the food court looking everywhere for my wallet, hoping it had just fallen out of my pocket. When our search turned up empty, we confronted the worst. I had been pickpocketed! We started checking all the garbage cans, hoping to at least retrieve the wallet and my Yale ID which I had in it. We asked several people who worked at the airport, and were directed to a mystical “lost and found” which no one seemed to know where it was or if it even existed at all. We did this for at least 30 minutes before sitting down in a corner to regroup. I cancelled my credit card which had been in my wallet as well, and called Yale Security to deactivate my ID (just to be safe; it now seems like a bit of a hasty reaction but keep in mind I just lost around $500 and had been wandering the airport crying. So all things considered, reasonable enough). Having more or less given up on finding my wallet, we decided to tackle the issue of exchanging money. After initially deciding my wallet was gone, my mom had checked her bank account and decided she would exchange the money for me. At the counter, however, we found they were out of money.
So, back to our search! Knowing that the currency exchange pre-security in terminal 1 wasn’t available, and after a quick google search, we headed to terminal 2. After searching everywhere there, we concluded that although broken escalators and stairs were plentiful, a currency exchange booth could not be found. Dejected, and still angry, we headed back to terminal 1. We looked through a few more garbage cans, searched the floor again, then went to buy me a new wallet from the convenience store. We then plopped down in a corner to think.
My mom had been texting one of her friends and realized that there were of course tons of security cameras around, and decided to check one last time, trying to get in touch with security once again. I was pretty tired out and stayed sitting with the bags until she texted me, telling me to go over to the security line. I jumped up and rushed over. My mom had gone up to a security officer and told her she wanted to report a pickpocket. Well, that sure got their attention. I described my wallet, and gave the amount of money in it. After listening, she told me they had received a wallet earlier — with a student ID and about $45. Yep. definitely not the $445 and £40 I had described to her. We followed her, finally, to the mystical “lost and found” — a small, unmarked room with one airport worker sitting at the desk. He pulled my wallet out from a cabinet and gave it to me without even checking my identity. As we walked out of the door, the security guard looked at me and told me, “You dropped it. No one took it out of your pocket.” Having unzipped it and confirmed that most of my money was missing and my credit card had been moved, the falsity of this claim was so obvious it was laughable. Despite my protestations, she dismissed us and walked off — leaving us without a police report, without having checked the security cameras, and without $400 and £40.
It was a turbulent two and half hours to be sure, and so we lined up to check in while discussing what had happened and the fishiness of the whole situation. This is purely speculation, of course, but it seems pretty obvious that there was more to this situation than just a good samaritan returning a wallet to a lost and found center. But I digress. Time to move on to bigger and better things! Going through security, exchanging money on the other side (thankfully the booth post-security had plenty of money), finding my gate, and naturally putting on my super cool, super fashionable ….. compression socks. Hey, I’m not trying to get blood clots.
While sitting at the gate, I couldn’t help but listen to scraps of the Korean conversations all around me. Between my flight and the Korean Air flight at the next gate over, there was plenty of Korean being spoken. I understood very little, but it got me thinking about everything I will learn this summer. I can already see how quickly my Korean will improve when I’m totally immersed in the language and culture. Despite the butterflies in my stomach and the delay in my departure, I was feeling happy.
re: a brief sojourn in Moscow/a kind-of day 2
Flying into Moscow, the thing that struck me the most was that there were SO MANY trees. Coming from the northeast, I’m used to seeing forests as I fly home, but this was different. Everything was so green, and there was so much uninhabited space. I’m starting to realize that looking at maps doesn’t really give you a scope for how vast the world is. As the plane got lower and lower, I was very charmed by the weaving rivers and hills and the big houses (but with lots of character! And so much space! It was unbelievable).
When I arrived at the airport, I passed through another security checkpoint before making it into the international terminal. I went to my first ~international~ bathroom, which doesn’t sound exciting, but trying to figure out how to flush public restrooms is somewhat of a mind exercise for me. The game of “Is this shiny circle a sensor or a button?” … my common sense is clearly lacking. I found my terminal, and even remembered the Russian word for Seoul that I had looked up before leaving. To board the plane, everyone had to take a little shuttle. The sky was comfortingly familiar in pastel hues as we boarded the plane from the ground at sunset. Best of all, in my row of three, the middle seat was empty! A sweet Korean woman sat on the aisle end, giving me a big smile and thumbs up when boarding had ended and no one else had sat down.
One more cute note about international planes which I had forgotten about: there are little screens at the front of each cabin that show a view from the front underside of the plane so you can watch take off and landing!
re: Incheon/Seoul/moving in
I arrived into Incheon on time, amazed by all the tiny islands just off the mainland that I hadn’t realized existed. I was glued to the window, feeling more and more excited each minute. Once I landed, heading through security didn’t take long and then it was on to the baggage claim. Here’s where I met another snag in my travel plans: my luggage hadn’t arrived. After waiting for 10 minutes watching the same bags go by, I was told no more bags were coming and headed to the counter with probably 50 other people from my flight. From what I could piece together, the running hypothesis was that one of the large carrier cargo containers from our flight got confused with another, leaving the airport with a bunch of unclaimed bags as well as missing bags. I filled out a form and was told to expect my suitcase to be delivered in 1-2 days. True to their word, my suitcase did arrive the very next evening.
Upset about my luggage and at the airline (which I heard from two friends after the fact is always terrible ….. don’t fly Aeroflot kids!) but still excited to be actually in Korea, I headed out to meet my dear friend Eunji! She had arrived earlier in the day and waited for me. We picked up portable wifi and filled up T money cards to use on public transportation before looking for the bus to bring us into Seoul. It took a bit of wandering around and asking a security officer to get us to the right place, but then we were on our way. We were both feeling the jet lag, but that didn’t stop us from looking out the window the whole time, commenting on what a beautiful day it was. Sunny but not too hot, with different trees everywhere, and bright blue sky.
While on the bus, I called the manager for the 고시원 (kind of like a hotel but for extended periods of time and very small rooms — almost like a dorm but not affiliated with any university) and my Korean immersion took an early start. I held the phone between my ear and Eunji’s so she could help me answer as he talked quickly in Korean. Apparently I said everything more or less right because he was waiting at the station for us as promised. We walked to the 고시원 together and I checked in, paid my first month of rent, and was shown around. My room is small but has lots of storage, a mini fridge, a desk, and a small tv. There’s also a washer and drier/clothes rack and a small kitchen with rice, kimchi, and ramen always available.
Leaving the 고시원, Eunji and I walked around to Daiso and along the streets nearby to pick up some necessities and so I could buy a change of clothes. We walked around for a while, and decided to head to campus to find out where our placement exam the next morning would be. After being thoroughly confused by the subway signs and not knowing the difference between all the bus lines, we decided to try and walk there. After heading in the complete opposite direction for quite a while, we retraced our steps and tried again. This time we were definitely headed in the right direction, but one thing we realized quickly was that SNU was a bit further away than we thought. Nonetheless, it was too beautiful of a day to not feel happy, even when walking up a steep hill. We finally made it to campus and checked out a map. Feeling successful and more confident, we walked back down. At that point, Eunji had to meet with the manager at her dorm, and we parted ways. I am still so grateful she had been there to help me out and make things a little less scary. Later, I checked my phone to find that we had walked 8 miles together that day! Maybe our legs weren’t just tired from being on the plane for so long… either way I was tuckered out and ready for an early bedtime.
It’s crazy to believe that in a little more than 24 hours I will be on my way to Seoul. I haven’t finished packing, my room is a mess, and I need to get up early tomorrow to finish everything up before heading to JFK. I’m feeling very excited but incredibly nervous. However, I can’t wait to document my changes over the next 3 months on this blog. This post is really just so I can check everything is set up right — but expect to hear more from me soon!