“For the last few months, I had been imagining the experience of a new life abroad. In my mind, the beginning looked something like this: getting off the plane, I am immediately surrounded by a completely different atmosphere on the opposite side of the globe. I stick out like a sore thumb in the crowd, my face so different from those around me.
Once I get into the taxi, I hand the driver the address of the university that I will be attending for the next six weeks. As we drive there, I look around as I become surrounded by tall buildings, people walking along as they purchase street food that tastes of pure delight, and I begin to experience the city life.
We pass a bridge and I see the colors of the sunset reflecting onto the Han River, a landmark divider of the nation’s capital. The taxi driver comes to a stop as I reach the front of the university that reminds me of the Hogwarts castle from Harry Potter. I breathe in, pause, and slowly exhale; I am finally at Korea University.”
That paragraph is an excerpt from my scholarship essay which describes in perfect detail of what I was expecting to be faced with when I arrived. While this imagery was what occupied my thoughts prior to landing, I was soon met with reality. I genuinely believed for a while that my day would have been calming where I would be going to settle my things in my dorm, rest and maybe go out in the afternoon to explore the country.
In fact, I had one of the toughest days of my life because I was up for a very long period of time. About three months before I left for my trip, I was informed by my provider, International Studies Abroad (ISA) that I was arriving a day after they had planned for the students to be in the country.
This meant that from the airport, I needed to go straight to my dorm to drop off my things and then head over to my provider’s orientation to then explore the city of Seoul. By the time I reached South Korea, I had already been travelling for 21 hours and I still had a whole day ahead of me. My once romanticized imagery of arriving to the country slowly changed once I got there.
South Korea is a country that I fell in love with years ago and I had a bunch of knowledge about the culture, the norms of the country, and its people prior to arriving. For one, my main expectation was that I would stick out from the crowd and while I did indeed so, it was not as much as I imagined.
South Korea continues to have a predominantly purely homogeneous population with just Korean people however, there is a growing population of foreigners. It surprised me quite a bit about just how much diversity there was. Another expectation of mine was that I would be walking a lot more than I usually did in Florida. Once I got off the bus, that expectation could not have been more accurate. My friend and I had to go up a very long and steep hill with our luggage.
By the time we got half way up, her and I were beginning to give up. In Florida, we do not have hills or mountains so this was quite literally, new ground for both of us. Within the first week, I calculated that I walked, on average, 7 miles with a maximum of 10 and a minimum of 5. I have begun to joke that when I come back to the states, I will have an athletic body from the amount of muscle I would have gained in my legs to power me through all these hills.
While I was climbing up the hill with all my luggage, I received confirmation on two more expectations that I held: how nice Korean people are and how much Korean I understood. Midway through when my friend and I wanted to give up, this kind Korean man came up to my friend and gestured with his hands to help her with her luggage. She accepted and he brought it up the first hill. I took a bit of a break and he reached where I was.
He asked me in Korean where we were going to and with limited Korean, I was able to read the name of the dormitory off a sign in Korean. He worked at the school and realized that we were still a long way to go. He told me to stay in the same place I was at and I saw him go off to talk to these young men who worked at the university as well and were in a small truck.
After a while, he came back and in Korean he explains that the young men were going to drive us up to the dorm with our luggage. Although I was able to understand most of the words he told me and not everything in its entirety, I got the general idea. I was so grateful in that moment and I thanked him excessively along with the gentlemen who eventually took my friend and I up towards the dorms. I have become proud of myself and my ability to communicate with the limited Korean that I know but, I also recognize that I need to improve and learn more during my time here.
Although these are just some of the expectations that I had, these were not all of them. I imagine that as time continues to pass, more and more of my expectations will continue to change and get confirmed. All I know so far is that South Korea is a beautiful country full of wonderful people, a rich culture, and will be the place I call home for the next five weeks.
As they say in Korea, 화이팅! (Translation: Fighting! It is said to give people motivation so in a way, it means good luck!)