Study Abroad in Seoul, South Korea

My STEP Signature Project was studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea through ISA for a month and a half. I took a watercolor class and a history class about the Cold War at Korea University. During my free time, I traveled all around Seoul and saw what it had to offer and engaged myself in the culture.

I don’t know if I had changed per se, but I feel that I have matured a lot through this trip. It was the first time I’ve ever traveled internationally alone, and it was very stressful for me. I am very afraid of traveling, for it seems like I am direction impaired and I panic very easily whenever I get lost. Against my expectations, I traveled like a madwoman in South Korea. I had fun getting lost with my friends, asking the locals for help with my charades, and discovering the country little by little.

I am a very introverted person, and I had prepared myself to be alone for my whole duration there. It’s how I’ve always lived and how my social life has been, so I didn’t feel a particular sadness about my thought. However, opposite to my prediction, I have gained many friends who accompanied me on my adventures and shared their joy with me. As I traveled through the bustling city of Seoul, I was so thankful for their company, and I realized how lonely and miserable I would have been if I didn’t have them with me. I’m very timid, so I always try to do everything by myself and not trouble anyone. However, in such an unfamiliar territory, I have learned to be assertive and confident when asking for help. I learned to speak up more and let people know of my opinions. Maybe I’m still the timid person that I was, but I have also gained bravery and a little bit of a backbone from my project.

I have lived in the US for quite some years, and a part of me has forgotten how Southeast Asia looks like. The US is a very diverse country; I can walk down a block and see people with different ethnicities and skin color, and see it as normal. However, South Korea is a very homogeneous country. When I attended the orientation for my program, I have been warned that many Koreans do not have much exposure to foreigners, and some of them might ogle and try to touch you. Many students were surprised by the announcement, but forgot about it soon after. However, we got a shocking reminder when soon after. My friends and I were walking down the street, and we could see that we were the focus of attention. People stared at us, some whispered, and some avoided us. Their attitudes were baffling to us and we were self-conscious about ourselves. We felt that we were sticking out like a sore thumb. As time passed, we learned better. The Korean students were so kind and explained to us that people don’t ogle with ill-intention, but with pure curiosity. Our misunderstanding was cleared then, and we were more comfortable and relaxed as we walked down the streets. It really showed me how the culture difference can chafe a person if they don’t attempt to understand the whole viewpoint.

I have never flown without encountering any obstacles. It might sound like an exaggeration, but truly I never flew without my planes being delayed, cancelled, or gates being changed. It seems like a curse that follows me around. Due to my past experience, I dislike flying at the core of my being and get very anxious every time I have to go on an airplane. Thus, I was not able to sleep the night before my plane departed to South Korea. Many thoughts plagued my mind and I was very afraid that my curse would act up and I would not be able to catch my flights at the right time. I was right with my prediction. My two flights got delayed, and I was stuck at the immigration checkpoint for one hour. However, what shocked me the most was not the problems, but how I dealt with them. I was so calm when everything happened, and I was able to arrive at my destination safely. When I recall the event now, my hands would sweat, but the me during that troubled time was able to carry herself half way across the world, and I’m proud of myself for that.

I really love to travel, but I’m always afraid of getting lost during my trip, and so my fear has always put a stop to my desire. However, when I was in South Korea, I became a different person. Maybe because it was a different country, maybe because I spent a lot of money for the project and didn’t want to waste my money by doing nothing, I learned how to use the public transportation system, and went sightseeing all over Seoul, some accompanied by my friends, while some were my own solo adventures. It was difficult and scary. My phone did not have service over there, so I was not able to use the navigation system, nor could I call someone if I were to get lost. Even when I looked up the directions on the Internet beforehand, they were still vague and confusing. However, I made it to all the places I wanted to go to, I got lost and I wandered around for hours at times, but I arrived to my destination at the end, and when I saw the sights, all my fatigue had melted away.

The most memorable trip I made had to be to Boryeong for the Mud Festival. My roommate read about the festival in a travel guide and suggested that we make a trip outside of Seoul and see it for ourselves. However, we did not know how to book a subway and or buy train tickets, and we didn’t know what to do if we were to get stranded on the way. I was fueled by optimism, and I urged her to go through with the trip. We picked a Saturday, and we traveled to Seoul Station at 7 in the morning, only to find out that all the tickets were sold out, and the weather was stormy on that day, so our trip fell through. We were saddened, but we decided to go to the festival on the next Sunday instead since the festival is more than a week long. This time, we did extensive research. We found out how to book train tickets online, even though the tickets were at an ungodly 5:00 AM in the morning. This was a trip of a lifetime, so even if we suffered, we still wanted to see it through the end. We got up at 3 in the morning and managed to get a cab to the train station with our broken Korean. Everything was a blur, we were functioning on auto-pilot and were so focused on our mission. When we arrived to the beautiful beach, it was all worth it. We wrestled in mud, and played our hearts out. I was thirty pounds heavier with all the mud on me, but I was so happy that I didn’t let my fear stop me from experiencing the festival with my friend. I’ll always be afraid of getting lost and worry about every small thing, but that anxiety won’t stop me from doing what I love, but instead, it’ll help me be prepared every time I plan a trip, and I’ll funnel it in a way that will make my dreams come true.

I did not know any Korean, and I still only understand the most fundamental phrases. I did not know how I was going to survive in Korea without understanding the language and without people being able to understand me. I was just hoping to be quiet most of the time, smile and bow, and hope that’ll get me out of the obligation of engaging people. However, to my surprise, that did not happen. I did a lot of charades to get directions from locals and did a lot of pointing and grunting when I ordered food. I learned to be assertive when I spoke as it was already hard enough trying to charade my intentions, it would be impossible for the people there to understand me if I was going to mumble or do vague actions. I knew that even though I can’t speak the language, if I persist in my explanations, they’ll have to understand me sooner or later. It was embarrassing at first, but it was a necessity, and I found it fun later by being able to communicate with people just not through words, but also by gestures.

The project was unlike anything I’ve ever done in my life. It pushed me out of my comfort zone, tested my independence and my guts. I’ve learned to not let my fears get the best of me, but actually channel them into guiding tools to help me on my journey. Though it was difficult, I also gained more confidence in myself. I have done things that I thought was impossible for me to do, and easily so. Of course there’ll always be a little bit of doubt in the back of mind, but I now know how to trust myself and know that I have more capabilities than I give myself credit for. I was also able to make myself more outgoing and understood the importance of companionship. I don’t think I would’ve been able to accomplish so many things through my trip without my friends and the help of strangers. The world is interconnected, and there’ll always someone who knows the answer to my problem, all I have to do is ask. The trip has made me more mature and calm, but at the same time showed me how to relax and enjoy my hobby. I’d love to travel to another country again if the opportunity arises.

Cheongdukgung Palace

Nami Island Pagoda

Nami Island

Boryeong Mud Festival

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