Starting the summer of last year, my hopes of spending a summer in the bustling city of Seoul, South Korea were beginning to realize. I recall being unable to contain my excitement when my roommate and I, in idle conversation inside our local Walmart, discussed both of our ambitions to study abroad in South Korea. As someone who has always been on the shy side, the mere thought of having to navigate a foreign country was enough to push the idea out of my mind. However, learning that I could potentially share the experience and have the support of one of my oldest friends, filled me with hope. Despite feeling confident that I was journeying across the world now with one of my oldest friends, nothing could have prepared either of us for the culture shock and differences that we’d have to overcome.
The very first hurdle I encountered in Seoul was one that is unique to my experience; it was the typhoon that hit Japan and Korea the very first week of our arrival. For the entire first week of my study abroad trip, it rained almost every day, all day. At the time, it felt like the universe was raining down all of this bad luck on the most crucial week, which marked the transitional period of getting over culture shock and getting used to the host country. I remember walking to class the very first day with the rain pouring down and soaking all of my clothes and giving me, what I almost believed was, trench foot. I felt like the bad weather would never end. However, I remember walking back up the hill towards our dormitory, one evening after classes, and noticing for the first time how beautiful campus was.
The rain was a light drizzle at this time and the pathway was empty, save for me and my friends, and it was so beautiful that in that moment it finally hit me where I was and what I was doing. I was experiencing a country and a city that I’ve been dreaming about for years. I realized that this rain was just a small feat to overcome and that in a way, I was actually experiencing the city the way locals do. Even on the rainiest of days, you will see hundreds of people walking to school, work, or home in their suits, in their heels and completely unfazed by the inclement weather. It’s truly amazing and it was something different to what I experience in Austin, which is a city of much smaller scale.
The second difficulty to overcome was the most prominent difference from UT (and even Texas for that matter) and that is the insane hills of Seoul. Nestled in between mountains from all sides, Seoul’s hilly terrain is one that mirrors San Francisco and is unlike anything I’ve had to navigate through in Austin. Dean Keeton has absolutely nothing on the hill we have to traverse to go up our dorm every day.
It seemed like absolute torture at first – having to trudge the hill back home after an exhausted day – but of course, as time went on, I got used to it (kind of…). And quite honestly, my calves have never looked better. The view is another plus and after seeing it every evening coming back from classes, it becomes harder and harder to complain.
Another hurdle we encountered was communication – an obvious and expected one, but nonetheless difficult. It was the most difficult part of adjusting to Seoul in those first few weeks. Nothing can really prepare you for the feeling of being in a city with a population of roughly 25 million and be able to speak and connect with only a handful. From trying to ask the woman behind the counter at GS25 for a transportation card to trying to navigate taxi drivers to our notoriously hard to find dorm, communicating was more of a struggle for me than I had anticipated even though I had taken two semesters of Korean prior to studying abroad. However, despite the difficulty in communicating verbally, being able to read Korean on the subway system and the signs in general has been so helpful. I really recommend anyone visiting Korea to at least learn the alphabet before arriving – as a phonetic system, it’s super easy! Our mini trip to Tokyo over one weekend made me realize how helpful it was to just be able to read the Korean language, even if I wasn’t fluent in it.
Despite these unexpected difficulties and after braving the initial culture shock, there are so many more things about Korean culture and life in Seoul that I’ve come to appreciate, even if it was new and surprising at first. For one, the public transportation is extremely accessible and efficient, which is very different than the basically nonexistent public transportation systems in place in Austin. Another magical thing about this city is the café and coffee culture. Unlike in America, where there is a Starbucks on almost every block, in Seoul, you’ll see adorable, little quaint café’s everywhere you go. These cafes range from all different kinds: cereal cafes, animal cafes, book cafes, and more! They’re all so aesthetically pleasing and enough to make you feel at home in such a different and foreign place. Visiting and discovering different cafés has been one of the ways I’ve made myself feel at home in this bustling city because if there’s one thing Seoul and I have in common – it’s our love for coffee!
This post was contributed by Kiran Gokal, a 2018 Global Ambassador.
Want to learn more? Read about Jessica’s study abroad experience in Seoul>>