The scent of soju, yellowy dry winter days, kimchi flavour, 노레방 neon lights… South Korea hasn’t changed much since I first came here 2 years ago. Nothing has come to shock me, in the last 2 months I have effortless blended into the routines of an exchange student: compulsively planning the weekend ahead, keeping my liver busy and pretending life will never cease to be this way.
So with already enough ado, this is how things are around here.
Ticking Yonsei University as my first choice couldn’t have been a better option. Not only is one of the 3 most prestigious universities, but in my opinion, it’s also the best in terms of location and student life. Still, nothing to be proud of as most Koreans see employers’ obsession for prestigiousness as the biggest burden to get a fair go in the over-qualified job market. Many around here “feel sorry” for their
But in my 6-week experience as a Yonsei student I have learned to value many things about it: it’s minutes away from the bustling student nightlife of Sinchon, it has a great structured campus and facilities and its internationality makes it extremely accessible. That accessibility can sometimes kill the exciting prospects of a completely new environment.
I chose to stay at one of the international dormitories like most fellow exchange students. All of my classes (2 subjects taught in English and my intensive Korean course) are in the adjacent buildings. The chances of mingling with locals are scarce. In fact, several ‘senior’ exchange students chose to move to a 하숙집 (Hasukjib – boarding houses) to precisely avoid that.
Most students come to Korea with little or no knowledge of the language so the communication barriers are even bigger. There are several clubs and initiatives to help tackle this, but the overall feeling among many is that foreigners don’t wanna mix with Koreans and viceversa. This is probably the only thing I would change about my time here.
Not being new to Korea and the magnetism of new friends and a lively nightlife have allayed my desires for travelling a bit. Aside from a couple of days hiking, a visit to Ganghwa and a few museums, I haven’t really done much sightseeing. Hopefully there will be opportunities for a few getaways in the coming weeks: Jeju-do, Jeonju, Incheon, Yeosu, Suwon…
I’m also impatiently awaiting more friendly temperatures, blue skies and the blooming whites of cherry trees — a famous sight common across most Northeast Asia.
Since I was already familiar with many Korean dishes: charcoal BBQ, ‘army’ stew (부대찌개), Bibimbab (비빔밥), Bulgogi (불고기)… the restaurants had little surprises left with the exception of Bosintang 보신탕 (dog meat soup) — which I hardly advice against. I like the spiciness of most dishes, the austerity of the eateries, the cook-it-yourself, the harmoniously flavoured side dishes and the affordable prices. I can’t say the same about the lack of vegetables or fruit, at prohibitive prices in any supermarket, or the yearning for bread, cheese and wine.
Perhaps the most difficult part was assimilating a society governed by rules of conduct. The student dormitory has the sole purpose of providing beds to students, the housing regulations and the building are designed to prevent residents from gathering. Koreans externalise their living spaces: game consoles , watching a DVD, getting coffee with a cat on your lap… even cooking at home doesn’t seem to tickle their fancy judging by the numbers of instant-ramen-loaded shopping trolleys. I get a feeling that Koreans, at least students, are either deprived of private space or prefer to live out and about every hour. I doubt I could keep living like this more than a few months.
Still, wouldn’t change anything about Korea. The first 2 months here have been some of the best in my life. No day goes without a new fascinating fact, a new friend and a story to treasure. I will try to publish some more reflections soon, stay tuned!