Wow. I can’t believe that I got to Seoul a week ago. It seems as if it happened so much longer ago, and yet it feels like yesterday. This past week has been such a roller-coaster of culture shock and first-hand learning about Korea and Yonsei University.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous about going somewhere than during my layover in Frankfurt. I had about 4 hours before I had to board the plane for Seoul. I used that time to talk to my family and friends who showed me incredible support that I needed so much at that moment. I was excited to get to Korea, but also afraid of how I might adjust to everything. After all, I’ve never been to Asia before and I knew almost nothing about Korea, not to mention that I don’t speak a word of Korean. I think what made me so nervous is that never before have I been to a country whose local language I didn’t speak even just a little bit or where I couldn’t rely on English to get around. And leaving Europe was weird. I spent the last 10 months in Europe, had a great time back home in Bosnia, and the most memorable semester at Uppsala University in Sweden. It felt like I was leaving behind all those great memories and yet I carried great expectations for Korea and my semester at Yonsei.
After a 10 hour flight we finally landed at Seoul Incheon airport. I was super tired, and had to go through immigration and claim my baggage. I have never been at a bigger airport (or maybe Incheon airport seemed so big because I arrived exhausted and had to drag my luggage from one part of the airport to the other) and it all seemed confusing, but I managed to get on the subway to Seoul. I have arranged with a Korean friend I met in Sweden, Taesung, to pick me up at Sincheon station in the area where Yonsei University is located. I got a chance to figure out the subway system here right away and after an hour of traveling I met Taesung. I don’t think I have ever been happier to hear someone call my name. I felt so relieved when I finally met him as that meant that I had come to the right place and I didn’t get lost. He helped me get a cab and took me to my dorm, International House. Walking down the hall I saw two Swedish names at one of the doors and I met the Swedish girls who live there immediately. It made me so happy since it kind of prolonged my ‘Swedish experience’ and that meant that I will have someone to practice my Swedish with! After I found my room and dropped off my luggage, Teasung took me out to the city so we walked around a lot, got fika (my favorite Swedish tradition) for the sake of the amazing semester in Uppsala, and tried to figure out how can I get a Korean phone (as my European phone doesn’t work with a Korean sim card). I can’t even start to explain how happy I was to have Taesung here the first day I got to Seoul. He helped me so much in a place that I found so confusing.
Over the past few days I have met a lot of exchange students as we all live in two dorms that are connected – SK Global and International House. Oh, and we had such an interesting orientation. Apart from the regular talk about culture, immigration, health, and academic matters, we had a “cheering orientation.” Yonsei is big on cheers! There are three big university rivals in Seoul – Yonsei University, Korea University, and Seoul National University. Yonsei’s biggest rival is Korea University so we spent about an hour learning the dance and cheers that would intimidate the students of Korea University. One of the cheering songs was about Yonsei beating and stomping Korea University. Even though it kind of sounds brutal, the cheers are amazing and you can feel the school spirit everywhere. The funny thing is that all the Koreans I met in Sweden attend Korea University so we are kind of rivals now.
During the orientation we saw a lot of performances, including K-Pop. It is unbelievable how everyone here is obsessed with K-Pop. We saw two school dance groups dance to some K-Pop songs, and of course the grand finale was a joint performance to Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”
Yonsei International Committee also organized the City Tours for the exchange students so we were able to visit places such as Gyeongbukgang Palace, Ewha Village, Tteok Museum, Ssamzigil, Namsangol, Hanok Village, Cheongwadae Sarangchae, Bukchon Hanok Village and much more. It was really great as we were able to learn more about Korean history, learn how to write our names in hangeul (Korean alphabet), and see the Blue House (basically a Korean version of the White House). I really enjoyed the tours as it was both bonding time with our new ‘home’ and with other exchange students.
I also met with Sheetal, another UofR student who is here for a year (she was at Yonsei last semester too). We went out for a dinner a couple of times and we went to a Cat Cafe. Yes, a cat cafe. Basically, there is a cafe with a whole lot of cats in it and everything is organized in a way that it serves the cats – they are free to go anywhere, sleep, play, eat; it’s almost a heaven for cats, really. It was interesting going there and I had great time. And hanging out with Sheetal is great as we have so much in common and we can always talk about Richmond related things. Also, since she was here last semester, she is such a great help with everything. I’m really happy she’s around.
There is another UR student here, Patrick. I still haven’t met him, but I hope to do so soon. And there are a whole lot of Virginians here: I remember meeting people from Norfolk and Alexandria, and a few other places around Virginia.
After a week in Korea I can say that I have eaten a whole lot rice (I don’t think I have ever had this much rice before haha), made new friends, but also experienced a lot of things that culture shocked me:
- Food is so spicy! Ok, I knew this was going to happen, but I really can’t eat spicy food, and it’s always a challenge to find something on the menu that isn’t too spicy.
- People here are obsessed with the technology. On the subway from the airport to the Sincheon station there was a group of Chinese tourists sitting opposite of me and they were all using their tablets, phones, cameras – there was no conversation going on. The same thing is true for Koreans. This really struck me as surprising!
- K-Pop everywhere – really! Everywhere you go you can hear K-Pop music blasting and K-Pop faces are everywhere advertising a whole lot of things (not that I know who they are, but other people who do, talk about it)
- A lot of people here smoke cigarettes. Smoking is allowed in public spaces and even in clubs. Very few places have designated smoking areas. There are some streets that are partially non-smoking and there are signs indicating that. But I really think this is so shocking especially after spending so much time in Europe since people don’t really smoke in public spaces (especially in Sweden, as the most of them use snus)
- I have to give Koreans credit for one thing – they are extremely fashionable. Everyone cares about how they look, and they all have the latest shoes and follow the latest fashion trends. It’s unbelievable; I thought that Swedes are fashionable, but this is a whole new level.
- Holding hands – everyone holds hands. It’s just a thing here. Even guy friends do so.
- American stores and chain restaurants are everywhere saluting to globalization. I don’t think I’ve seen this many Starbucks cafes even in the States (but Koreans do love coffee).
- Crazy drivers – be super careful when crossing the street as some drivers don’t care even if it’s a red light, especially taxi and scooter drivers. Keep your eyes open and triple-check when crossing smaller streets.
- Toilet paper. I think it will take quite some time to get used to this (in case I ever do), but since sewage system in Seoul is really old and toilets can clog easily in all places there are signs saying to throw the toilet paper in the bin, and not flush it. It is really a challenge not to flush it, though.
So far Korea’s been very interesting, and I’m really looking forward to see how will my first week of classes end up being.