After spending a term in South Korea, I have noted down some thoughts about my experience.
Practical Matters – Living in Korea
Although many places have English menus where you can change the language when using the electronic ordering system, there are restaurants with menus solely in Korean and without pictorial aid.
This is the time to turn to your trusted companion Papago (Korean translation app) for help. Although not a necessity, it is incredibly helpful to learn the Korean alphabet, Hangul, so that you can read menus and other street signs. Personally, it helped me feel less lost being surrounded by foreign characters. There are many Korean-style English words such as 택시(taek-si) ↔ taxi which can be understood with knowledge of the alphabets.
As an exchange student, one can definitely survive without knowing how to speak Korean. The main difficulty is having deeper and meaningful interactions when limited by the language barrier. Surface-level conversations such as “Do you need a bag” is easily answered with body language but you may not be able to ask further questions or make small talk with the store owner selling your favourite snack. One can arm oneself with a few Korean phrases if you wish to earn some brownie points when conversing with a friendly Ahjumma/Ahjussi (auntie/uncle).
The international students who stay longer periods for graduate studies would learn the language. It helps with better integration into the society and building greater rapport with the Korean students as some expressions cannot be translated effectively into English.
After rounds of planning prior to embarking for a term abroad, I finally sit in my overseas accommodation, with a bundle of nerves and much excitement.
On the initial days, give yourself some time to settle into the new environment; new people, new culture and language. Following that, it is good to keep an open mind and try new things. Nevertheless, you do not have to feel pressured that you are missing out when you have different goals from others. It is most important to enjoy the journey while being intentional on your choices and give uncertainty a chance when you wish to.
There may be times where you feel detached from others in the foreign environment, as the differences overshadow the similarities. A shift of perspective to see it as an avenue of learning can help ease the uneasiness.
As it was a short-term opportunity to experience living in a foreign country, I was eager to maximise my stay. Through my interactions with others, I realised that there is no ‘right’ way to it. Everyone has their own goals as an exchange student which can range from academic pursuits to travel desires. Some spend their weekends exploring other cities while others spend their days working in the laboratory. Ultimately, everyone can derive fulfillment from various pursuits.
As soon as the once unfamiliar surroundings become less foreign, it was time to return home. With a unique blend of heritage and urban sites, I was able to enjoy the best of both worlds in South Korea. I encourage those hesitant to take the leap and make the most of it.
I shared about my experiences in the posts below:
③ Reflection on Exchange Experience in South Korea (this)