Going to study at Seoul National University for a year was one of the riskiest decisions I’ve ever made….
Before going, I knew a handful of things; North Korea constantly poses a threat, Gangnam Style is not my kind of song, Koreans supposedly eat a lot of dog meat, I wanted to travel around South East Asia, Seoul National University is an incredible university and Korea has really fast internet.-I’ll reflect on what I now think of these later.
I chose Korea out of all the options because I knew the least about it and to me it seemed like the most undiscovered year abroad choice. It stands to be my best life decision yet.
I arrived at the end of August and it was ridiculously hot. Straight away I knew communication would be tough, even if most signs had English translations, it was uncommon to find people who could clearly speak English without some struggle. I took the Airport bus (a luxury coach thankfully with air-conditioning) to the stop nearest the University(which is located just outside Seoul on Mt.Gwanaksan), as the dorms where I’d be living for the semester were right by campus. They were twin dorms so I’d have a roommate(who I was very nervous about meeting as I’d never shared a room before). Luckily for me, my roommate was awesome, an exchange student too and we got along almost instantly.
The public transport was excellent, although the University was just outside Seoul the local bus from the dorm takes you to the subway in 15mins. The bus was an experience. As a naturally clumsy person, the buses were my idea of a death trap, with the sudden braking and accelerating along the steep roads around the mountain meaning my feet left the ground often. I was also often seen clutching the poles with two hands(and failing to move with the direction of the bus to maintain balance). They would generally be rammed full of as many people possible at peak times before the bus driver would leave(thankfully there was never an issue of people smelling bad). The subway, really spacious, air-conditioned and had WiFi. It also had a jingle which would play every time the train was approaching. Both buses and subway are kept incredibly clean and comfortable.
Korean people are by far the nicest people I have ever met, every individual I encountered was incredibly kind, helpful, and always polite. I have never felt safer in a country in my life. Theft is something I never experienced, people would leave their laptops at tables in coffee shops to go to the toilet and it was completely normal. I never saw anyone take advantage of the system, whether it be for littering or not paying a bus fare. The staff in any convenience store were always polite and smiley, as were the bus drivers. In addition, they were so willing to share their culture, sharing traditional foods on national holidays or chatting about Korea’s history and traditions.
There was so much to do in Seoul that I can safely say I did not cover it all. Cafe culture is huge, whether it be 24hr cafes where people study all night long, or themed cafes such as Dog/Cat cafes where you can pet the animals until your heart’s content. The underground shopping at stations(comparable to Canary Wharf but a loooot cheaper) was also a highlight.
It took me some time to get used to, but by the end of the year I couldn’t get enough of it. Kimchi(pickled cabbage), which I grew to love, comes with every meal as a side dish and was my first important food hurdle. The portions are also huge and once I got used to that, I ate like a fat king for the rest of the year. Luckily I didn’t have this problem, but it is tough to be vegetarian, and impossible to be vegan as almost every dish has some kind of meat incorporated into it.
SNU Buddy was the thing I’m most grateful for, because without it, I couldn’t have dreamed of having the year I did. It’s a student-run buddy scheme which pretty much all exchange students apply for. Before I left I chose a personal buddy from the list of profiles online and then I was sorted into one of the ten groups. My group leader was constantly checking-in with me and was incredible at looking aft
er the whole group(of which the 50 of us-Group 9 woo!) throughout the semester. Through SNU buddy I met many people as there had lots of activities for both the whole of SNU Buddy and within the individual groups. Any problem, or question, or difficulty with the language barrier I had, a buddy would always be there to help. It was admirable, because all the buddies were full time students at the University themselves, and not only volunteered to do this, but went above and beyond throughout.
SNU itself is a stunning campus and it was amazing to see how it transformed throughout the clear seasons. The steep walks to campus although tiring were the highlight of each day. The shuttle service which was free and went all around campus and to the other local subway station was great when you’re in a rush or feeling lazy. The library was the most amazing library I’ve ever come across. It has a floor with a library cinema where you could rent films and watch them in your own personal recliner or with a small group using noise-cancelling headphones. As an 8 story building, always well-lit and with ceiling-high windows, the views of the mountain were incredible. It was almost impossible to get stressed about studying because of the atmosphere(even during exam time) and the easiest place to have a nap (which was very common), especially because it operates using a seat reservation system.
-Elderly people can always be seen sporting hiking gear in bright colours, especially taking the local bus to the mountain trail at 6am. They also have the right to push you out of the way when they see fit.
-Most(if not all) older ladies will have a permed bob haircut.
-You must form an orderly queue in front of subway doors and bus stops.
-People will pull out a mirror and apply a full face of make up, or straighten their hair with a portable straightener in the middle of a cafe.
-You will catch people brushing their teeth in all restrooms, especially after meal times.
-Couple culture is huge, you’ll often see couples in matching outfits from top to toe.
-People squat everywhere. In the street, on the phone, eating Ramen(noodles), everywhere.
In reflection of the handfull of things I mentioned knowing before I went; I found that day to day, North Korea is not that big of a threat (yes, the news exaggerates). There is waaaay better music out there than Gangnam style(and so much variety), dog meat is available to eat but not commonplace. Korea is an awesome base for travelling Asia. The internet is fast, but my iPhone 5 was too behind the times to access it 🙁 The university is more breathtaking than I imagined. I will add that I now probably know more about Korea than I do about England, and I definitely know how to read and write Korean better than my own mother tongue Tamil. It’s also incredibly cheap, with 1000 won equating to around 60p, and a decent(pretty filling) meal costing 11,000 Won (perfect for a student wanting to try everything the country has to offer).
All in all and without a doubt, it was by far the best year of my life. I had the privilege of meeting some of the loveliest people I’ve ever met and am lucky enough to have made an incredible bunch of friends. If I had it my way, I would not have come home so soon(or at all).