It begins with an eleven hour flight, leaving at 20:50 on Thursday night and landing at 15:50 KST on Friday. It is warm, I am tired, and the continent is brand new to me. Travelling alone is a novel experience, an intimidating one when you have never done it before, but invigorating and challenging in a positive way.
Seeing the mountains as I made my way from Incheon airport to Dongguk University solidified the journey I had just made in a way nothing else ever could.
They drive a little differently. It feels a little manic, and the traffic into Seoul was horrendous, though I hear it is like that all the time. I wasn’t mad about it, though. Being stuck in traffic and getting to see Seoul and Korea out of the window, a country and city I have wanted to visit for so many years, that made the traffic a blessing.
Attempting to navigate campus when you’re tired, don’t know the language, and it’s late in the day, that was interesting. A fellow student who spoke English took pity on me and helped me navigate the extremely hilly campus. If you think England is hilly, Korea is an entirely new experience, and it makes you glad for elevators.
My First Weekend
The first thing I did when I got up on Saturday was go shopping. Myeongdong is the closest shopping district to Dongguk, so off I went, ready to spend some won.
I already knew Korean skincare was prevalent, but there must have been hundreds of skincare and cosmetics shops, lining the streets with the occasional café or K-Pop store in between. It was almost overwhelming.
As an enormous BTS fan, the amount of BTS and BT21 there was made me happier than I can even explain. Being an international fan can be a little difficult, so actually going to the Line Friends Store, going in and purchasing VT Cosmetics, hearing their songs being played in the streets, as a fan, those are experiences that are so new to me, and I envy the fans that can experience that on a regular basis.
My roommate arrived on Sunday, and so, along with her and another friend, we went to a café and then Myeondong again. Over those two weeks, I spent a lot of time in Myeongdong, and I still didn’t see all of it. That’s just how big the shopping districts are in Korea.
And let’s not forget about underground malls! These are a brand new concept for me, and I think most people really. Going underground and seeing just as many, if not more shops than above ground, it’s almost surreal.
I’ve lost a lot of weight. Most people, when I said I was going to Korea, were excited for the food, they told me to enjoy all these different meals and different flavours, and I did, honestly, want to try everything.
But I am an infamously fussy eater, and I struggled to adjust to the cuisine. All these new flavours are so foreign to me, and I don’t think I ate a full meal until the Tuesday, and even then, I probably should have and could have eaten more.
There was never any part of me that thought I would miss the bland food of the UK, but boy, did I. I’m not great with spice either, and even things that were a little spicy to the Koreans were entirely too spicy for me.
The food that I did eat, however, was amazing; bulgogi, their famous fried chicken, street food fried shrimp, those were delicious. I think, given I had some more time to adjust, I would learn to love the food. Maybe. It’s such a famous part of their culture, and I just didn’t love it. It has never been more difficult being a fussy eater, and being frustrated with yourself because of that made mealtimes very difficult.
And the food is so healthy, it is nearly impossible to eat poorly. I didn’t lose weight just because I wasn’t eating well, I lost weight because the food is good for you, because they eat loads of vegetables, and salt is a difficult thing to find. Even their McDonald’s fries had barely any salt on them.
So, Korean food; completely foreign to me, and difficult to adjust to. I know plenty of people who loved it, I just needed some more time before I could eat a whole lot.
In, what I believe, is a rather unprecedented move, I took both Korean Language and Culture Basic, and Korean Language and Culture Low to Intermediate. After taking them both, I believe you’re supposed to take just one, or take one each session, but I did not do that. It meant I was doing a lot of Korean, around seven hours a day, not including when I went back to my room to study some more as well. My Korean has improved so much, so it was incredibly beneficial.
The Basics class was really good for solidifying what I already knew, and the Low to Intermediate class taught me a lot more. It was more challenging, but just what I needed to become more proficient in the language. I’ve still got a ways to go, but I’ve come so far, and that’s thanks to the amazing teachers they have on the programme.
The tests weren’t too difficult, it was an interview style, one on one. The teacher asks a question, and you answer. I think it might be difficult to fail any of the summer school programmes, unless you’re absent of course. The courses are meant to be fun and engaging, not difficult, so as long as you’re trying, you should be fine.
The last lessons were sad. You get so attached to the teachers and your friends, even when you’re only there for two weeks. In both classes, after we had all done our test, we made origami hanboks, and they are the cutest. And then we wore hanboks in the second class, which was an incredible experience. Walking around campus wearing them was certainly unique, but I am so glad I got the opportunity to wear one, especially with our teacher taking selfies and pictures of us all in front of the temple on campus.
Our first excursion was to the stream. It was supposed to be a trip to a night market as well, but night markets only happen on Fridays and Saturdays, and we went on a Wednesday, so I’m not sure why they planned it that way. That aside, going for food with the Korean summer buddies and then going along the stream at night was an unforgettable experience.
I got the chance to toss a coin into the river, and when it landed in the middle of the wishing well, it meant that your wish would come true. I got a lot of cheers and claps when I managed it, and that was very special to me.
The best part of the night was going drinking with all the Korean buddies afterwards. Learning drinking games, chatting with them all, really experiencing the nighttime culture, that is something I will always remember and be glad for. That was a very special evening that I will cherish forever.
Having always lived in the same country and the same city for almost my entire life, I’ve never really had friends from other countries. University has certainly changed that, but getting to study abroad and being able to make friends from all over the world was something I was really excited about.
I now have friends from America, Singapore, Taiwan, Italy, Hungary, Korea, all over China too, and that’s so amazing to me. Getting to talk about our different cultures, getting to hear all these stories from people who live in different countries, that’s always something I’ve loved and found so fascinating, and I’m so glad I got to meet everyone.
Although we’re all connected via Instagram and Snapchat, I know it’ll be difficult to see most of them again. I’ll always have those connections though, and that’s really something I’m going to cherish.
I honestly believe the temple stay was one of the most important experiences I had whilst in Korea. To learn about Buddhism and this large part of their culture so extensively and by doing something as focused as staying in the temple, that isn’t an experience many people will get.
It was so interesting and informative, I learnt so much more about Buddhism than I could have learnt anywhere else. This very peaceful way of life is so different from anything else, and it’s a way of life that I think most people would struggle with. The monks were so serene, and they were so lovely and inviting as well.
The 108 bows, also known as prostration, were painful. They were rewarding in their own way, but my body ached afterwards. Who knew mediation could be painful? I didn’t think it would be, but with the knee problems I have, I could sit crossed-legged for about five minutes before I had to move. It meant I didn’t feel as at peace as everyone else did, but it meant I appreciated the monk lifestyle and their dedication even more than before.
As someone who has always struggled to finish their plate, being told that I absolutely cannot leave even a grain of rice, because the monks respect their food so much, was a little daunting. I didn’t take a whole lot of food, but I still had to let a friend finish my rice because I just couldn’t eat it all. The food was good, all vegetables and rice, but I did not want to leave anything and be disrespectful.
Waking up at 4AM was a special experience. I’m pretty sure we all slept solidly, so it wasn’t horrendous, but nobody should be up before the sun rises in Korea. Or that’s how I feel at least.
With the morning came more bows, a relatively intricate tea ceremony, and then cleaning. It was all an amazing experience and something I won’t be able to forget.
Seeing BTS everywhere was a dream come true, and meeting other fans was wonderful. I met some fans from China, and we went along to one of the restaurants that BTS ate at when they were trainees, and then we went along to the old BigHit company building. Seeing ARMY having given all these pictures and posters to the restaurant, and then all their messages to BTS written all over the walls, it really proves how dedicated the fandom is.
The humidity is a lot to deal with. The heat as well, as a Brit born and raised in England, that was an enormous adjustment. I am so glad all the buildings and my room had AC.
As an early bird, it was a little difficult to adjust to the fact everyone just gets up later and shops open later too. People go to bed late, Korean culture is very much one of staying out until the small hours of the morning, and that definitely took some adjustment. I think I’ll always be someone who likes to get up early, but it just means my mornings are meant for exploring, not socialising or shopping, which is fine because there is so much to explore.
The time difference back to the UK, whilst not the sixteen hours some of the Americans had to deal with, was still quite a lot. Talking to my parents and friends back home was difficult. I was so busy all the time that it didn’t always affect me, but I could only call my mum on weekends, which was a big adjustment considering I talk to her almost every single day.
Going to a dog café was awesome. Back in my hometown, we have a single cat café that you have to book in advanced because it’s so popular. It is such a different story in Korea; they have dozens of dog and cat cafés, as well as ones with meerkats and wallabies, and they’re cheap and you don’t have to book in advanced either. Getting to go along to one and being bombarded with dogs was amazing. I couldn’t tell if you it was the most sanitary practice in the world, but I adored it and would highly recommend it to everyone if that’s your kind of thing.
Unfortunately, it rained the day we went to Lotte World. It meant there wasn’t much to do outside, and we also didn’t have much chance to explore inside either as we went after class. It was a big shame because Lotte World is such a grand experience, and it was a bit underwhelming, I found. I also don’t love rides, but the atmosphere could have been better, and I think going during the day and when it isn’t raining might have made it a bit better as an experience.
Seoul Tower was beautiful. We went up after class and getting to see the entire city as the sun set was stunning. Seeing all the buildings at night from the top of Namsan was truly something unforgettable and, whilst I didn’t go to the top of tower, I still got an exquisite view.
What Did I Learn
First and foremost, if I had more money, more bag space, more time, and less sense, I would have bought a lot more. There were so many shops I didn’t go into because I knew I would have bought too much, and going back there with more time and more money is a high priority of mine. I love spending money, and there is a lot to spend money on in Korea.
On a more serious note, I learnt that I like to explore in a more leisurely manner. A lot of people tried to knock everything out in the evenings because they wanted to explore everything and because they didn’t have much time in the country, because they didn’t think they would get the opportunity to go back. I just can’t do that. I know I’ll be back in Korea one day, and maybe that affected my desire to explore slowly, but I believe, even if I didn’t think I’d be going back, I wouldn’t want to rush things. I like to take my time, explore and do things slowly, and so I know I’ll be back because there was so much I didn’t get a chance to see.
Although I knew this before I went, it solidified the fact I am an independent person. Being in a country as safe as Korea, it is the perfect place to be independent, particularly as a solo female traveller. Whilst it is a country that is built on socialising, it is so very easy and so very pleasant to go around alone and experience the culture with just your own thoughts.
Also, having a roommate is draining in its own way. Even if the person is wonderful, always being switched on is draining, particularly for someone who is independent and introverted. It’s another reason I had to go around alone sometimes, to recuperate and let my batteries recharge. Nights in can be a necessity, but those can be difficult with a roommate. It brought on new challenges, but I think it aided my trip in its own way too.
I also learnt that I love bland food. I suppose I knew that beforehand, but this trip solidified it.
And, so that’s that. With more time to reflect, maybe I’ll have learnt even more about myself. With more time in the country, maybe I would have come back a very different person. I know that I am more confident, even more independent, and better at trying new things. I think I took this trip at just the right time in my life, and so I cannot wait to see what my year abroad will bring.