To be completely honest, I often feel like telling people to mind their own business when they ask me why I chose Korea as my location to study abroad for a semester. Not because I’m an angry youth or anything like that, but because I don’t have one of those clear, thought-out answers people have. But the question and the responses I’ve gotten lodged the question deep in my head: Why am I going on the opposite-side of the world, sandwiched between North Korea and water, to a country where I don’t speak the language fluently, where I am 101 percent guaranteed to stick out like a very sore thumb?
It’s an interesting question, one I still ponder as I pack my bags to prepare for my lengthy flight. I really do wish there was a clean-cut answer like, “I’m part Korean!” or “I had a childhood friend from Korea!” but it’s not that simple.
My first experience with Korea came in the form of people—exchange students to be specific. Within the first few days of my arrival to Arcadia, while skipping out on Orientation activities (OLs forgive me), I was introduced to a group of international students who would become some of my best friends. Before meeting my friends of that group from Korea, I had minimal knowledge of the region. “Gangnam Style,” North Korea, some really good films coming out of the country, but that was about it.
As the semester progressed, my relationships with my friends from Korea grew stronger and stronger. We bonded through long nights in the library (where work would rarely get done), even longer nights talking and listening to music in our dorms, weekly trips to restaurants, and traveling together to Philly and New York City. From them taking me to the local H-Mart to feed me a plate of ddeokbokki or a bowl of bibimbap, and taking me on as a student of the language after my proclamation of “moving on from French,” which I’d studied for the previous five years in high and middle school, I became truly interested in the country and the culture my friends were introducing to me. By the middle of the semester, I was truly hooked.
So when the time came around to sign up for Preview, I already knew where I was going. I landed in South Korea ready for the real thing, and despite my best efforts to keep them low, with very high expectations. Much to my surprise, the experience exceeded all expectations. Destinations you might cringe at when they appear on your itinerary were the exact opposite of cringe-worthy. I was hanging out with professors and having a truly great time, eating food too good to describe. And I encountered friendly city people, which was refreshing for a small-town-guy like me. In Seoul, I didn’t feel like some foreigner in someone else’s country. I felt like a guest.
So maybe I’m wrong. The answer might be simpler than I’ve been making it out to be.
I chose to study abroad in Korea because of the positive experiences I’ve had in the country and with its people, and because I’m up for the challenge. I mean, it would be easy for me to just go to an English- or French-speaking country, but that doesn’t appeal to me too much. Seoul, however, is the below-the-radar location I could only dream of: a unique language, a completely different culture, on a peninsula of a different continent. Different enough that for me to even barely enjoy myself, I’ll have to be engaged in things. How I see it, I’m a sub-rural kid from New Jersey who grew up in woods and countryside as well as cities. I’ve spent the better part of 20 years exploring and adventuring, and I don’t see a reason to stop all of that now.