It’s been a month since I’ve returned from Seoul. No longer an exchange student of Ewha, no more rice and kimchi with every meal, and, possibly the most sad thing, no more soju. Over the four months I was living in Korea, I met some of the best people I’ve ever met, hands down. I ate well, walked lots, and laughed plenty. I could go on for days about the times coming back from all-night clubbing affairs at seven and eight in the morning, the random lost-in-translation adventures I would end up in daily, or the “multi-rounded” nights out with friends. But no one wants to hear story upon story, they want the headline. “Describe your experience in one word,” I often hear. I reply with “lit” most of the time, and people laugh, but I’m very serious when I say it.
There’s a saying, 불금 (bulkeum), which literally means, “lit Friday” but translates basically to “TGIF”. My friends and I would end each week with our own saying:불주 , or, “lit week”. There was an absolute lack of chill in Korea. There was relaxation, yes—the time I climbed 북하산 or a long subway ride across the river with my headphones rank highest on my “Most Relaxing Moments in Korea” list—but I mean there is always something going on in Seoul. It would be five in the morning and my friends and I would be on our way home passing by restaurants, where we could hear the hiss of grills and laughter of people enjoying meals as if they don’t have a home to go to.
Looking back, some of my most meaningful experiences came during the interaction with people over food.
I know I’ve talked about food many times in my posts but there is a significance to it. While we have something that feels similar in the U.S., it’s nothing like the way it is in Korea. Would you go out to eat with someone you’ve never met—I mean a very personal, one-on-one dinner—sit there with someone you barely know, and make conversation for half an hour? Sounds cringe-worthy right? One of the many things Seoul taught me was to not fear the first meeting. Not that it’s something I’d suggest doing often, but I met a lot of strangers for meals and drinks.
Being nervous about first meetings is something you get over very quickly in Korea, for two reasons. First (I try to stay away from large, sweeping statements about people, but compared to our country), Korean people are more blunt than your average American. They will ask you about your personal life five minutes into meeting you:
“Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?”
“How many people are in your family?”
“How old are you?”
While we tend to steer clear or certain topics in America, during my experience I observed that Korean people tend to just go straight for it. This opens up that first meeting like a shooting gallery. You’re not going to end up with any awkward silences because for the most part, nothing is off limits. I’ve gotten questions and comments about my weight, hair, heritage, politics, religion, and so on, and they aren’t things to get offended by. Moreso, they are honest questions and comments rather than malicious. The second reason why first meetings don’t fall flat in Korea is because any good time out entails multiple “rounds”, or 차 (cha). I don’t mean like, go to dinner then a movie and be done, I’m talking three to five rounds, sometimes more. With a revolving door of scenery and additions of people likely, dull or awkward moments are few and far between.
Another significant part of my study abroad experience that I haven’t given much attention to in my posts is my exchange school, Ewha Womans University, the top woman’s university and one of the top schools in Korea. I ended up taking two graduate-level courses during my time at Ewha, and while they were my favorite classes and the most interesting, they were also the most challenging I’ve taken to date. From the school work—my favorite assignment to tell people about is my eight (8!!) thousand word midterm which we had two days to complete— to the various field trips we had with our professors, those classes made themselves an integral part of my experience. There are countless reasons to love living at Ewha but I would boil it down to two features: On one hand, Ewha and the surrounding area is quiet. Extremely quiet. Like, Arcadia-Glenside quiet. Crowds start dying down late in the afternoon into the evening and shops are usually closing up around 10pm. On the other hand, the areas surrounding Ewha are… extremely popular to say the least. Sinchon, Hongdae, Hapjeong, all very popular and sometimes overly-crowded areas, especially at night. And all of these areas are easily accessible; the green number 2 subway line connects all of these areas together and even without the subway, they are within walking distance of each other. What you get with Ewha is the comfort of a quiet home with the stone’s-throw-away options of trendy, much-louder neighborhoods.
I left Seoul more out of necessity than desire. Near the end of my time abroad, I was hospitalized right around the time that MERS was picking up steam in the country, so I changed my flight and flew to the U.S. a week earlier than planned. Even though I’m home now, what I learned and experienced still sticks with me. I have my late night cravings for fried squid and Melona ice cream, I’ve stopped myself a few times from bowing to an older person in Philly (surely would probably get me stared at), but the main thing I feel has clung to me the most is remembering to enjoy life and to laugh. In Korea, the people work extremely hard but they play just as hard, if not harder. They love to socialize, have fun, and laugh. Not just laughs, but I mean full, throaty laughter. They clap until they cry, way more than I’ve ever seen people laugh here. Maybe from now on, I’ll answers people’s questions about my time in Seoul with four words instead of one: good times, good laughs.