Being an American in Seoul, South Korea

Nikki Hallstrom is a student at Bethel University and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Seoul, South Korea.

Before you read the title of this post and head towards the back arrow, let me add just a little disclaimer. As a twenty year old from rural Minnesota, I have never had any interest in politics or foreign relations especially when it came to my personal study abroad experience. What had really interested me was the language and the cultures of places so different than my own hometown, and that is largely why I chose to study abroad. I wanted to experience something new! So fast-forward 5 months, and you can imagine how surprised I am to be living in the capital city of South Korea and growing more and more interested in the political relationship between the United States and other countries.

One piece of advice before studying abroad: Know beforehand that you are going to be an ambassador for the United States. People will watch you to see how Americans are, and many of the topics that Americans usually shy away from are not off limits as a topic of conversation. One of the classes that I am taking at Konkuk University in Seoul is called “Foreign Policy and Korean Diplomacy” and surprisingly enough, there are six different countries represented. My professor has been teaching us about South Korea’s history, and in his lectures, he asks the foreign students their opinions about their country’s relationship with other countries. I have found myself responsible for explaining hefty subjects because I am sometimes the sole American in the room. And it’s not just during class time. Both international students and Korean students have approached me with questions about communism or the American presidential race in hopes of understanding what an American believes. Though I don’t know as much as other people do, I am learning so much about my country and this new one that I am exploring. My worldview is being stretched because I have had some great conversations with some great people, and I am really looking forward to learning even more in the future.

I’ve also quickly found that Americans are held very highly in South Korea, largely because of their role in the Korean War and also because in a homogeneous country like South Korea, foreigners are rare and they stick out. My classes at the university talk about the United States as both a superpower and a leading country. A couple of days ago when looking for a national monument in a neighboring district of Seoul, a couple friends and I had to stop and ask for directions (it actually happens more than you’d think). The college student (thankfully) spoke English and helped us as best she could before handing us off to an older man who spoke no English but knew where to go. As we followed this man, we discovered through hand motions that he was a Korean War veteran who was shot three times in the knee, and he had one granddaughter. But by far our favorite thing he said to us was “America and Korea” with a thumbs up sign illustrating the good relations between our countries. And that’s so often all it is! We didn’t need a common language to communicate at all. I know that I will never forget the way that Koreans’ faces light up whenever they find out I am from America. So double thumbs up to you, Korea. We like you, too.

No need for fireworks and hot dogs on Korean Independence Day!
No need for fireworks and hot dogs on Korean Independence Day!

The world awaits…discover it.

2 thoughts

  1. Such a fascinating article! Love learning new things — especially when the teacher is my beloved niece!

  2. I’m so happy you’re getting this chance to experience living in a different culture. There’s such a great value in traveling to another country and seeing the world from a different perspective. The USA viewpoint is not the only one out there or necessarily always the best one. Our world certainly has become smaller with countries being connected more than ever. You’re probably about halfway through your time in South Korea already. You’ll be home soon. I hear there will be an opening for the USA ambassador to South Korea in 2035. I think I know somone who may qualify

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