South Korea, the one place on this Earth I’d dreamed of visiting since I was fifteen.
South Korea, the second place on this Earth to have travel restrictions raised on it as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
As one can guess, as more confirmed cases of the virus appeared in South Korea, the Seoul ISA staff received the message in February that all South Korea programs were being canceled.
Not even five days after arriving, we were told we had to leave. In short, “Welcome to Korea, enjoy the few short days you have here, and then please go back home”. While this is not how I or anyone else imagined my experience to be like, it was the reality.
At first, I was frustrated, mad, upset, and stressed. Initially, all I could think about was the chaos surrounding the situation, both in South Korea and worldwide. However, after figuring out flights and securing a plane ticket home, I knew I had to make the best of what little time I had left. I couldn’t let the cancellation ruin my time in abroad. After all, my dream had been to visit South Korea, and I never specified how long that visit would be (apparently, I should have).
As a preface, this is not my first time abroad or even studying abroad. It is however, my first attempt at being in one place for an entire semester. In a way, because I had studied abroad before, I think I might have approached having to leave in a different light than some of my peers. I saw the cancellation as an opportunity to learn, both personally and academically, about South Korea in the remaining time that I had left.
My previous time abroad I was taught that every moment you are in a foreign country you can be learning, even if you don’t fully realize it right away. Everything you see, be it food, products, advertisements, or buildings, can teach you something about the community you are in. How people interact with close friends, strangers, foreigners, etc. gives you knowledge you can’t learn from a textbook.
Most of my activities before I had to leave were about seeing iconic touristy sites and getting an idea of what Seoul is really like. My first three days in the city were before the cancellation notice and I used that time to walk around Anam (the area where Korea University it located) and get familiar with the area. I also did normal things like go to the home store, buy a SIM card, and shop for food. While these things weren’t super fun to do all the time, they did help me figure out how to communicate with people and get a sense of how life works in a culture and community which is different from the one I had left back in the U.S. (For an idea of comparison, I live in the suburbs and have to drive everywhere, whereas Anam is in the heart of a city.)
Even “touristy” activities helped me learn about life in South Korea. I spent a day at Lotte World (Korea’s equivalent to Disney), went to the top of both Lotte and Namsan Tower’s, visited the Trick Eye Museum & Ice Museum, walked the streets of Gangnam, Insadong, and Myeondong, and spent a lot of time navigating Seoul’s impressive and efficient subway system. These iconic spots showed me that people, regardless of their age and were they are from can all have fun at theme parks and occasionally scream on roller coasters.
I also learned that “couple style”, where couples (normally younger people) wear matching outfits or have aspects of their outfit that match when they go someplace like a theme park or observation deck, is big in South Korea (and super cute!). I learned that public transportation etiquette is huge (no eating/drinking, talking loudly, or seat hogging). I learned that respect for anyone older than you, especially grandparent-age people is of high-priority too. I may have had ideas about some of these things before coming from trip planning and country research, but actually seeing how things are done gave me a greater understanding of how Korean culture and society work in everyday life.
From an academic standpoint, having this semester canceled made me re-evaluate what I want out of my college education. I could graduate on-time if I took a few summer classes and didn’t go abroad again. Or, I could graduate a semester late and experience Seoul again. I know this option isn’t feasible for everyone. Yet, for me, what I have learned abroad and can learn abroad provides more outlets for personal, academic, and professional growth than simply staying at home can offer.
I never got to set foot in an actual Korea University classroom, but I did get to call the campus “home” for a short while.
Sure, I wasn’t learning conventionally– visiting tourist places, eating lots of street food, interacting with locals, and navigating the subway doesn’t qualify as academia. However, I was learning in a way which allowed me to connect more with how life truly is in Seoul and with the people who live there. The total time I spent in South Korea was short: roughly 8 days from landing to takeoff. I may not have seen everything I wanted to or photographed as much as I wanted to (even though my SD cards say otherwise). Regardless, I LOVED my time in Seoul. If anything, having to leave so soon only makes me want to come back for a semester again even more.
Thank you, Seoul, for not disappointing and for remaining my top place to visit and learn from, I can’t wait to come back!