Forthcoming / Hey Seoul Sister / Travel

Hey Seoul Sister, studying abroad isn’t what you think

If Instagram is to be believed, my time in Korea has been full of friends, cafes, flowers, buying cute things and photobooth photos. In the American context, studying abroad is a romanticized ideal. You learn the language, make local friends, adopt some niche quirks in your personality you’ll get to attribute to said study abroad for the rest of your life.

And in some sense, that is what happened to me. But behind every photo, there’s also a mundane life where lots of little things are difficult.

The non aesthetic part of studying abroad is ugly crying in the metro station because you cannot carry a couch any further and couldn’t hail a cab while random people give you bombastic side-eye. (Unfortunately, a true story. But the couch did get home, and it was GREAT. 10/10 would purchase again). It is fighting someone at the bank to do their job at the bank in your somewhat sketchy Korean for thirty minutes before they call a translator they’ve had on standby the whole time. It is being told that a cafe is out of ube pancakes and seeing the nice Korean family who walked in after you order them with no problem. 

The parts of living abroad that you see on Instagram are the touristy parts like getting viral 15-step hair treatments, visiting the palaces, and traveling around the country. But most of life happens between those moments.

The ugly truth about studying abroad

There’s a lot that is hard about living abroad at any stage of life, but studying abroad comes with a pressure to be living your best life. This is kind of similar to what I experienced at Yale…but with the added complication that everything was in Korean…and everyone thought I was Korean. 

There’s also a sense in which you can’t really complain. You chose to go. Other people have it harder, and what right do you have to be upset? 

But at the same time, it really, genuinely, is hard. There isn’t much support, and at the same time, people expect there to be. When I voiced concerns or raised problems that I was having, I was often asked why I didn’t just “ask my school to help” or use the resources provided to me. Despite the fact that Yale sends Light Fellows to Korea every summer and every semester, there’s shockingly little institutional knowledge about how to navigate the immigration process, find housing, or live life in Korea. And Sogang University isn’t great on this front either.

Even if you try to ask official sources like the immigration helpline for foreigners, you might not get through to a real person. And even if you do, the information you get often depends on the mood of the person you happen to be connected to that day. It might not be accurate.

Making Seoul home

Seoul is not for the weak of heart. But eventually, Korea did feel like home to me. I made friends, I faked my way through ordering food until I could actually do it, and by the time my friends and family visited me, I was pretty comfortable navigating the various quirks of everyday life. 

I’m working on compiling a survival guide to study abroad in Korea (especially on Light), but until then what questions do you have about living in Korea? Feel free to drop me a line or comment below, and I’ll try to address as many as I can. 

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