Since returning from Korea, I’ve been asked “Oh, how was Korea?” quite a lot. Answering this seemingly innocuous question has given me more trouble than I could have possibly anticipated, not because I didn’t enjoy my time there – in short, Korea was wonderful – but rather because I’m not really sure where to begin. To condense the experience into whatever brief description I can offer within a normal conversation seems to be doing the trip a disservice. So instead I often just talk about how much I miss it or how incredibly, mind-blowingly delicious and cheap the food is.
As tasty as kimchi and bibimbap are, though, what I really enjoyed about the experience – what I wish I could more easily, succinctly, and accurately express in casual conversation – was the incredible breadth and depth of learning both in and out of the class room. The summer was a whirlwind of information, not just of new words, people, places, and tastes but also of unfamiliar and exciting concepts, stories, perspectives, and feelings. We learned about the immense social change undergone by Korean society, about the turbulent history of the nation’s political arena, about how artists express their frustrations through exploration of film. But we also learned how to sing kpop, how to order the combo from your favorite street vendor, what the local fashions are, and what people truly care about in their daily lives. The program, particularly because of our interactions with the Korean students, often felt like total cultural and academic immersion, and it was all the more transformative for it.
Between our language partners and teaching assistants, the classes and the field trips, we were given the cultural context and linguistic competence to interface with the surrounding society in an engaging, meaningful way. There are myriad benefits of this. I now understand firsthand some of the challenges and dilemmas faced by Korean society. More concretely, I’m way better at Korean, and I have a solid understanding of Korean film history. But most importantly, I feel like I’ve found a home in the friends I made and the city I lived in. I feel that I’ve gotten to know Seoul and it’s gotten to know me.
I may not know where to begin when someone asks me about how my summer was, but I know for certain that this summer has changed me for the better. I would like to sincerely thank the Korea Institute and all its staff for affording me the unbelievable opportunity to study in Korea this summer. For me, you have made all the difference.