Esther's Summer Abroad in Seoul

With the beginning of each semester comes reunions and the question: “What did you do this summer?” As a junior, most people who ask me about my summer expect me to talk about an eventful summer internship, but this summer, I studied abroad.

I had the wonderful opportunity to study abroad in Seoul, South Korea. Although I spent a substantial amount of my time in the classrooms of Yonsei University, I found the time to weave through the streets of Seoul to experience everything my city of birth had to offer. South Korea went through a relatively recent economic transformation, leaving it a mélange of the shiny new and the less pristine remnants. These elements have made Seoul an especially interesting place to travel.

My friends from the program and I afforded ourselves some tourist activities like experiencing Seoul’s nightlife, getting our fortunes told, and eating the deliciously unhealthy street food. South Korea is also known to tourists for having cafes in which customers can enjoy pricy drinks while playing with cats and dogs. Perhaps the most recognized name from our portfolio of adventures is Gangnam. We spent much of our leisure time exploring the district that gained international prominence through Psy’s popular song.

I did, however, also make the effort to get to know the more traditional side of the country. My Korean relatives showed me the Korea of their days through sharing our family traditions (my favorite tradition being the food!). They also took me to authentic Korean restaurants that had existed when my parents were my age. As my mother explored the city with me, she confided in me the painful nostalgia she carried for the country she once knew. Seoul, and the rest of South Korea, had continued to move forward as my parents remained unchanged in the States. To an extent, she felt like a foreigner in her native country.

This conversation brought up an identity reevaluation within me. I realized that my identity existed in a cultural limbo. At best, my identity is a mildly uncomfortable in-between: too American for Koreans, but too Korean for Americans. This diaspora discomfort was prevalent in my interactions in Seoul, as even the way I dressed and held myself betrayed my foreignness. Although my identity crisis may seem like it gave my experience in South Korea a certain bitterness, it was actually what made my summer abroad so rich and memorable.

Living in a different culture gave me the courage to try things I never would have tried in my comfort zone back in America. It gave me the excuse and the push to be independent and to explore myself. I tried food that I never would have even let make way onto my plate. I stayed up until 6 am to watch the sunrise color in Seoul’s skyline. I even made friends with locals who laughed at my American accent, but helped me become more fluent. Most of all, studying abroad in my country of origin taught me to find tranquility in the marriage of my two identities.

Making the decision to study abroad is a difficult one, but the lessons and experiences that you can gain are unique and numerous. I know Seoul will remain one of my fondest college memories. After getting a quick taste of living abroad, I can’t wait to spend the upcoming semester abroad again, but this time in Paris!