Studying Abroad as a WOC

There is this magical, warm fuzzy feeling when you decide to study abroad. The anticipation of drinking that coffee in Italy, eating that Instagram famous pastry in Japan, or walking along a beautiful beach in Australia. It doesn’t feel real until you’ve taken your first steps… or around the time you’re starting to feel like you don’t belong. That was my fear. The one that tore apart my romanticization of studying abroad in France in two months. I was terrified of trying to make a new country a temporary home where the people would judge the color of my skin and my Mexican culture would be very difficult to find reflected in the streets. I tried to push these fears under the rug but I knew what would make me feel better is asking another woman of color if she felt the same and what her experience is like. 

Danielle Salangsang is a 3rd-year Communication and East Asian Studies double major. She’s spending a year in South Korea and attending a prestigious university called Yonsei. She’s a Filipino-American submerged into a society of people who don’t resemble her. Scary, right? I knew I needed to hear some words of reassurance from someone as brave as Danielle. Luckily for me, I had the chance to ask her a few questions about her experience so far.

Did you see your identity reflected abroad? Did you ever get misidentified?

No, not that I think about it now. But yeah, I have been misidentified as Vietnamese by an elderly man before.


How difficult was it to connect with your identity in a place where you aren’t the majority?

Connecting to my Filipino identity was really hard to do in Korea. Looking back, I didn’t notice too many Filipino people in the dorms and if they were, they were speaking Tagalog and I was too intimidated to approach them because I can’t even speak my own language. But I was able to find a Filipino market that takes place every Sunday by a Catholic Church in the middle of Seoul. I took my roommate with me to go check it out and I instantly felt at home with familiar sights and smells of the food and baked goods. It wasn’t until then I realized I missed Filipino food and people more than I thought. Even though I just passed through for maybe 20 minutes, I felt so at home and it made me miss hearing Tagalog from time to time. Overall, I seek out little pockets of time to mentally go back home. However, there is a small amount of...shame? Inferiority? For me personally because being South East Asian in general kinda has vague connotations of migrant laborers or just poorer countries. That’s just me, but I might be projecting. Not to mention a growing minority in South Korea are “Kopinos” or Korean-Filipinos — a lot of them a result of sex tourism in the Philippines. Since the government won’t provide aid to those kids, they’re left to struggle with their single mothers. So that definitely adds a little to my aforementioned feelings of inferiority, a part of my Filipino identity I still struggle with.   

Did you ever feel out of place?

Oh yeah, I always feel out of place. Their blatant staring won’t let you forget you’re not one of them. 


Do you miss any dishes from home? Were there any dishes in Korea that were close?

Filipino food? Oh yeah, I missed that so much. There were so many times I craved Sisig or Kare-Kare and either had to wait until Sunday for the market or just cry and try to forget about it. But yeah, I’ve had some similar foods like 닭도리탕, a chicken and vegetate stew, that reminded me of Apritada.


Did you encounter any racism abroad?

Yes, I have, unfortunately. I’ve been refused service because my friends and I were foreigners. But other than that, everyone is either neutral or really nice to you because you’re a foreigner that “came to such a small country like Korea”.  


Did you have any fears before studying abroad?

I definitely had fears about studying abroad! You’re signing up to live in a whole country for an extended amount of time. There’s a lot to worry about! But my first and foremost fear was how I would be able to make my way around without knowing Korean fluently. I turned out fine — my survival skills kicked in — and I adjusted. I also worried about how affordable things were, knowing I was on a pretty tight budget. But I downloaded an app to track my spending and constantly kept calculating whether I was in budget or not. 

What advice would you give to a WOC who wants to go abroad?

Be confident! Love who you are and have an open heart. Also, be wary of flattery and please, please, please stay vigilant for your own safety. Scumbags exist worldwide. But most importantly, make the most out of your time there! Try new things, make friends, and go out to explore! Also, if you’re a shy person like me, be ready to embrace being constantly uncomfortable (at first, at least). But once you get accustomed to your surroundings, you’ll have a new place to call home!


Photos courtesy of Danielle Salangsang