Life lessons from abroad

By Anna W.

Aug. 29, 2017

The past six weeks that I have spent studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea, have been full of new friends, unique experiences and introspective realizations about my own cultural biases, as well as the role that myself and my peers play in a much greater global context. While my overall experience has been characterized by fun, learning and positivity, there have been both highs and lows along the journey. The obstacles and challenges that I have faced over the past six weeks have helped me to expand both my critical thinking skills and my compassion for others.

To conclude my trip, I have compiled a brief list of life lessons that I have learned throughout my adventures abroad. While this is by no means an exhaustive list of the things that I have learned during my time in South Korea, I believe that it highlights some of the most essential insights that have defined my experience abroad.

Being a foreigner in an unfamiliar country is anything but easy. Coming to Korea, I certainly expected that at times I would struggle with the inevitable culture shock and language barrier. What I did not expect was the intensity of the emotions that would accompany many of these experiences and the way that it would cause me to reflect on the way we often treat foreigners and non-English speakers in the United States. At one point in my journey, I found myself standing on the side of a busy road with two giant suitcases, crying tears of desperation because four different taxi drivers had declined to take me to the English address of my Airbnb that I had (unsuccessfully) attempted to translate into Korean. Laden with sweat and embarrassment, I imagined what this experience would be life for a foreign, non-English speaking visitor or immigrant in the United States. If they flagged down a taxi and showed the driver a screenshot of a random address in their native language, would they be shown the same compassion that I was shown by the man who eventually stopped and spent 20 minutes helping me successfully translate my destination to Korean? Or would they be laughed at and ridiculed for their unrealistic expectations and lack of English proficiency? As much as I would like to believe that the former case would occur, I am highly skeptical. In the United States, there seems to be a prevailing attitude of indignation by many individuals.

“Normal” is the furthest thing from objective. After spending six weeks abroad, I have come to recognize the extremely subjective nature of what individuals in different regions of the world may perceive as “normal.” In a sense, I have come to believe that this term is meaningless in a global context, as it serves only to reinforce the cultural biases that guide our perception of the world around us. Obviously, the culture in Korea is extremely different from the culture in the United States. This extends to the food, lifestyle, social customs and essentially every other element of daily life. When I first came to Korea, I would often label what I witnessed around me as being “weird” or “strange.” However, I soon realized that this type of internal dialogue was serving to perpetuate my western biases rather than allowing me to see through these cultural blinders and appreciate the cultural differences at face value. I remembered something that one of my elementary school teachers used to say, that “nothing is ‘weird,’ only ‘different.'” I soon began to restructure my thought process when I witnessed something that was different from what I was used to. I stopped using phrases such as “that’s so weird” and began to remind myself that it was simply different, and that many elements of my own lifestyle in the United States would probably also be perceived as different by most Koreans. Although it has been challenging to overcome my tendency to make automatic judgments and comparisons based on what I am used to seeing and experiencing in the United States, making an effort to do so has truly enriched my experience abroad.

Don’t be afraid to do something that scares you. A few weeks ago, I got an email from one of the program coordinators at Korea University, asking me if I would be willing to participate in a YouTube video that their staff was creating on the topic of “Korean dining culture.” Intrigued by this opportunity, I enthusiastically agreed. A few days later, during the filming of my pre-interview, I was informed in more detail about what participation in this video would entail. Me and a few other students would be going to a nearby restaurant, where our reactions would be filmed as we tried “eccentric” Korean food. After further conversation, I learned that this “eccentric” Korean food would be octopus… live, raw octopus squirming around on a platter. While I don’t consider myself to be a picky eater, I admittedly was terrified. What if it made me sick? Was this even safe? What about the bacteria in live seafood? Would the tentacles stick to my throat and choke me to death? With all of these questions running through my mind, I began to consider backing out of the offer. I envisioned this experience being unpleasant at best, and traumatic at worst. However, I ultimately decided to take the opportunity to try something new, knowing that even if it was gross or scary I would at least have a funny story to tell my friends and family when I returned home. In the end, participating in the filming of this video turned out to be one of the most fun experiences I had during my time abroad. From bonding with the other students over how nervous we were, to laughing with the restaurant staff who were so excited about the whole ordeal that they kept bringing out plate after plate of unique Korean foods for us to try for free. Although the live octopus was a bit bland and it felt strange squirming around in my mouth, the thrilling nature of the entire experience as a whole far outweighed my initial fear and apprehension. Through this experience and various others, I have come to agree with the saying that “In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.”

About the blogger

Anna W. is studying abroad on the Korea University program in Seoul, South Korea.