(Alternatively, What two weeks in South Korea has taught me, and is still trying to teach me)
Joanne here writing from the great land of Song Joong Ki and bibimbap, approximately 1,629 miles away from my hometown in Manila. As promised, here is page one of the stories we’re very much excited to share with you all, abridged into an initial draft of sorts I’ll be continuously adding to and revising as I go. Till then, help yourself.
1) FOOD: Say, “Kimchi!”
If you’re living off cafeteria food and the occasional eat-out like me, get ready to take your meals spicy, all day, every day. My friends and I even wondered at some point if the pizza we’re planning to have delivered over the weekend would still be hot or not (update: it thankfully wasn’t). A familiar fast food joint or McDonald’s nearby are only breakers for what is otherwise a very rich gastronomic experience.
Korean menus usually consist of a main dish such as grilled meat or seafood and flavorful stews, served with generous bowls of side dishes like sweet radish, bean sprouts, and of course, kimchi. No meal is complete without it. You’re in for a great time if you’re entering South Korea with a love for vegetables and spicy soups and sauces because they have a lot of that here. On your way out, don’t forget to stop by the door for some free coffee being served from a small, nifty vending machine. This is a staple at almost every restaurant. Coffee is great for the digestion and knocking back the very strong, pungent smell of their herb and spice-laden dishes—just be sure to take some mints after too, because those are pretty common here too.
A number of times we walk back to our dorms after a late night ice cream run. Their convenience stores here too are a treasure trove of breads, ramen, and many other snack food wonders all waiting to be tried. When we’re not pouring water for our elders at restaurants the way it was taught to us (from eldest to youngest, with one hand supporting the arm pouring the drink), we’re usually popping open a cute milk carton or colorful juice can from their dizzying array of beverages.
And if you’re wondering if there’s any nutritional value from the food I buy here besides cafeteria meals, there most likely isn’t. Real, whole foods are quite expensive here, but if you’re willing to shell out for them like me sometimes, cereal (minus the milk) and fruits like apples, oranges, and pears are good options. Storage doesn’t have to be so tricky without a fridge, so long as you have a number of airtight, reusable containers at hand and a cool, dry place to store them in. I could get into more #titaofkoreahacks, but maybe in a different post some other time.
2) LANGUAGE: “한국어하세요?”
A hefty amount of K-Pop (and some dramas on the side) the past few years has pumped me up 110% to push through with exchange in South Korea of all places. However, it has prepared me a measly tenth of that number in terms of being fluent in the language and surviving on my own in general. Here, every signboard and speech bubble is in Hangul, a completely alien language family from the comfort of my native tongues. Sans any formal training or effort in learning the language, God bless your soul should any nondescript subtitle grace the label of that bottle (of body wash or shampoo, you’re not too sure) you’ve been trying to decipher for five minutes at the supermarket, let alone know how to navigate your way to the supermarket, for that matter.
All things considered, I could add foregoing studying basic Hangul reading and speaking before I left to my ever-growing list of unwise decisions. The first time I ever made an attempt was two days before my flight, a late-night stint with an online Hangul chart squeezed in between some last-minute packing (probably not the wisest decision, either). That and a review of a list of choice phrases like ‘Thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ on my phone during my actual flight. Still, no need to wait for formal classes later to come.
Hangul is an alphabet consisting of 19 consonant and 21 vowel letters. Each individual character you see stands for a syllable called a block. The tinier squiggles and circles that make up this block are one letter. For example, the name of my host university is Halla, spelled in Hangul as 한라 or “Han-ra” (for Korean grammar conventions beyond me). In the first character or block, the ㅎ is H, theㅏ is A, and theㄴis N, forming the first syllable. Pretty simple, and mastering how to read and write it will be your first hurdle overcome.
Now all that’s left is actually being able to know the meanings to words and being able to form coherent and grammatically correct statements with them. When learning new skills like speaking a foreign language, it’s useful to think of yourself as a sponge, always absorbing new bits of information as they come. In my case, I always write down new words and phrases I learn every day, and now am also taking care to observe the nuances between our grammar and theirs.
Proper pronunciation is a whole different story altogether, but that would be another bridge to cross when you get there. Being confident with speaking is important too. No worries if you keep stumbling over your syllables on your first try. Koreans are very hardworking by nature, and any sincere effort to learn their language always goes a long way.
3) CULTURE & RELATIONS: #ChingusofKR
Though language may not be universal, courtesy and kindness still are. Somehow, friendships find their way in between. Now we always make it a point to couple a polite “Annyeonghaseyo!” with a smile and a bow (deep, dipped) towards everyone, from university professors to vegetable vending grandmas. Whether or not we understand a word of what we’re saying to each other, this practice is as deeply embedded in their culture as taking off one’s shoes at the threshold of homes and some establishments.
English has been my bridge with the foreign friends I’ve made my first two weeks here, but above all, I feel warmth and genuineness always see me through. We’ve made a pack out of our small band of exchange students from the Philippines, China, and Mongolia. Slowly but surely, we’re branching out too. We receive much support from the Korean students assigned to be our mentors and guides around campus and town, but we’ve met a few more here and there, exchanging names and Facebook and Kakao IDs like universal currencies for friendship.
Missing people and important events back home is one thing, but surely miles away is another book waiting to be filled with a whole new set of those to miss when it’s finally time to go.
South Korea has been a dream destination for me the longest time now, and so far I am trying to make the most of my experience here. Hopefully, these tips which I’ve gathered so far could be a big help whether you visit South Korea for a short trip or long-term stay.
Light and love from Wonju-si, Gangwon-do, SK,