It takes a day to learn to love a new environment. And another day to learn to enjoy being in the new environment. And another to continue to love that new environment.
It takes only a few minutes to hate being the out of place piece in a foreign puzzle. It takes only a few seconds to be homesick. It takes a fraction of a second for your stomach to drop and your insides to feel as if they’re in a food processor being blended into a squeamish realization of being so far away from everything you know.
There are so many things one takes for granted – being able to communicate fully and articulately thoughts and feelings. Being able to confidently say what you mean and mean what you want to say. It’s odd how comforting being able to read words and letters subconsciously and be able to comprehend them can be. All these little things build to become an enormous weight of experience.
But here, there’s peace in being out of place. For once, I am in the majority. I am the majority. I never realized how it felt like I was holding my breath when I was in the minority. Here, I am breathing. And it’s quite liberating and reassuring.
That is, until I open my mouth to speak a less fluent version of what used to be my native language. But I’m working on that. That is a whole different feeling for a different post.
A few days ago, I rode the subway during peak rush hour, a mistake I assure you, to the Hyehwa exit on line number 4 (the blue one). A month ago, I wouldn’t have known what any of those words in the previous sentence meant. Now I understand why people lament about the state of public transportation in the United States. It’s amazing and efficient and cheap – the subway system here will forever be my baseline on how well a country implements inter-country travel for its citizens. Anyways, let me set the scene: there I am patiently waiting for the escalator to end its automatic descent and close to the bottom a view of a well-packed crowd of all types (businessmen, college students, ajumma’s, ajusshi’s, children) are all packed together like ants waiting for the next train. Here personal space is not a factor, it’s not even an option and entirely out of the equation altogether. For a moment, even if you are a foreigner or not – visibly out of place or not – you’re just another faceless, nameless person in a crowd simultaneously taking up too much space while having not enough. Once the train arrives, it’s just a sudden push of bodies against one another like a concert without the dim lights, bad smells, and annoying crowd moshing.
Once on the subway, there’s no room to move. It feels as if there’s no room to breathe. Every time the subway goes a little too fast or takes a turn a little too suddenly, you only move a fraction of what you would expect to because there’s a sea of people cushioning the impact you would have had. You just jostle against the stranger next to you. Like a self-contained bouncy ball. I recommend avoiding the subway between 6:00-7:30 in the afternoon if you don’t want to experience this.
After getting off at the Hyehwa exit, my friend and I made the trek up, way up, many, many hills to get a glimpse of this breathtaking view.
I can’t even begin to describe the pure beauty of this scene. I’ve never been to New York City, but I would confidently make the statement this view beats anything NYC could offer. The biggest difference between the two is that Seoul holds more meaning to me than NYC ever could.
The first hill isn’t bad. Climbing an incline that’s reminiscent of the acute angle we’re taught about in fourth grade is not ideal. It’s not hard, but it isn’t easy either. The second hill still isn’t awful. By that point, I was slowly adjusting to the climb, but then the third hill came and I was just annoyed at the steep incline and how frequent they were. By the fourth hill, I wanted to abandon the climb and go back down the last three hills. But my friend reassured me the view would be worth it and, fortunately, she was correct. Here, the sun sets around 6:30-6:40 so we were able to watch the sunset over the city, the sky being clear for the first time in weeks. The city skyline laid bare before me was, and still is, one of the prettiest scenes I have witnessed. In both directions, buildings of various heights sprawled across the horizon paired against the orange-pink-cerulean watercolor painted sky creating the illusion of a never ending city. To the far left laid Namsan, distant and untouchable, the mountain I use to guide me back to where I need to be. It was a breathtaking view and at that moment, the nagging feeling of being out of place faded away for a brief moment. The view was a balm, a blissful reprieve to all the negative emotions that were slowly bubbling beneath the surface slowly compounded by all the miscommunications and cultural differences that were too distinct to patch over in the few weeks I had been here. We stayed until nightfall, content to watch as the city began to reflect the stars I can no longer see and miss.
There is a picture I came across on the internet where an iceberg is depicted and serves as an analogy for the small, intangible distinctions that come with different cultures. It’s aptly labeled “The Cultural Iceberg”. The top, the tip of the iceberg, are things that are easy to see: language, fashion, food, visual arts, et cetera. And the rest of the iceberg, the part you can’t see, the one submerged under the water are the things that are difficult to view and make it hard to acclimate to a culture and country that isn’t yours or one you didn’t grow up in. Family roles, relation to authority, body language, gender roles, pride, rules of conduct, beauty standards, humor – these, among several others, are the aspects of a culture that are hard to grasp. These are some of the contributing factors that act like bricks in the foundation of a difficult adjustment period.
But there is beauty in learning and seeing and being able to experience first hand the type of culture I could have grown up in and had my childhood in. To play the what-if game. It is an odd feeling, undoubtedly, but to have this opportunity, to experience all these feelings, is one I feared I would not be able to have. So I welcome all the emotions – the good and the bad.
Emily Stahl is a junior at the University of Missouri-Kansas City studying Marketing at the Henry W. Bloch School of Management. Emily will spend the semester abroad in South Korea participating in the Dongguk University exchange program. She is a member of the Delta Zeta sorority, Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity, and Omicron Delta Kappa national leadership honor society. Being from a small town north of KC, Emily is excited to live and study in the city of Seoul for 4 months. She looks forward to gaining a better perspective and understanding of the culture and society within South Korea. Emily is also eagerly anticipating expanding her knowledge of business interactions on an international scale and to meet people and make new connections while abroad.
Disclaimer: Student blog entries posted to the Roos Abroad Blog may not reflect the opinions and recommendations of UMKC Study Abroad and International Academic Programs. The blog is intended to give students a forum for free expression of thoughts and experiences abroad in a respectful space.