Seoul Searching 7 – Final: Heading Home
I left South Korea half a year ago under the worst circumstances. COVID had put a dent in all of my summer plans and had prevented me from travelling around the country any further. I felt defeated and I couldn’t help but dwell on this anti-climactic end to my year abroad. There were so many things that I wanted to experience that were either cancelled or postponed indefinitely. For example, I had planned on visiting the DMZ – the South/North Korean border – to learn more about the conflict between these two nations. This was of course cancelled. While I was thankful to be safe and found comfort in the fact that my family and friends were healthy, I couldn’t help but feel pitiful about all the things I wasn’t able to do.
Therefore, when I was contacted about starting this blog, I was a little apprehensive. Had I done enough? Would people care about what I had to say? However, after a little inner deliberation, I saw this column as an opportunity to focus on the highlights of my year abroad and as a coping mechanism during the inevitable series of lockdowns.
One of the things I miss most about South Korea is the weather – I know how incredibly mundane – and the ways in which the seasons suddenly spring up on you. During the winter, the temperature dips into the -20 to -25 degrees Celsius range and the cold is one which can be felt deep within your bones. I remember one night it was so cold that I had three duvets, a blanket, and two coats layered on top of me – and I was still cold!
Meanwhile, in autumn the mountains radiated with warm reds and bubbly yellows. The colour change is incredibly quick, it often only lasts a few weeks, so it is best to enjoy them while they last. In one of my classes, we were taught about Buddhist sand mandalas. Monks would spend weeks creating beautiful murals out of sand, only to wipe them away upon completion. Apparently, this is done to illustrate the notion of impermanence. Nothing is permanent but that does not erase the beauty of what once existed. The autumn leaves often reminded me of this.
Due to the long break between semesters, I was lucky enough to be a part of Seoul National University’s women’s ski team. For 2-months I lived with two other women from SNU and five men from Kookmun University’s men’s team. During this time, I learned the basics of skiing and met countless other students. As the only exchange student, the language barrier made it difficult to converse with everyone at times, but we found ways to adapt. My experiences with the Seoul Ski Society taught me that friendships can transcend language and people are always willing to learn more about other cultures. It was really humbling to see all these new people embrace me into their lives and try to adapt their behaviour to help me fit in.
Out of all the places I had the opportunity to visit, Busan and Jeonju were among my favourites. Busan is the second-largest city in South Korea; however, unlike Seoul, Busan has a much more relaxed feel to the area. As I grew up visiting the beach every weekend, Busan reminded me of home with its expansive beaches and bustling port. During one of my visits, a group of us drove over an hour across Busan to reach Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, a site dubbed ‘the most beautiful temple in South Korea’. Overlooking the sea, this magnificent temple is surrounded by nature, an architectural feat which helps visitors pray without the distractions of city life. Buried away in this golden corner, it is easy to forget that you’re in one of the most populated cities in South Korea. Whilst here I remember the feeling of serenity washing over me and feeling at ease. The smell of sea salt entwined with the aroma of local food vendor’s spices created a warmth that made it impossible to feel stressed.
Jeonju, however, was completely different. Jeonju is a historical city with a thick culture of local tourism. Similar to places such as Kent or Chester, Jeonju takes advantage of its historical heritage by repurposing traditional buildings – Hanok – and setting up live re-enactments of historical battles or performances. Many hotels in the area are repurposed Hanok’s, reconstructed to help visitors understand what life was like in the pre-modern era. In the Hanok Village, shop owners encourage tourists to dress in traditional clothing – Hanbok – and offer discounts as an incentive to learn more about South Korean culture. My favourite memory from Jeonju involved zigzagging across streets on a motorbike taste testing all the local delicacies and getting lost among narrow streets.
While away I learned the importance of prioritising my own needs above the expectations of others. In the past I have been bogged down by grades and the countless things that need to be done for university; however, because of how quickly the seasons change within South Korea I was confronted with all the activities I was missing out on. I will admit I occasionally missed class to hike with my boyfriend or visit a national park, but what’s the point in travelling over 5,000 miles to a new country if you’re not going to make the most out of it? If I had to give a prospective exchange student one piece of advice it would be to experience all you can. Grades can be salvaged but missed opportunities definitely can’t!
Now, 7-months after beginning this column, I have decided that it is time to stop looking back and to start looking forward. Working in retrospective is always difficult because you never know when to stop. There are countless memories you could write about and it will never be enough. However, with the new year coming in and the end of my undergraduate drawing closer, there are so many exciting possibilities that I no longer feel the need to relive my best moments.
I am thankful for all the opportunities this platform provided me with and I hope you all enjoyed hearing a few of my travel tales! 안녕히 계십시오
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