Ever since my first exposure to K-pop through a music video by CL titled ‘Baddest Female’ in 2012, I knew that I wanted to visit and maybe even live in South Korea. Fast-forward to today, April 17, and my experience on exchange in South Korea is almost coming to an end. In the years, months, and even days leading up to this trip, I had an expectation of how my trip would be. I thought I would see the sights, eat the food, and maybe even run into a celebrity or two. I thought that me being black in a predominantly Korean country, I would be the odd one out. I expected a lot of questions about my heritage, hair, and overall blackness. This isn’t how it played out though.
In all honesty, I felt and still kind of feel like people here have their own lives and would rather deal with their own issues than strike up a conversation with me. With conversations, there is also a language barrier. Coming into this, I knew conversational Korean such as how to ask for directions, costs, simple things like that. Coming out of this, I now know some slang and random words like ‘bright’ and ‘eraser.’ It was difficult for the kids that couldn’t speak English to get their thoughts across to me, so most just didn’t try. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t a leader of the conversations, but rather an observer. The most challenging part was that I did understand, I just couldn’t speak.
While interviewing with Mark to apply for exchange, a question that stuck with me was ‘How will you deal if by the second week, people still haven’t made an effort to talk to you?’ At that time, I was so confident in my charming ability to make friends and believed everyone would be all over me. Although I eventually made some friends, I keep comparing them to the exchanges that have come to Athenian and the connections I have made with them. It is really difficult to have your dream come true, but at the same time feel like you have to portray yourself in a different way to get people to accept you. Through this experience I’ve learned that I have a lot more anxiety than I thought possible, but that’s okay.
I wouldn’t have been able to get through this experience if it wasn’t for my exchange partner, Hannah, and her family. They’ve been so welcoming and so helpful. From taking me to most of the neighborhoods in Seoul to explaining all the little quirks in a Korean society. Quirks such as that everyone brushes their teeth after every meal so everyone keeps a cute little case with their toothbrushes and toothpaste inside or that respect is a huge part of the culture and you have to bow and greet everyone older than you–and older could mean twins and one is born first. They also informed me that Koreans like to know everything about your life, but I didn’t experience this first-hand. The craziest difference I noticed is the gender segregation. Boys hang out with boys and girls with girls. At Athenian, everyone hangs out with everyone, so I was shocked to see such division.
I’m truly thankful for being able to go on exchange. Although it was quite different from how I imagined, I’m glad I got to come.