Before I even began my undergraduate career, studying abroad in Korea has always been a part of the plan. I took Korean language classes from the beginning of my freshman year, consumed Korean media, and made an effort to learn about Korean history and society. For me, Korea was the dream. Since arriving in Seoul almost 3 months ago I have not only experienced Korea as the dream but also as reality. While I was finally able to experience the things I had waited 3+ years for, I have also been met with obstacles and unexpected challenges.
As a non-ethnic Korean living in Korea, I will never be able to escape the title of “foreigner”. My big curly hair, brown skin, and accented Korean are dead giveaways that I am not a native of this land. In some ways, this makes me hyper-visible. I can feel the eyes of older people and children as I ride alongside them on public transportation. My Korean friends and acquaintances will often touch my hair without notice- as if our relationship as friends is some form of tacit consent to my body. But in other ways, I am invisible. Waiters at restaurants speak directly to my ethnically Korean friends and don’t even acknowledge my presence, assuming I don’t understand Korean. Strangers on the street look past me as they hand out their flyers, but always catch the attention of my Korean friends. I am the elephant in the room. Ginormous and obviously different from those around it, but frequently ignored. As a foreigner, I do not want to be feared or marveled at, but simply seen as another human being.
I am not a quest to “become” Korean or blend into Korean society. Acceptance from others is not what I seek, but rather an acceptance of myself. I spent most of life believing that I was utterly uninspiring and lackluster. When comparing my personal achievements to those around me I felt inferior. While my peers participated in internships, ran clubs, excelled in classes, and had adventurous social lives, I was trapped inside of my own mind. The constant fear of failure, fear of rejection, and fear of “what if they don’t like me?” has prevented me from doing a lot in life. However, I have taken Korea as my opportunity to dive into the deep end. I have joined school clubs, participated in volunteer programs, meet new people, and taken chances I wouldn’t have dreamed of in America. I have pushed, questioned, and even doubted myself and who I am. But at the end of the day, I’m proud of myself. I took a dream, turned it into reality, and now I am making the most out of it. Study abroad has not “changed me”, but it has made me realize that I am a capable and resilient person. You cannot control when you get knocked down, but you can always pick yourself back up.
I am simply a young adult on a journey of growth and self-discovery, with Korea as the backdrop. Every experience, whether good or bad, is an opportunity to learn and I am in midst of an educational experience of a lifetime. Wherever your study abroad journey takes you, I hope it’s beautiful and grand, and I hope that you learn something along the way.