Cultural immersion . . . more ways than one
Editor’s note: Paris Norris is a former soldier turned student who is studying in Korea. She will chronicle her time on the peninsula in Stripes Korea and on Korea.Stripes.com.
Living in South Korea is one of the most unique experiences of my life thus far. Being immersed in a new way of living and adapting to cultural norms that are foreign to me is something I experienced when I enlisted into the Army, so I had the advantage of knowing what to expect, to an extent, as well as how to adjust myself; however, even the Army hadn’t prepared me for the changes I’ve undergone since moving abroad.
I’ve been in Seoul for 4 months and already I have begun to “do as the locals do”. As I mentioned in my previous article, my main objective for the duration of my stay in Korea was to become Korean. I can’t honestly say at this point whether or not I have achieved my original objective, but I know that my constant engagement and quest to be immersed in all things Korean has attributed greatly to my quick acclimation of Korean culture.
When going abroad, it is important to establish what exactly you want to get out of your trip, for the journey is ultimately yours. Too many times have I heard stories from fellow comrades about how they wished they had learned more about the culture of the people living in the country from their tour overseas. Their stories inspired me to not miss out on any opportunities to learn from people in any foreign place that I visit and also to seek out and create those opportunities.
Speaking the language
One of the more obvious ways to culturally immerse yourself while abroad is to acquire the language. In my opinion, this task is not easy. Learning a language takes time, effort, motivation, and determination, among other things.
Luckily, if you are willing to put forth the work to learn, there are many native speakers eagerly waiting to help you. In fact, many countries have language programs set up specifically targeting foreigners living there. In Seoul, there are many opportunities to learn Korean from various schools at universities to government programs. I knew even before enrolling to Yonsei University that my main focus while attending school in Korea would be learning the Korean language. Aside from language classes I also enrolled in classes on Korean culture. I wanted to use all resources readily available to me to learn everything I could about Korea.
What has been even more helpful to me than school is being surrounded by Koreans speaking Korean. It is apart of my everyday life. I actually think I have learned more from being forced to speak when ordering food, asking for directions or help with instructions, and just having casual conversations with my Korean friends-another reason why I think that making friends while abroad is vital to your experience. Having no other choice and an intense desire to speak Korean, I have been able to further develop my relationships with the friends I have made here in Seoul.
Lots to offer
There’s a common misconception that the fun of going abroad is traveling, because of the accessibility and ease versus going from the states. Even I am guilty of planning all of the other places I wanted to visit while in Asia. But since my arrival in Seoul, I have found that there are so many other places to visit in Korea.
Korea is home to many cultural aspects significant to its history and I have only just begun to explore this culturally rich country. I visited many historical sites from the world heritage historical area of Gyeongju, which hosts the sites of Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple, to the royal palace of Gyeongbokgung. My first day in Seoul, I visited Gwanghwamun square and Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty in Seoul.
I hadn’t originally planned to visit the palace, as it was only my second day in the city, and I was still gathering my bearings from my 14-hour flight the previous day. Walking past the palace, I was approached by 2 high school girls who wanted to be my tour guides for the day. The girls showed me around the palace and taught me things that I wouldn’t have found in any guidebook, because they were sharing things about the palace from their history that were important to them.
The girls also showed me to some popular restaurants and introduced new Korean foods to me. Which brings me to possibly the easiest and most fun form of cultural immersion- eating the food. Korean cuisine is some of the best I have ever eaten, and it is literally on every street corner. From spicy rice cakes, squid on a stick, and even silk worms, I can say that I have had some very interesting cultural experiences from eating Korean food.
There are also less conventional ways to become engulfed in the local culture. For me, I am interested in the less touristy attractions. I like to go where the locals go, as well as indulge in my own likings. I have an appreciation for the creative and the artistic, so I was drawn to the extensive theatre community I wasn’t aware existed in Seoul. I attended many musicals that were often Broadway hits remade and written for a Korean audience.
By attending these musicals, which were performed in the Korean language, I was once again forcing myself to understand and adapt to the Korean way of thinking. Of course, because my language skill is still below intermediate, I picked musicals that I am familiar with, as it is easier to follow the stories, but I found it especially interesting how the Koreans adapted some of the scenes to fit their cultural values and norms.
I also am guilty of riding the K-pop wave, which I think has helped me tremendously. Whether your interest is history, food, or music, there are many common bases to help you dive in to the culture of the people around you while abroad. It’s up to you to seek out the opportunities that await you.