On Travel and the Unexpected: Journey to Norway

As I write, I’m sitting in bed in Norway while my friend works at an elderly home. I am without my suitcase and waiting for the sun to rise for the few hours it will. I’m warm and comfortable and there is a full fridge, cabinet of alcohol, and an Xbox upstairs.
After finals, I said goodbye to many of my one-semester exchange friends at OU and then headed out for a journey of my own—to celebrate Christmas in Norway with my roommate, one of my closest friends. What was planned to be a 24 hour travel stretched to 4 days due to inclement weather, engine problems, and more. The first problem began at the airport in OKC—our flight to Atlanta was delayed so much that we would have little possibility of making our connection to Amsterdam. Running as fast as we could, we still couldn’t make it. Two hours on the phone and three hours in line later left us with a strange rebooking, due to Delta’s overbookings through Atlanta airport—the next morning we’d fly to Seattle to catch a direct flight to Amsterdam. We spent a complimentary night at the Holiday Inn and arrived at the airport the next morning, ready to continue but already quite exhausted. The flight boarded about 20 minutes late, but we were assured that we’d still make the connection. However, once onboard, we were informed that there was an indicator light on and that the plane would pull back to the gate for a maintenance inspection. We now were running too late to make the connection, on a plane ready to fly across the entire country. We had no way of getting off of the plane and had to sit through the six hour flight—delighted at least that there were movies. After landing, we talked to more Delta staff, who rebooked us on the next day’s flights (there was only one per day out of Seattle), but were denied a hotel room until we talked to the desk upstairs, where we were given a room at the Hilton and some food vouchers. What better way to celebrate this predicament than spending all the vouchers on lobster tail and champagne at the Hilton? Worn out but quite comfortable in the Hilton’s plush beds, we prepared for the long day of travel ahead—a 10 hour flight to Amsterdam, three hours waiting in the airport, 2 hours flight to Bergen, 3 hours boat ride, and then a bus to Flekke. After all of this, when we landed at Bergen, my bags had not arrived and still haven’t been delivered, meaning many Christmas gifts for my friend’s family are MIA. BUT I am comfortable, safe, and surrounded by good people, beautiful nature, and a pitch black sky: I suppose the lesson learned is to stay calm but to be adamant when talking to airline companies, to be thankful if traveling with a companion, and to be ever-awed by the world around oneself no matter the circumstances with which you came to be there.

Spring SK Exchange Orientation

Because I studied abroad last spring in South Korea, I was asked to attend the discussion portion of the orientation to share some pointers and advice with students who will be studying in South Korea next spring. This type of event would have been infinitely helpful to me before I set off, but at that time, Korean students were asked to attend instead. I thought long and hard about what advice I might be able to give to these students, especially ones who would attend their semester at Kyungpook National University.

The students had countless questions and were bouncing with excitement—it made me wish I could go back and relive my semester abroad. I advised them on what was worth bringing, on types of medicines to bring or buy there, on the best ways to manage finances, and on the best places to go shopping. We talked about varying aspects of Korean culture—the hierarchy system, drinking culture, and student life. I encouraged them to get involved, to at least try to learn a bit of the language, and to be open to whatever experiences may come their way. When looking at these students and at the exchange friends I’ve made at OU, one of the best pieces of advice I could give is to never say NO without at least considering all options. Living life to the fullest is the best part of college and of studying abroad, so being flexible is utterly important! I wish them all best of luck on their semester and will live vicariously through them as I stalk them on Facebook ^^

KCC Class

Because I was studying abroad in Korea last spring, I hadn’t yet been able to get involved in the Korean Conversation Club. I hoped to join so that I could practice and learn more Korean, meet American and Korean students interested in Korean culture, and to expand my international experience while at OU. KCC decided to hold multiple events as well as language classes on Wednesday evenings, which worked well for me because my classes ended right as the meetings began.

Along with a few friends from my study abroad and some new friends, I tested into the Advanced level courses. I was struggling to keep up but appreciated the challenge of such a unique language. As I was taking Spanish this semester after a 2 year break, I was struggling to keep separate Spanish from Korean, at times struggling in either course to recall the correct word. I hope to continue to improve both languages, as Spanish is useful but Korean is important and interesting to me. I will always feel connected to Korea, having many friends there and having grown so much during my semester is there. I’m excited to start KCC classes anew next semester and to try my best to make more like-minded friends!

KCC Chuseok Party

In South Korea, families celebrate Chuseok, a type of mid-Autumn harvest festival, to celebrate and thank their ancestors. The festival brings families together, from great distances, and lasts for three days, complete with delicious food and memorial services. In Korea, roads out of Seoul become jammed with traffic—people trying to go visit their hometowns. Women traditionally prepare the food, and this time allows grandmothers to share wisdom and advice with their granddaughters, whom they might not see often if they live far away, with many families having moved to Seoul from the countryside. Families typically celebrate the ancestors of the paternal line.

At the KCC Chuseok party, we began with learning about Chuseok and the traditions associated with it. After, we enjoyed some traditional food which is usually served on that day. Then, we tried to make song pyun, the traditional rice cake dessert served at Chuseok. It is said that girls who make pretty song pyun will have pretty daughters. In that case, my daughters will be ugly! It was quite difficult. Finally, we played some games and got to know the other KCC members better. Much fun was had by all, even if the song pyun and games were challenging! Sharing cultural holidays such as Korean Chuseok or American Thanksgiving really helps to bring everyone together and begin a socio-cultural discourse over similarities and differences, allowing for better understanding and sensitivity.

OU Cousins, Fall 2017

Each year, the OU Cousins program matches international and American students in order to promote the sharing of cultures and the building of friendship that … borders. I’ve been a member and Cousin since I started at OU, with cousins from Latvia and South Korea. This year, I decided to match with one of my Korean friends. She already had two cousins, but I am worried that my courses are quite demanding, so it seemed appropriate in case I didn’t have much time. She is Haesol from South Korea and studies at the same university where I’ve studied abroad in the past. She has a bright personality, and I had met her by chance while waiting for the bus.

Last semester, she was quite busy, as was I, so we met once for dinner, a few times at parties, and just randomly when we saw each other around campus. We ate dinner with another of her American cousins at Coriander Café and enjoyed conversing about different things—adjusting to life at OU (her other cousin is a Freshman), Korean vs. American culture, and campus life. I hope to spend more time with her next semester and hope she is enjoying her winter break!!

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Couchsurfing in Jeju Island

Jeju Island, also known as “Island of the Gods,” is a popular vacation destination for Koreans and tourists alike. It was one place I regretted not visiting during my summer in Korea the previous year, so I made it a priority during my semester abroad. During a slow day at our internship, my friend who worked there with me suggested it thinking it was a crazy idea. Her surprise when I immediately responded “Sure!” was followed by searching for cheap plane tickets and scouring Couchsurfing for a worthy host. We planned to go for three nights and four days immediately following finals week—while I was planning on staying around in Korea for a few weeks, she planned to go back home to Russia.

On Couchsurfing, we found a good candidate for our free housing—Solomon was an American teacher living in Jeju who also spoke Korean. My friend contacted him and it turned out he would be attending an Ultimate Frisbee Weekend Tournament on the bottom coast of Jeju along with a bunch of other expats. My friend and I agreed that this would be a unique experience and that Solomon seemed like a reputable host because he had hundreds of positive reviews from many different people of all nationalities.

A month later, Polina and I flew to Jeju, not sure what to expect. We hoped that the rainy season would hold off for us so that we could have at least one beach day. We made our way from the airport to the other side of the island where we would meet Solomon. We waited near the entrance of a fancy hotel—Palace or Princess or something of the sort. He pulled up in a sturdy, adventurous-looking SUV along with one of his Frisbee-playing friends. He took us directly to a huge party at a crazy western-style bar. The night included jumprope, ball pits, and bucket coctails and we met people from all over the world!

The next day, we went to watch a bit of ultimate Frisbee. After, Solomon brought us and some of his friends to a secret waterfall oasis—although the waterfall wasn’t quite rushing yet, it was a beautiful and serene place where we relaxed in the sun.

The next day, Solomon had to go back to work so we attempted to go to some of Jeju’s popular tourist sites. However, the pouring rain brought us back home for boardgames instead. The weather was better the next day, but I was unprepared. I had left my bikini at the house and had to purchase a pair of boy’s swimming trunks and a t-shirt from 7-11. It turned out to be a sunny beach day, with Polina and I getting very burnt. We relaxed that evening and prepared to leave Jeju the next day.

One last attraction was left to tour the next day—Loveland, a sexual sculpture park which completely went against many of the notions I had about Korea’s conservative nature. There were some very “interesting” sculptures, and the park hosted guests of all ages.

Later that day, Polina and I flew back to Daegu to pick up our things. I would soon move on to Seoul, and she would return home to Russia.

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Internship Abroad: MR Innovation

During my time at Kyungpook National University, I was given the opportunity to participate in the Global Internship Program. I accepted a position at MR Innovation Co.Ltd, which is a cosmeceutical and agricultural materials company with an office located in the IT Convergence Industrial Building on the KNU campus. (This is conveniently located right next to my dorm building, which makes it just a bit easier to get to work in the morning.) The internship responsibilities were kind of vague, so I was given a wide variety of tasks—from translating to Spanish to labelling bottles and the like. I was given a glimpse into a Korean workplace and even got to eat lunch with the office staff twice per week. In Korea, it’s common for staff to eat together in order to build stronger relationships. Because the company I interned for was rather small, everyone seemed to know each other really well, so the atmosphere was friendly. A few of the staff could speak nearly fluent English, but otherwise we were able to communicate with a mix of English and Korean.

I interned alongside two other exchange students—one from Russia and one from China. The CEO joked that we were chosen for our powerful home nations. Spending twelve hours per week at the office, ten of them with the other two interns meant that we became friends and were able to pass the time quickly. We asked questions to learn more about how the company functioned and to learn each person’s specific role.

During the internship, I performed various tasks—from labeling bottles to translating documents to modelling for their skin rejuvenation products. Each Monday and Wednesday, the other two interns and I ate lunch with everyone at the office. It was nice to get to know some of them and to practice communication skills. We got to experience working at a real Korean company and to see some of the differences between this company and companies in our home countries. Also, I was able to learn a bit about the chemistry behind some of the cosmetics and agricultural materials that MR INNO produces. This is useful to me in a professional context, as these are fields in which I might one day become employed. While translating the documents from English to Spanish, I became acquainted with the way in which certain anti-aging skincare products penetrate the skin using certain chemical properties.

The internship at MR INNO allowed me to delve deeper into Korean culture, offering a glimpse into the corporate world. I went in without knowing how it would go, but it turned out to be a worthwhile experience during my semester at KNU.

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Buddhist Temple Stay at Dongwhasa

One aspect of Korean culture that interested me greatly was religion.  Having grown up in a Catholic family in the Midwest, I hadn’t ahd much experience with religion–especially Buddhism.  Something about it being a way of life, a way to find peace both within yourself and with nature truly intrigued me.

My KNU Buddy asked if I would like to join a temple stay for KNU students at the temple in the mountains near Daegu.  Having already visited the temple and hoping to learn more about Korean Buddhism while finding my “inner peace,” I gave an almost immediate response.  Two of my friends were also interested and together with my buddy and her other American buddy, we signed up for the one-night, two-day experience.

Eager for the upcoming weekend, we packed our overnight bags—mine full of Buddhist-friendly snacks (free of garlic, meat, onions, etc).  After arriving, we realized that it was a temple stay for Korean students and that everything would be in Korean—an even more authentic experience! The weekend began with everyone handing over our phones so that we wouldn’t be distracted and would open ourselves to the tranquility held within these mountains.

My buddy and friends helped to translate but often it was unnecessary.  By listening to the monk’s words, we could find the deeper message he was trying to transmit.  The first day culminated in a 108 Bow ceremony around 11 P.M.  We completed the “big bows”—stretched out on the floor and back up—in just about half an hour.  After the bows, we got ready to sleep, as there would be a 4:30 A.M. wake-up call!

The next Morning, we got up around 4:30 or 5 for a hike through the mountain.  We could hear the forest waking up—birds beginning to sing mixing with the trickle of water from the stream.  We placed our hands on a sacred tree and felt the rough, aged bark beneath our fingertips.  We eventually made our way to breakfast with the monks.  Meals at the temple contained no meat and no onion or garlic and one must eat all of the food he or she takes.  This was challenging at times, as a few of the foods were rather interesting/unusual to us.

We made it through the second day of chanting and learning and took a group picture before heading back home.  Riding the bus back to campus, I wasn’t only exhausted and in dire need of a shower—I was in possession of a new experience which will help to shape my worldview for years to come.  At the temple, I experience both grueling exhaustion and complete serenity.  Does one necessarily follow the other? Certainly I can question my own experiences and my own upbringing and use this experience when learning about and observing people of other cultures.

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Empathy Guesthouse

As I had come to Korea well before the semester was set to begin (March 3rd), I had ample time and little idea what to do with it.  My Korean friend with whom I’d planned spending most of my time ended up being much busier than he had originally thought.  Now I had three weeks in Daegu and was unsure what to do.  Last summer, I had stayed in Empathy Guesthouse in downtown Daegu, and they’d just opened a new branch- Empathy Dongseongno Hostel. I decided to stay there.

When I stepped through the entrance to the hostel, the staff immediately recognized me, greeting me with warm smiles.  I felt like I was already at home even though I’d never been to this location before.  I was shown to my dormitory-style room, where I rested after a day of travel.  That night, I was feeling a little bored and a little lonely.  Then, I heard a knock on my door. The staff invited me to share their dinner.  A little effort on both sides to communicate in a mixture of English, Korean, and Spanish led to some fun conversations assisted by the ample use of body-language.

During my three weeks at Empathy Dongseongno, I was treated like a member of their family.  We ate, drank, played games, and even went on a day trip to Andong.  The Empathy staff showed true generosity to me when I was going through a rather difficult time and were patient with my shyness.  They pushed me to practice my Korean so that we could better communicate.  I visited a couple times during my semester and also attended a presentation by a former North Korean dancer who used to perform at parties there.

While talking with some of the guesthouse staff, I learned more about the fact that Empathy Guesthouse was founded by the Center for North Korean defectors and that twenty percent of its profits go toward supporting resettlement programs.  Empathy Guesthouse is a social enterprise, which refers to a company that sells or produces goods or services as a means to raise the local community’s quality of life by providing jobs or social services to vulnerable members of society.  On top of that, Empathy SEEDS works to increase tourism and international exchange in Daegu. After learning about these efforts, I began to appreciate this enterprise and my new family even more.

 If you find yourself in Daegu, be sure to stay at Empathy!  

Global Standards of Beauty

Modeling at Daegu Arts University and Part-time Princess

I’ve never considered myself particularly beautiful.  Of course, there are some features of my appearance that I like more than others, but, overall, I’d consider myself to be quite average … And I’m perfectly content with this.

When I came to Korea, I became aware that my appearance was ‘exotic’.  Strangers would tell me that I was beautiful and inquire as to where I came from.  … This led to some interesting opportunities which I could never have entertained back in the U.S.  At my internship company, I was asked during the interview if I would be okay to model for them.  Thinking it was a joke, I laughingly agreed to the suggestion. A couple of weeks later, I was called upon by my superior to receive free facial treatments which they would record and use for advertisement purposes.

Later, my friend offered to recommend me for a part-time job which she held—acting as a princess in an amusement park.  I just had to smile, hold a sign, and take pictures with guests while dressed as Alice (Alice in Wonderland).  The pay was good, there were free meals and snacks, and the job was actually pretty fun! I am not the type who fantasizes about working as a princess at Disney World or anything of the sort, but I enjoyed the part-time work nonetheless.

Most recently, I met some art students while drinking with friends in downtown Daegu.  They took my contact information and requested for me to be a model for their final projects. Along with two of my French friends, I made my way to the little arts school tucked away in the nearby mountains and modeled in some different outfits and themes.

Never before had I imagined these types of opportunities during my semester abroad in Korea. Modeling and the like  are certainly not an area in which I excel, and I don’t plan on pursuing anything related to that in the U.S. (not that it would even be an option :P) . Either way, these were certainly some memorable experiences.