Advice to students going abroad

Ignore the photo, I just wasn’t sure which photo to include in this post and I thought this one was funny. Obviously, this post is about a couple pieces of advice I would like to give to any students planning on studying abroad.

The first thing I would like to tell you is that if you can study abroad for a full academic year instead of one semester, do it! I originally planned to study abroad for one semester and ended up going for two. If you make mistakes the first semester, you get a fresh start second semester to do things differently. There were several things first semester that I wish I had done differently, and I had a more fulfilling second semester because I changed those habits. The rest of my advice is based off these habits that I changed. Some of this advice may be a bit obvious, but I tried to include some more detailed points that hopefully refine the advice and make it more useful.

Don’t spend all your time with people from your own country. I think this is sometimes easier said than done; once you are in a foreign country and are out of your element, it can be so reassuring to talk to another American who understands how you feel and what you miss from home. Try to resist the temptation. I spent way too much time with other Americans my first semester in Korea. On one hand, I made some amazing American friends, but on the other hand, I found myself stuck in my comfort zone, surrounded by friends who were also native English speakers and had similar outlooks, behavior, and backgrounds to me. I expended more effort the next semester to make friends from other countries, and in particular to make Korean friends. As a result, I was able to have a more multicultural experience and I was able to practice Korean much more and I improved a great deal in comparison to first semester.

This brings me to my next point. If you are studying the language of the country in which you are studying, use it! First, try to use it as much as possible in your day-to-day life, such as ordering food or asking for directions. But if you really want to improve, you need to make friends with whom you can have extended conversations. My first semester, I was quite adept at ordering food or asking where the bathroom was but could not hold a sustained conversation in Korean. It was only during winter break and my second semester that I made a concerted effort to speak in Korean as much as possible with Korean friends, and that was when my Korean conversational skills improved remarkably. You can only gain so much from short exchanges with employees and strangers; friends will help you when you get stuck and correct you (if you ask them).

Get involved on campus as soon as you can. I know it can be a bit overwhelming at the beginning when you are trying to get settled, but this really does make a difference. In Korea in particular, it can sometimes be difficult to make Korean friends in class as they tend to be rather quiet and do not talk to classmates they don’t already know. As a result, joining a school club is a much easier way to make friends if you struggle to approach people in class. My first semester, I didn’t join a club until several months in, and while I still had fun, it was difficult to get very close with the other members who joined at the beginning, since they had already formed bonds with each other. I joined the club from the start of my second semester (I happened to be the only returning member for various reasons) and I became much closer with the other club members and made many close friends.

Travel as much as you can, and don’t procrastinate on your assignments. I place these two together because if you save all your work for the weekends, you won’t have time to travel. It’s tempting to just rest after you get done with class on a weekday, but if you have to spend all your weekends working, you lose the best time to travel. Don’t stay in the city you are studying in, even if it is a big one with lots of things to do. Get out and explore other parts of the country. I enjoyed some of the smaller cities in Korea just as much as the big and bustling city of Seoul. Try to travel outside of the country as much as you can as well. Especially if you don’t know if you will come back, you may never be able to get plane tickets to nearby countries as cheap as they will be in that moment. In addition, try to figure out your traveling style in order to enjoy your trips to the fullest extent. Do you prefer traveling alone, or with friends? (Of course, be careful if you are traveling alone somewhere with higher crime rates.) Do you prefer exploring one spot or city for a long time, or would you rather bounce around and get a little taste of each place and see as much as possible?

That being said, remember to take a break every once and awhile. When I am abroad, I worry about regretting not taking full advantage of my time and seeing everything that I possibly can. This isn’t the best mindset to have, especially if you are like me and can’t keep going and going endlessly. Give yourself some downtime, and don’t be regretful if you aren’t using every second of your time to do something exciting. If you don’t, you may end up overtired and not enjoying whatever you went out to do. You could even get yourself sick, and then you really end up stuck at home unable to go out. Focus on being well-rested physically and mentally so you can enjoy everything you do as much as possible.

I’ll stop here, but I hope my advice can be of use to some students going abroad. Above all, remember to have fun and not stress too much about if you are studying abroad “the right way” because there isn’t one. Just enjoy yourself, and don’t forget to study every once and awhile.

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Goodbyes

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Korean, Russian, and Italian friends

It’s a real shame to finally be leaving South Korea. As cheesy as it sounds, I made so many wonderful friends in this country and I grew a lot as a person. Although I attended some fascinating classes about international affairs and Korean culture, most of the growing  and learning I did happened outside the classroom. I think a lot of people don’t realize that you learn about your own culture just as much as others’ when you interact with people from other countries. I didn’t hang out with my friends with the intention of learning anything in particular, but by observing and conversing I naturally began to notice both how we were different and how we were alike. What I noticed above all is that despite cultural differences, I was able to become incredibly close with people from around the world because there were so many more ways in which we were similar than different.  Everyone loves to talk, laugh, eat, and have fun, and at the end of the day, the ways that we do those things aren’t all that different. All of my friends in Korea liked to try new restaurants, watch movies and plays or go shopping, listen to music, and talk about anything and everything just like my American friends.

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Korean friends

One of the things that I feel allowed for closer relationships and better communication was the ability to laugh at oneself, on both a personal level and a cultural or national level. My roommate Migle from Lithuania told me that Lithuanians and many Eastern Europeans in general love to make fun of their country’s neighbors, but are just as willing to make fun of themselves and take a joke. Having a sense of humor about both myself and about the U.S. allowed me to get along with others better, whether we were just small talking or discussing our nations’ differences. Of course I am not suggesting that you just laugh it off if someone says something seriously offensive about your culture, but if a friend is making a light joke or an earnest and well-meaning constructive critique, reacting with a sense of humor and a willingness to accept other viewpoints is important. On a side note, you might find that many other cultures do not value extreme political correctness in the same way that many Americans do, and if you travel abroad you should be prepared for some jests or questions that are more frank in their phrasing than you are used to.

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Taiwanese friends

I’m not exactly sure what the “moral of the story” is here, but I came away from this year abroad believing it is just as important to unite over human universalities and cultural similarities as it is to share and accept what makes our cultures different. I believe that finding a balance between these two will lead to more friendly international relations around the world.

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Lithuanian, Chinese, and American friends

 

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School Festivals

There is an interesting phenomenon at Korean universities that is made possible by Korea’s strikingly different attitude towards alcohol in comparison to the U.S. During the spring semester, Korean universities hold school-wide festivals. These festivals include games, music and dance school club performances, and musical performances by famous artists. International students set up booths and sell traditional food from their home countries. More than any of that, though, these festivals are about drinking.

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In stark contrast to the University of Oklahoma’s dry campus policy, Kyungpook National University holds a festival where each department sets up booths around school and sells overpriced alcohol and side dishes to students. A LOT of alcohol is consumed during this three-day event. Koreans are famous for heavy drinking, and this festival turned out to be no exception. All across campus, students ate, drank, talked, and played games in these small booths beginning in the evening and going late into the night. Although there are definitely some issues with the excessive drinking that can occur at these festivals, it is an exciting event where a strong feeling of university-wide community can be felt. I have not been to an event at OU that made me feel such a sense of unity, not just among certain groups of students, but among the whole student body. The festival is a time for hard-working students to relieve stress with their friends and classmates, and even occasionally with professors.

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On top of that, these festivals are a chance to attend a free concert of a popular Korean singer. At our university, each night we had multiple artists perform. This element, however, becomes a point of competition among schools as schools with more money (usually private schools) will be able to afford the biggest names of the moment. Although some students complained that nearby private schools had better performers, most students I talked said that KNU had been able to bring in some very popular singers this year. I was perfectly content, as I was able to see Crush perform, a Korean R&B singer whose music I quite enjoy.

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Korean university festivals are an interesting mix of performances, student body-wide bonding, and borderline alcoholism for three days in a row. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the festival, however, was that it started on Wednesday and only some professors were willing to cancel classes on festival days. As a result, while some students simply skipped class, there were a great number of students who would stay up late into the night drinking, and still drag themselves to class the next morning. That determination was likely the most amazing thing I saw during the festival.

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Gamcheon Culture Village and the Generational Gap in Korea

Last week, I went to Busan and I visited a very popular tourist site called Gamcheon Culture Village. Gamcheon Village was originally a slum town on a hill that grew during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Many of the houses there are very, very small and the members of this town had little money and lived very difficult lives.

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In the early twenty-first century, many people living in the town started leaving because of poverty and poor living conditions. With support from the government, artists used the empty houses and the village in general as an exhibition for their artwork. This drew tourists in flocks to see the newly beautified town. Coffee shops and restaurants sit invitingly at the front of the town and some novelty shops dot the landscape. Everywhere you look, there is a clever art piece, some of them big and attention-grabbing, others quietly hidden in corners like easter eggs. I had a lot of fun looking around the village with my friends and taking pictures of and with the beautiful art installations.

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However, this gentrified town is not without disadvantages. My friends and I took a taxi to and from Gamcheon Culture Village, and both taxi drivers were interested in where we had come from and where we were going. When we mentioned the village, the drivers didn’t necessarily sound angry, but they expressed some dissatisfaction about the village. They felt that turning the village into a tourist spot was not respectful to its painful past, nor its present in which most of the villagers are elderly and have been living in the villages since it was still just a slum. They said that many of the people there are still poor and living in bad conditions, and the money made from the businesses there are not going towards the villagers, as they are owned by outsiders. Tourists are often loud and disruptive despite the village still being a place where people live, just like any other neighborhood. Although the village is now beautifully decorated and has greatly benefited financially from tourism, the complaints of the residents are still something to be acknowledged.

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This experience made me feel the wide generation gap in Korea. Koreans my age generally acknowledge that they sometimes have difficulty connecting with their parents’ and grandparents’ generations because they are so different. This isn’t all that surprising: the political, economic, and social atmospheres that these generations grew up in are very different. Generational differences in their mindsets can be seen in situations like that of Gamcheon Cultural Village, where younger Koreans enjoy touring around and takes selfies with the artwork, while older Koreans express discomfort and unhappiness and feel that this kind of behavior is disrespectful and making light of the hardships experienced during the Korean War. There is no easy solution to disagreements like this, and I’ll be honest, I still shamelessly enjoyed taking photos and admiring the artwork with my friends at the village. I’m not sure whether that was the wrong thing to do, but there is no denying that the art scattered around the area is captivating. Now that Korea is a somewhat more stable and developed country, it will be interesting to see if future generations have a smaller gap than the current ones do.

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Korean Cafes

I think I have mentioned this briefly in a previous post, but I love Korean cafe culture. Korea is full of cafes, some chains and others local. There are so many cafes surrounding my campus I would have to spend months going to a different cafe every day to visit them all. Even then, it would probably be a never-ending process because there’s always a new cafe opening up. It seems to be almost mandatory to go to a cafe for coffee or tea and maybe a dessert after having a meal with friends. A hobby for some of my Korean friends is using Instagram, Facebook, or Naver (basically Korean Google) to find the newest “hot place” (yes, they use the English term) around town. Usually, the hotter the place, the more expensive the beverages, but most of the time it is worth it for the taste and the experience.

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Since there are so many cafes, businesses have to work hard to pull in customers. Of course, the coffee has to taste good. Often, cafes will have some kind of “signature drink” or a drink that is very pretty. The prettier the drink, the more likely the customer will take a photo of it and upload it onto their social media, essentially doing your advertising for you. The interior has to be nicely decorated and usually goes with some kind of theme: sleek and modern, cozy and warm, vintage and nostalgic, etc. Again, the interior or at least certain parts of it are often designed with the intention of making a like-worthy Instagram photo.

 IMG_0624    IMG_0675Although some may find this culture shallow, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Yes, you may pay  extra for a fairly normal latte because it has fancy decorations, or because the cafe interior is nice. If you are willing to pay that extra amount, that’s just fine with me. There are also plenty of cafes in Korea with low price point instead of Instagram-worthy drinks as their selling point. In other words, there’s a cafe for everyone.

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Finally, another great aspect of Korean cafe culture is specialized cafes. Of course, many people have heard about cat cafes (and dog cafes, sheep cafes, raccoon cafes, etc.) in Korea. Those are fun as well, but there are also some less-famous themed cafes in Korea. Study cafes or book cafes are particularly nice for students looking for a quiet place to study. A book cafe near my school will serve your coffee together with a book on a tray. There are also cartoon cafes that have many different manga and manhwa (Korean manga) books. There are also hanok cafes, where the building the cafe is in is a traditional Korean house (hanok). Now that summer is fast approaching, rooftop cafes are growing increasingly popular as great places to enjoy a drink with a nice view in the open air.

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Although Korea is full of chain cafes, I personally think that, just like anywhere else, the local shops are more charming. If you come to Korea, make sure to try a signature drink at a local cafe nearby.

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Flower Power

Just like Koreans have 단풍놀이 (dan-poong nor-i) or going on an excursion to see and take pictures with the colorful autumn leaves in the fall, they also have 꽃놀이 (kkot nor-i or flower play) in the spring. As the flowers begin to bloom, couples, friends, and families venture out to the best spots to see the flowers and take photos. Certain areas are even specially designated for this activity, like 하중도 (Hajungdo) in Daegu which is a tiny little island in the middle of a river with a huge field of canola flowers in spring and cosmos flowers in the fall. There’s not much else on the island, so people come solely to see the flowers and of course, take countless photos.

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The first flowers to bloom were the cherry blossoms, which seem to be the favorite of many. They bloomed all across KNU, and when the wind blew the petals off the branches, it looked as if white-pink snow was covering the campus. I even traveled to a city called 진해 (Jinhae) an hour or so away to go to the Jinhae Cherry Blossom festival where there were events, performances, activities, and fair food, but most importantly, plenty of good spots to take pictures with the flowers. The city was full of people who came for flower play, so sometimes it was impossible to take photos without other people in the background. Many people bring huge, professional cameras to take the best photos they can. This spring was the first time that I saw cherry blossoms in person, and I took many pictures with friends under the cherry blossom trees to capture this beautiful memory.

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After the cherry blossoms came and went, the azaleas and the king cherry blossoms bloomed. The azaleas also bloomed as red and purple blossoms across the campus, and there was an azalea festival on a mountain near Daegu called 비슬산 (Biseulsan) that I was unfortunately unable to attend. To see the king cherry blossoms with lovely pink layered petals, I had to travel to a small park far from campus. Although it was a bit far and the park was smaller than I thought, it was worth it to see the beautiful flowers and to take pictures with my friends.

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Observing and participating in danpoong play and flower play has given me the impression that Koreans appreciate the beauty of nature around them. Of course in the U.S. there are people who love flowers and we have many impressive national parks, but often people are not willing to travel far to see them. Our appreciation for nature does not manifest itself as activities with special names in which nearly the entire nation takes part. I admire Koreans’ love for nature and the beauty it offers.

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Protests in Korea

Now that we are approaching the elections for the new South Korea president, this post may be a little late coming. Still, I thought it would be worth it to write a bit about the protests that went on in Korea before Park Geun Hye was impeached. 

As you may know, the most recent South Korean president was impeached due to a corruption scandal involving her relationship with Choi Soon Sil, the daughter of a shamanistic cult leader. Park is essentially considered to have been acting as the puppet of Choi Soon Sil. When this controversy came out, millions of Koreans took to the streets to protest and to demand Park’s impeachment. These protests received international attention for not only their size, but also for the peaceful nature in which they were conducted. The Korean population showed an incredibly united front across the nation with huge masses of people marching through cities, yet no violence broke out.

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Protests for Park Geun Hye’s Impeachment in Seoul

 

 

I saw a protest in Gwanghamun Square in Seoul, and although this was a little bit after some of the largest protests that went on, it was still fascinating and full of people. The protest was completely peaceful, but what was even more surprising was that the atmosphere was quite positive. Yes, there were some people with serious faces, chanting and carrying around signs that said “Impeach Park Geun Hye,” but there were also people smiling while chanting, there were children running around happily, and there were even many people taking advantage of the crowds and setting up various food carts and selling snacks. I almost felt as if I was at a fair instead of a protest. I also witnessed a small protest in Daegu that was actually in support of President Park (before the Constitutional Court had upheld her impeachment.) All of the people there were older, the only young people I saw were just casual on-lookers. This protest, too, was made up of smiling people cheering and singing and looking quite positive overall. The overall feeling was quite the opposite of what I might expect from a protest in the U.S., where protests seem to be more solemn, serious, and at times, aggressive and violent.

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Protest in support of Park Geun Hye in Daegu

 

I admire the Korean people for their admirable approach to protest. Peaceful protest is an important political tool. It allows the demonstrators to maintain their dignity, and more importantly, they avoid serious violence that can bring harm to the demonstrators and others. Furthermore, the unity of these protests and the percentage of the Korean population that participated in them was impressive. Of course, I would love it if I could see more protests like that in the United States, but I question whether that is truly possible any time soon. In general, the U.S. is much more divided in terms of political opinion, and great tension exists between differing parties. It is difficult to find an issues that most Americans agree on, and it is often difficult to keep people from lashing out at one another violently when their opinions greatly differ. Police violence has also played a role in worsening the violent nature of many U.S. protests. On top of that, the U.S. is physically much larger. Having that large a percentage of the U.S. population in one place, rooting for the same cause is no easy feat.

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Protests for Park Geun Hye’s Impeachment in Seoul

 

Although it may be difficult, the U.S. needs to work towards holding protests that are as peaceful as the Korean protests have been. Peaceful protest can help U.S. citizens make their voices heard in politics while retaining their dignity and avoiding harm. They may also be able to garner support and admiration from other countries, as the Koreans have been able to do, by showing such an incredible act of unity. During this important time when the United States political realm has become so strongly divided, we must remember this is not an excuse to turn to violence or blind hatred.

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Taiwan

The spring semester has finally started in Daegu! The weather is warming up, trees are just starting to sprout buds and I am excited for the quickly approaching cherry blossom season. In January, however, it was much colder so I hopped on a plane to Taiwan where the weather is much warmer all year round. I was in Taipei for a little over a week, and I explored the beautiful city and visited many of its interesting tourist spots.

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I knew I would make a blog post about visiting Taiwan, but at first I wasn’t sure about what exactly I was going to write. I could talk about the great food I had and the tourist destinations I visited, but to be honest I’m definitely not an expert on any of the stuff I tried or saw, and I find it a little boring to just list the places I visited. Reading about traveling is never quite the same as actually experiencing it yourself. Instead, I would like to talk about my experience in Taiwan in comparison to my experience in Korea.

I am having a long term experience abroad in Korea. I have had many months to get accustomed to the culture and the area I am living in. I have been studying Korean for a few years now and while I am not fluent, I know enough to navigate daily life fairly easily. I have had time to learn from mistakes I made when I first arrived here. I familiarized myself with the culture before I came here and while I have done my fair share of tourism here, I am also experiencing daily life as a university student.

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In Taiwan, I could not speak the language nor was I especially knowledgable about the culture. Sure, I looked up some information so as not to make any huge cultural faux pas but I am not familiar with Taiwanese culture the way I am with Korean culture. I was only in Taiwan for a short time and my experience there was mostly limited to the experience of a tourist. I had a lot of fun in Taiwan, but I was limited by my inability to speak Mandarin. Speaking English was sufficient to get to tourist destinations and eat at some common franchise restaurants, but I was not able to “go off the beaten track” and have a less touristy experience. If you know me, you know that I like to experience the daily life of a place just as much as I like to visit museums and historical sites. At times, I felt very frustrated and like an “ignorant American” being unable to speak the language. I felt like I was expecting others to speak English if they needed to communicate with me.

Luckily, I have made a couple Taiwanese friends who are exchange students at Kyungpook National University here in Daegu and I met them on a couple different days in Taipei. One of my friends lives in Taoyuan, which is right next to Taipei and where the airport is, and she was kind enough to pick me up from the airport and she let me stay at her apartment for my first night. Her family was so kind, taking me to dinner, giving me gifts, and welcoming me into their home. The next day she took me around Taipei and I had so much fun. I feel so grateful to her, I felt like a little baby that she was taking around. Having friends who are locals is one of the most helpful things when you are traveling somewhere new. This is just one more reason why studying abroad is so beneficial: you can meet people from all over the world, so you will have a whole host of new friends that you can visit if you travel to their home countries. Thanks to my friends, I was able to get a small peek into the daily life of a Taiwanese person, eating Taiwanese-style breakfast, visiting a special Chinese New Year market, etc.

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Just because I had a very touristy experience, doesn’t mean I didn’t have an amazing time in Taiwan. A tourist’s experience is still an enjoyable one. I saw fascinating museums and beautiful landscapes and architecture. I ate delicious food in fancy restaurants, fast food places, and night markets. I drank my weight in Taiwan’s famous bubble tea. That being said, I certainly wouldn’t claim I got more than just a small taste of Taiwan and its vivacious culture. My trip was fun and educational, but it only reinforced my belief that to develop a deeper understanding of a country, you must spend time experiencing the daily life and you should make efforts to learn the language. Language is deeply tied with other elements of culture, and without it you will most likely struggle to break barriers and communicate well with people. My trip to Taiwan was exciting and unforgettable, but it was not as rewarding and fulfilling as my time in Korea has been.

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Things Korea has figured out

In my last blog post, I talked about some Korean things that weren’t my favorite. This time, I am going to talk about Korea in a much more positive light. You may have already heard about some of the things South Korea does well. They have the fastest internet in the world (although not in my dorm, that’s for sure). Korean fashion and makeup products are growing increasingly popular around the world. Their pop music, TV shows, and movies have countless fans around the world. In this blog post, I’m going to tell you about some of the other things Korea has figured out of which you may not already be aware.

  1. Bidets
    I was scared to try a bidet at first, but now there’s no going back. It’s amazing. I don’t really want to get into details with this one, because that would really be TMI, but I suggest that we make bidets a common thing in the U.S. You just feel so much cleaner when you use them.
  2. Floor heating
    Korean floor heating is called ondol (온돌) and it makes so much more sense than Western style heating systems. Korean floor heating takes advantage of the fact that heat rises, as the heated floor warms the whole room. This is especially effective if you sleep in the traditional Korean way, which is on a mat on the floor. Although I sleep in a bed in my dorm room, the ondol is still great since it heats the whole room from the bottom up.

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    Ondol system

  3. Street food and “fast food” options
    Where I live, there is little to no street food culture and fast food options are almost all greasy and horrible for your health. Korean street food culture, however, is alive and well. Around 6 or 7 PM, the street food carts come out next to my school, selling spicy rice cakes (ddeokbokki or 떡볶이), fish cakes, meat skewers, fried dumplings, fried chicken, etc. This food is cheap and delicious, although I will admit I have begun to avoid it because it is extremely greasy and usually gives me a stomachache. However, you can also find other types of street food like waffles, red bean-filled pastries, Japanese takoyaki, and others. The other part of this point is Korean “fast food.” Just like the U.S., Korea also has greasy, unhealthy fast food like McDonalds and other burgers-and-fries or fried chicken places like Lotteria and Mom’s Touch. However, Korea has a certain type of restaurant that we don’t really have in the U.S., and I will call it “fast food” for a lack of a better word. These restaurants serve “fast food” because they are cheap, convenient, and usually open 24 hours, and some of their options aren’t that healthy. But these restaurants also serve many other things, some of which are quite healthy and all the dishes cost about $5 or less. You can get ramen, fried pork cutlet, kimbap, dumplings, different kinds of noodles, kimchi stew and doenjang stew, bibimbap, and many other items at these restaurants. I really hope some restaurants like these open in the U.S., because then I might make some healthier eating choices when I get hungry in the middle of the night or am too lazy to cook.
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  4. Wine
    I like Western-style grape wine, but I think makgeolli (막걸리), or Korean rice wine, is much better. It is sweeter than a lot of wine, so it is easier to drink for those who don’t like the dry taste of wine. Plus, nowadays Korean pubs and bars are mixing makgeolli with other things to make it taste even better. Honey makgeolli is delicious, and cream milk makgeolli, although it might sound quite strange, is delicious. You can’t even taste the flavor of alcohol; it tastes like you are drinking a sweet, frothy smoothie. Of course, this means you need to be careful not to overdrink, because any Korean will tell you if don’t drink responsibly, makgeolli will give you a horrible hangover.
  5. Cafés
    Where I live, the most convenient cafe to go to is always a Starbucks. There are a few good local cafes around my house and my school, but they are few and far between. Starbucks is essentially the only chain coffeeshop in the area. As a coffee lover and someone who loves to try new things, going to Starbucks gets pretty stale after a while. In Korea, it is quite the opposite. There are many chain coffee shops that you can find everywhere with ranging prices (Bom Bom, Angel-in-us, Twosome Place, Cafe Pascucci, Cafe Bene, Tom N Toms, the list goes on) as well as countless local cafes everywhere you go. If I went to a new cafe near my university everyday, it would probably take me a month or two to try them all. Since I love coffee, this is probably one of my favorite things about Korea.
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  6. Rest stops
    Korean rest stops are also a world better than the ones I’ve visited in the U.S. The rest stops I’ve seen in the U.S. are usually rather small, mostly filled with a bunch of pamphlets and some vending machines. Korean rest stops include cafes, a convenience store, snack stands, and restaurants all within the same building. You can get a drink, snacks, or eat a whole meal if you want. Unfortunately, I’ve only had 15 minute breaks at rest stops since I can’t drive here and use buses to travel between cities, but if you ever get the chance to take your time at a Korean rest stop, I can guarantee you will leave full and satisfied.
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  7. Public transportation
    In Oklahoma, public transportation is almost nonexistent. Our state is too spread out and you need to have a car if you want to get anywhere with any sort of efficiency at all. My friend from New York City that I met here in Korea tells me that NYC’s public transportation system is incredibly confusing and if she hadn’t grown up there, she would constantly be getting lost. In Korea, however, the subway system and other public transportation is clear and easy to use, even for a first-timer. Public transportation is ubiquitous, and although having a car may be convenient at times, it is certainly not necessary and you can depend on public transport to get you anywhere you need to go in Korea.
  8. Delivery
    Just about the only things you can get delivered where I live in the U.S. is pizza and Chinese takeout. Perhaps there are some other restaurants that will deliver, but it probably won’t be cheap. In Korea, they have delivery figured out. Like we have American-style Chinese food in the U.S., Korea has it’s own Korean-style Chinese food that is commonly delivered. Fried chicken is also a common delivery food, and McDonald’s also delivers in Korea. I have a friend in the U.S. who would be in heaven if McDonald’s delivered in the U.S. (hi Lily!) and I think it’s a business strategy that American McDonald’s should consider.

Of course there are many other things that Korea does well, but I will stop here for today. Some other countries might already have some of the things that I listed here, but none of the items from my list are things that the United States really has figured out. I recommend that the U.S. learn a thing or to from Korea and start adopting some of these, and then maybe I won’t be quite as depressed when I have to go home at the end of my year here.

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Things my parents need to know before coming to Korea

My parents are coming to visit me in Korea in February! I’m incredibly excited to see them and that they will have the opportunity to experience Korea for themselves. I’ve already raved about many of Korea’s good points to them, but I am getting a little nervous about some of the parts of Korea that might give them a little more culture shock. So, I’ve compiled this list of things I want to warn them about before they arrive. As a forewarning, this post may come across as quite negative because it is a list of phenomena in Korea that Westerners may be uncomfortable with or dislike, but I just wanted to put all of these things in one place for my parents and for anyone else that may find this information useful. Don’t worry, my next post will be about some of the things I love about Korea.

Food

  1. Restaurants
    There are few things to know about restaurants in Korea before walking into one. The first is that you shouldn’t try to change any menu items. Don’t ask to leave anything out, or to substitute anything. I suppose it’s possible that the restaurant might accommodate your requests, but as a general rule people just don’t do this in Korea. You are probably going to confuse your server and they will likely say that you can’t do that. Second, don’t expect a huge glass of water with your food like you get in restaurants in the US. Koreans drink a lot less water than Americans with their meals, and the cups are almost always very small. You will often get a jug of water to refill your cups, but not always. Finally, taking your leftovers with you is not common in Korea. If you don’t finish your food, you leave it behind. The only place I’ve seen that packed up uneaten food was a fried chicken place. In general, it’s best to just not ask.
  2. Korea’s idea of Western food
    Korea has a lot of Western-style restaurants and snacks. Some of it is amazing: I’ve had some of the best Italian pasta in my life in Korea. Some of it is just…a little off. Although it is “Western” food in the sense that it is based on the foods of Western countries, Koreans have their own take on Western foods that seem to be based on their perception of Western tastes. Firstly, Koreans seem to think most Western food is sweet; as a result, many Westerns would find a lot of Western-style foods in Korea to be strangely sweet. Breads are often covered in some kind of sugary buttery spread, salad dressings are sweet and fruity, corn dogs are often coated in sugar. A sandwich with meat, cheese, and vegetables will have a sweet sauce spread on it. Finally, even if your Korean Western-style food isn’t strangely sweet, it will probably have way too much mayonnaise slathered on it. Koreans seem to love their ketchup and mayo a little too much, and since it’s uncommon to ask for menu items to be altered, you’re going to have to scrape it off your burger yourself if you don’t want it.
  3. Coffee
    There are cafes on every street corner in Korea, and you will never have trouble ordering an americano or a cafe latte, but my mom drinks a cup of plain ol’ joe every morning. Unfortunately, most Korean cafes only have espresso beverages and do not sell plain coffee. I have seen a couple of cafes that do have plain coffee, but it seems to be marketed here as more of a luxury, instead of being the cheapest drink on the menu like it is in the U.S. The cafes where it is sold allow the customer to pick the type of beans they want (as in, based on the location where they were grown) and the prices are higher than an americano and sometimes even more expensive than the lattes. So Mom, get ready to be drinking a lot of espresso when you get here.
  4. Chocolate, bread, and cheese
    I will admit, the U.S. is not known for its chocolate, bread, or cheese. That would be Europe, of course. But both of my parents are a little snobbish when it comes to these foods, and they are willing to pay the price for European imports from time to time. In Korea, European imports are harder to find and more expensive than in the U.S. and I’m sorry, but most Korean chocolate has been a disappointment for a chocoholic like me. The chocolate flavor is not strong and chocolate desserts usually just taste overwhelmingly sweet. The sweet breads are often decent, but more yeasty breads and cakes are usually lacking. Korean cheese is usually of the fake, Kraft cheese singles variety, which I will admit is often more satisfying than I would like to admit. Just don’t expect to find a good Brie or Camembert here.

Public spaces and interacting with others

  1. Public transportation
    Korea has some extremely efficient public transportation. As a result, a lot of people use it every day, and as a result of that, it is often quite crowded. When it gets crowded, Koreans do not want to wait for the next bus or train. They will force as many people onto the vehicle as possible, so my parents need to be prepared for this. If you ride the subway or bus during a busy time, you will probably not be able to sit and you will be packed in like a sardine without any respect for your personal space. You will be expected to push back and make as much room as you can for the people getting on after you. It’s gonna get pretty toasty.
  2. Pushing
    I’m not exactly sure if this is a Korean thing or a city thing, but in all of the cities I have been to in Korea, people push. Do not stand in anybody’s way, because they will just push past you. If they are young, they are less likely to be aggressive, muttering an “excuse me” as they move by without too much force, but you need to watch out for the middle-aged women, referred to as ahjummas (아줌마). In short, they just do not care. I am always surprised by the strength that these women have in their shoulders and elbows as they shove you aside when trying to get past you on the street or the bus. Maybe they would have a little more consideration for other adults like my parents, but if my friends and I are in their way we are going down.
  3. Staring
    I’m not sure how much of an issue this will be. In the area around my university and downtown, two places filled with young people, I don’t get stared at much. Koreans my age who live in bigger cities are usually more used to seeing foreigners around and more embarrassed (or at least more covert) about staring. The people who usually stare the most are young children and older people. I am curious to see if my parents will be stared at more than I have been. I fall into the most common age group of foreigners in Korea: around 20-40 years old, as most foreigners are students or in the army. There are not many foreigners in Korea younger than 20 or older than 40, and my parents fall into that older bracket (sorry Mom and Dad). I wonder if this extra factor that makes my parents more unique in Korea will cause them to get stared at more. In any case, it’s not too hard to get used to staring; most of the time, people are clearly just looking out of pure curiosity and do not appear mean-spirited.
  4. Coughing, sneezing, spitting, and smoking
    These are probably the four things I just can’t get used to in Korea. I don’t know if I would ever really get used to them, no matter how long I lived here. First of all, a lot of Koreans do not cover their mouths or noses when they cough and sneeze. I’m sorry, I know this may sound narrow-minded or culturally insensitive, but….that’s nasty. It’s just a hygiene thing. I don’t want to get sick from your germs, people. My mom is a germaphobe and I know she will have trouble with this too, so I am giving her fair warning. It is also considered acceptable to spit and smoke in the street. Although I have seen a few women do this, it is mostly men who have these unfortunate habits. Men smoke everywhere, and sometimes you have to watch out while you are walking outside to avoid stepping in spit. Just to be clear, many Koreans also think these habits are gross, but it is still extremely common.

Miscellaneous 

  1. Bathrooms
    The main thing I want to warn my parents about Korean bathrooms is the size. They are used to the U.S., where everything is built big, and Oklahoma, where everything is built bigger. Korea is small and they need to conserve space. As a result, a lot of their bathrooms are tiny. I have been in bathrooms where my knees almost touched the stall door, and I have very short legs. Be ready to squeeze yourself into the bathroom and when you get in there, be ready for it to be a little dirty. Of course, not all Korean bathrooms are dirty, but it seems that the standards for bathroom cleanliness in restaurants, cafes, etc. are more lax than in the U.S. The last thing is that from what I’ve heard, Korean toilet paper is not made to dissolve in water (and apparently American toilet paper does?) I’m not really sure about this, but the point is that many businesses in Korea ask that you throw toilet paper in the trash can, not the toilet. If you see a sign in Korean on the inside of the stall door and a trash can full of toilet paper, you should probably not put your toilet paper in the toilet in case it clogs. Was this TMI for my blog? Too late, I already wrote it. Plus, it’s important to know.
  2. Cars and motorcycles
    The last thing I want to warn my parents about before they come to Korea is Korean driving. Driving is relatively calm in Oklahoma, although it is slowly getting worse. My mom nearly has an aneurysm every time she has to drive in Dallas or some other big city. Although my parents won’t be driving themselves in Korea, they need to be prepared for how others drive. It doesn’t matter whether they take the bus or a taxi, everyone in Korea drives crazy. Drivers blatantly ignore traffic rules, constantly cut each other off, and park wherever they feel like. I’ve been in a taxi where the brake light was on and the driver was using his emergency break to stop, and I’ve been in a taxi that ran red lights if it was clear (again, sorry Mom and Dad.) I regularly fear for the lives of old ladies crossing the street who look like they are about to be run over by the bus I am riding. Finally, motorcycles. Delivery motorcyclists drive wherever they want, however they want. You will need to pay attention at all times and frequently move out of the way of motorcyclists who are driving on the sidewalk, weaving through the crowds of pedestrians. Mom and Dad, when you come, just pay attention and try not to have a heart attack.

That’s all for now, folks. Mom and Dad, I’m so excited for you to visit me in Korea, and I know you will love it here. These are just some things I want you to be aware of beforehand so you can enjoy the good parts of Korea even more. Now that I’ve made it seem like I hate Korea, in the next post I will talk about some of the things that Korea does better than the US.

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