Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tales of a hyper-politically correct American and her ongoing journey in chilling out: the first night in Seoul

I have to say, I was very proud of the group our first night in Seoul. Needless to say we were exhausted from the trip over, but we pushed through and hit the ground running in our attempts to explore the city. Our first mission was food, (obviously). I’ve only ever been out of the country one other time in my life. But through that experience, I sort of gathered this hypothesis that the way people consume and share food can tell you so much more about a culture. So I was excited to put that to the test in Korea. Literally just a few steps outside of our hotel, we had our first taste of Korean street food.

People are more impactful than places: a "site visit" story

We were lucky enough to have a lot of really interesting site visits this trip. The visit to the DMZ in particular was totally surreal. You read about the conflict between North and South Korea, and admittedly in the US Kim Jong Un is more of a joke than anything else. And there we found ourselves, visiting what is essentially a physical manifestation of the divide between those two countries. Seeing the “propaganda towns” was insane to me. When I was looking at them through the telescope at the DMZ, the theme song to the Twilight Zone was totally playing in my head. However interesting our time in the DMZ was, nothing had a greater impact on me this trip than having the opportunity to listen to North Korean refugees speak later that day.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Reevaluating Reunification

Prior to our trip to South Korea, the topic of reunification was mentioned, but not emphasized. When we arrived in Seoul, that's all everything related back to. The National Assembly had a second chamber that currently stands empty with the idea that it will become the nation's Senate Chamber once South Korea reunifies with the north. North Korea supports South Korea in their "land" dispute with Japan because they firmly believe that in the future they will reunify (read: invade) with their neighbors and the islands will become theirs. South Korea is so convinced that they will reunify with North Korea that they built the Dorasan Train Station in the DMZ. This station is the last station on the South Korean side of the DMZ and was made with the intentions of connecting South Korea to North Korea. Initially I was shocked they had a Ministry of Reunification.

Demilitarized Zone

On Thursday, March 12th, we left early in the morning for the DMZ, or Korean Demilitarized Zone. It is the most heavily militarized border in the entire world, separating North from South Korea along what became known after the Korean War as the 38th Parallel. It is approximately 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. This was definitely the site I was most looking forward to visiting during our trip.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Hope to see you soon Seoul.

I am so glad I decided to take the risk back in the fall and apply for this abroad experience.  More than a trip, this was a learning experience for me. I definitely agree with other students who have mentioned a trip like this should be a requirement at some point in their college career.  For someone who aspires to go into foreign service, this served as a great help in my discernment.  Our first day in Seoul, I met Marymount alumni Nastacia House.  Nastacia currently works as an English teacher outside of Seoul.  I have seriously taken this into consideration after I graduate next year.  This would serve as learning experience which would aid my chances of going to grad school and starting my career while at the same time helping other students enhance their english.  Hearing foreign service officer Anthony speak of his time as an english teacher in Japan encouraged me to really consider going back.

Sick Selfie

One of the best experiences of this trip was being able to listen to the refugees and their stories. It was so heartbreaking but at the same time inspirational to listen to these women tell their stories, share their experiences and open their hearts with strangers. It was impressive to see the level of English they had and how confortable they felt telling their story. Makes me realize and think about the things that I have, and complain about silly things such as “ Uh the wifi is not working.” No, it is not the end of the world, we will survive and everything will be okay. It was so inspiring to see how these women have fought really hard to be where they are right now. Form being two days without food on shelter crossing a river to being caught by being put in Jail and beat up because they were fighting for freedom. This was by far one of the most interesting things we did.

The "perfect" Korean Woman

Travelling to Korea was of course a cultural shock. The first day Karen and me got into a little situation, as we hopped in the cab just knowing the name of the place we were going. We had it written down on our phone, but it was in English. It took me a while to understand why the cab driver was so confused. Duh he could not read English! We also met some Koreans that were explaining what would be the “perfect” Korean woman, in other words what stereotypes are seen as beautiful in their society. Big eyes are considered very pretty, also with very defined bags underneath the eyes. Unhealthy weight is seen as a sign of laziness and women are less likely to get employed! Not expected the bags under the eyes to be cute, we hate them here!

Coming Back :(

The trip as a whole was such a wonderful experience. Not only did I get to experience soul at its finest but got to meet some great people in my class. The trip was amazing, I learned so much in the laps of one week that at the end I did not want to leave. After getting home It really hit me how although there is a lot of American influence, there is still that true Korean culture that I fell in love with. I loved the fast speed street life, but also appreciated that people took their time to have either lunch or dinner sitting down. Also I really enjoyed that Korean culture shares food in the table, it brought a sense of unity and sharing.

Insight from Museums

Weeks before our class trip abroad, we studied Korean political history and events leading up to the Democratic movement.  During that time, our assigned readings from Park Chung Hee Era and Korea the Impossible country laid a foundation and prepared us for the learning experience.  Much on our time was spent going to museums and I have to admit this was much more interesting than reading the books.
Later in the week, we visited the National Museum of Korean Contemporary situated between the American embassy and Gyeongbokgung palace.  From our readings, I learned that education played a major role in South Korea's advancement.  From the museum I learned that although all Korean citizens were to receive mandatory education as stated in the constitution, it did not take effect until years later. By the late 1950's figures showed that elementary school attendance had increased to 96% and illiteracy had dropped to around 20%.

Overall: Awesome

            The overall perception I have of Seoul and the Korean people is one of high praise. I thought the trip was going to be a good one, but I assumed beforehand that something would irk me about the people or some other instance. I didn’t though; the people themselves were very nice and incredibly helpful. They knew we were tourists and were very patient with us. The transportation system was much better than ours, from the underground tunnels to the trains themselves and the buses; it was just amazing at how efficient it was.
The food was incredible and every restaurant from street food to dives, to bars, and to high class was so amazing. The fried chicken was the best thing ever. I may never eat fried chicken in America again. The Korean barbecue was various but each one that I went to had its own little charm and flavor. The food was also so cheap and as a poor college student (as most are) can appreciate that. Top to bottom though it was amazing food.

Travel in Korea

Traveling in Korea has a lot to offer, but in my journey in Korea, I saw two things that are very different and distinct from here in Washington D.C. Firstly, I found the Seoul metro or subway system to be impeccable. I liked how it was very organized and clearly laid out. It was also incredibly clean compared to the D.C. metro. It seemed to be about a $1 equivalent, which was incredible. Most important of all though it had a jingle that I have played in my head almost everyday since I’ve gotten back. In comparison to D.C. metro its so much better. The second thing I found very interesting was the street food, which in every way was incredible, from weird delicacies to delicious chocolate pupusa type food. It was available almost everywhere and everything was delicious. I was eye opening compared to D.C. where street fair is a hot dog or something uninteresting and its not always good. The week I spent traveling in Seoul was much better than the two years of travel I’ve done in Washington D.C. So I have just one question to ask when can we go back?

Korean Subway Etiquette

There is something so different about Korean culture than American, specifically D.C. culture. In a D.C. metro, there are often "rules" like no eating or drinking which are never followed and it is a dark, smelly and in general not a fun place to be. The stations are large and also dirty, and I often don't feel safe at several stops/lines. People are loud and often appear angry. Oh, and there is no wifi.

Best Trip So Far

Traveling to Seoul has officially become the best trip, domestic and international, of my life so far. It was an amazing experience and one that will be very hard to top. One thing that made the trip for me was the people I got to travel with. Everyone was so much fun and even when we were jet lagged, exhausted and didn't want to be physically doing anything other than sleeping, everyone was a great sport and just powered through and didn't care how tired we were, we were going to have a great time. That and the Sarahs and Professor Rector always kept things interesting and us on the move. Professor Rector even coined a catchphrase from the first day on, "SO in Korean Culture..." with usually some false or at least not entirely true statement attached.

DMZ site visit

 I definitely had a very interesting experience at DMZ mainly because it gave me a chance to see North Korea in person for the first time in my life. It was kind of weird seeing the card board city that I had read about and seen in the movie the Interview because it looked like a buzzing city from the observatory. I was also even more surprised about the DMZ movie that started out looking like a WWII call to action video ended looking like a nature island paradise advertisement and ended with the odd slogan "Long live the DMZ!".

Overall Impressions of Seoul

Overall I have to say that my experience in Korea was nothing short of spectacular and I will easily go back in a heart beat if I could. I will always remember this trip as one of the best ones that I have ever taken and I say that as someone that has been fortunate enough to travel the world many times and has been on more planes than I care to remember. I will always remember the delicious food, the hospitable people and the adventurous feeling each night when I went out. I had no idea what to expect because I had never gone to Asia and the majority of the places I went to were either in Europe or the Middle and I was ready to get out of my comfort zone and experience a whole new part of the world. Now having returned to the states I can say that I love everything about my experience in Korea from the people I met, to the food I ate, to the places I saw, I loved it all.

The National Museum of Korean Contemporary History

 My favorite site we visited was The National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, with Jenny, a graduate student and PhD candidate at Korea University. We went to three museums that day, but I l enjoyed the first much more than the others. At this site we saw a modern history of Korea, when it was still a unified nation, through the atrocities it suffered by the Japanese colonization for more than 30 years, and now as a separated Democratic state, who's economy is one of the top 20 in the world and still growing. We toured the museum and then sat down to discuss questions we had about the museum and anything we learned in class with Jenny. This was to me the best part of all of the museum tours, because learning Korean history and cultural from an American perspective with little insight to the cultural aspects doesn't allow you to fully grasp the concepts or just why some things are so important and still matter greatly to people today. I really appreciated learning Jenny's point of view, she was very passionate and involved in many aspects of what to us American students seemed like things of the past or other details, but to her and many other Korean's they are a staple part of their culture and identity. She made me realize the full significance of the Dokdo islands, and why they insist it's theirs and not Japanese territory and even that the ultimate goal of the South Korean government is to reunify North and South Korea as one. Before the museum and meeting Jenny I thought South Koreans hated North Koreans, as I had heard that defectors from the North often face discrimination, but after talking to her and hearing the ultimate goal was reunification, I believe that they truly care for their neighbors and hate the human right's violations that often occur there but have a fear of them in general.  In class we briefly learned of the Japanese colonization, and talked about Dokdo, but until the visit I didn't and couldn't fully understand how they were so passionate and the full extent of it. I believe I learned a lot from Jenny and the museum and combined it with my previous knowledge about Korea and created a new perspective that I think gives me a greater understanding.

Dog Cafes - and the Subway!

Seoul was a plethora of new and exciting sights and smells – Koreans certainly make the most of every bit of space. And yet, it was never as overwhelming as I had expected. Street food carts set up shop everywhere, stores beckoned with their affordable wares. In particular, my favorite attraction had to be the cat and dog cafes. It’s such a simple idea, yet completely unheard of on our side of the globe. All you have to do is purchase a drink, and you’re all set to spend an evening with all of the friendly cats and/or dogs. Although I went with a group to the cat café in Myeong-dong near our hotel, I decided to venture out on my own to the dog café in Haepjong. Of course there were plenty of historical and noteworthy sights to be seen in Seoul, but this was definitely the most fun for me – no shame. 

Learning Culture Firsthand

One of the things we did on our visit to Korea was go to three museums with a guide from a grad student as Korea University named Eunkyo or Jennifer. She led us through the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, Museum of Military History/War Memorial, and the National Museum of Korea.

Although I enjoyed going through and learning about the history and culture, I like our discussions we had with Jennifer in each museum. I loved learning how she thinks of the world and how she views Korea’s relations with other countries. It was eye opening because often I tend to think that other people our age in other places think the same way we do, but in fact cultures determine how we see the world and it is often very different. For example, when I was learning about the Dokdo Islands I assumed the younger generation was not very involved in the argument: whether the islands are Korea’s or Japan’s. When talking to Jennifer I found that my assumption was very wrong. Jennifer is just as passionate about the islands as I thought only the adults were.  Jennifer believes that the islands are Korea’s and hopes that when she has children that they will feel as connected with the islands and that they belong to them now and forever. Her passion was incredible and not what I was expecting when someone asked about her view on the islands. Her perspective made me think more about other controversial topics, that I thought other people might hold the same view,  and to examine the issues from both perspectives. I think I definitely learned the most about Korean beliefs and culture from having discussions with Jennifer.

I'll be back

It hit me pretty hard the night before we left that I was really, really, really, really, going to miss South Korea, and I plan on returning, most definitely. When I first landed I truly didn't know what to expect.  I had read some articles and school assignments on South Korea, and I was vaguely aware of the food.  I had no idea what to expect about the true nature of South Korea, both the people and the place, until I got there.  The unknown might scare some people but for me I was so excited about finding out whether or not I would like it there that I didn't really think about how I would react if it wasn't really my "cup of tea".  I decided I would say yes to anything within reason, power through sleep deprivation and experience every little bit of Korean Culture that I could in what little time I was there.

Riding the Subway on "Airplane Mode"

In America, when you are on an airplane, silence is golden. 

Site Visit-Korea University

When I read the itinerary, I truly did not expect the visit to Korea University to be one of the highlights of the trip!  After a 15 minute spiel/video montage promoting Korea University, we were given a 15 minute powerpoint history lesson on Korea University from a decidedly Canadian International Admissions Coordinator.   We were then treated to a lecture by Professor Jai Kwan Jung, who teaches political science at Korea University, about the June 1987 uprising from the perspective of a Korean.  The topic of my term paper just so happens to be East Asian democratization so Professor Jung's speech was of particular interest to me!  Afterwards we met with students at Korea University; there were three of us at every table and each table met with one student.  We must have drawn the short straw or something because in walked an American exchange student from Texas, named Eddie, who had only been in the country for a little over 2 I was expecting to have an in depth, illuminating discussion about Korean culture with a Korean who is around my age and instead I am getting an unexpected, albeit interesting, look at how it is to be an exchange student at Korea University.  The conversation took the natural progression of young adults: gradually degenerating from important nuances of Korean culture to where the best bars in town are.  After meeting with the students we were split into two groups and taken on a tour(guided by a Korean University Graduate Student Ambassador) of the Korea University Campus, and....just wow, such a beautiful open and welcoming place where even though it was 20 degrees out everyone just seemed to be enjoying themselves.  You hear stereotypical horror stories about the stress involved in East Asian education systems but here it seemed like everyone was having a great time.  On top of that, this place was basically the size of 50 Marymount campuses, all the buildings were relatively new, everything was on another level than any American university I had ever visited.  I honestly was seeing myself in Graduate school there by the time we left; as I finish writing this post I realize that me wanting to go there was exactly what they were going for.  Well played Korea University, well played.

James Decker


Seoul, South Korea: March 7 - 14, 2015

Korea was an amazing experience – not only was it the furthest I’ve ever traveled, but it was also about as far removed from Western society as I have ever come. Traveling throughout Europe in the past, I noticed subtle differences in mannerisms, behavior, and food. However, in East Asia, the differences are much more pronounced, including the very writing they use. Before going, we learned what would be expected of us as American students traveling abroad – some basic do’s and don’t’s – and also, what to expect while there. For example, when giving or receiving an item from someone, you do so with both hands instead of one. This is something unheard of in Western society, but taken very seriously in the East.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A new interest in international politics?

Being a Biology major in an upper level politics class, I was a bit fearful that the trip was going to be heavily politics influence with zero free time. But little did I know that I was actually going to enjoy the politics part of the trip. It enhanced the information we learned in the classroom setting. For instance, I didn’t know the grave impact the sinking of the MV Sewol had on Koreans. A year later, they still have tents up every hour and every day of the week for grieving families seeking answers from the government. I read over 15 articles about the incident on April 16, 2014 but I didn’t understand its impact until I went to Seoul and saw for myself.

This trip was also helpful in my understanding of the relationship between South and North Korea, and especially South Korea and Japan. Tour guides and students of Korea took every chance to emphasize their hatred towards the Japanese for not apologizing for mistreating Koreans.

Other than Nepal, I have never been to an Asian country so I was not sure what to expect for Korea but it definitely exceeded its unset standards. This trip surprisingly peaked my interest in international politics, although I am not sure how long it will last. Overall, Seoul was a wonderful opportunity to learn and expand my international knowledge, politically and culturally. Some aspects of Korean culture are similar to Nepali culture, which shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. This trip certainly confirmed my belief that you can only understand a culture if you fully try to immerse yourself in it, even if it is seoully (pun intended) for a week.  

Steamed Octopus to Friendships

Travelling in Seoul allowed me to meet other foreigners who were just as lost as we were about directions. While struggling to scan my card on the Seoul subway, I met a super friendly Estonian girl who had only been in Seoul for about two weeks teaching English. We immediately started chatting about being foreigners and our experiences so far in Seoul; she even tried to help us find a karaoke place, so called Noraebang in Korean.

The last day in Seoul, Riham and I decided to be adventurous and go to Itaewon to eat and catch a bit of Seoul’s nightlife. As we exited the subway station, we picked a random restaurant that appeared to be an authentic Korean restaurant. We were seated in between two tables and we ordered steamed octopus, dumplings, noodles, and chestnut wine. We were being a little adventurous with the steamed octopus and had way too much for the two of us, so we offered some to the girls sitting to the left of us. Then they offered their dish what I believe was vegetarian pancakes. When I asked if they liked the steamed octopus dish, both of the girls said no immediately which I thought was amusing. There was a slight language barrier but we used hand signals in times of crisis. During our exchange of foods and drinks, one of the girls, Heejoo Kim, said that she wanted to be friends when she saw us because she knew we were foreign. After dinner, the two girls showed us around Itaewon to make sure we had fun during our last night in Seoul. Overall the city is full with people who are beyond friendly to foreigners. You can basically ask anyone for help and they will even if they don’t speak English.

The two Korean girls and I are now facebook friends, so I guess you could say offering food can possibly guarantee a friendship.