Career & Education

Life in South Korea

As told by Sabrina Morant

Sunday, August 06, 2017

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I have never stayed away from Jamaica for more than four weeks at a time, so imagine the different emotions that went through me when, in the summer of 2015, I was informed that my scholarship application for a Master of Urban and Regional Development in South Korea was successful.

I had never visited, or really knew anything about South Korea prior to March that year. It suddenly came into full view that this strange country was going to be my home for the next 16 months.

I had always considered myself to be a go-getter, but this time I thought I had surely bitten off more than I could chew. For one, I was leaving behind my friends, family, and familiarity. This, flat out, was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.

The date came — August 17, 2015 — and I arrived at the Incheon International Airport in South Korea.

I had been in big airports before, but none such as this! I was greeted by a traditional march of what looked like a king and people from a palace and I thought that life in Korea meant kings and queens and palaces. This was great!

I was processed at immigration and I proceeded to follow the instructions received from my scholarship body, Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). I found the help desk, and also found a friend — James. He was the first black person I met on my arrival, so obviously, we struck up a conversation right away. This is great, I thought. At least he brought some semblance of familiarity, which somewhat masked how terrified I really felt. My obvious thought was that I am unfamiliar with the culture and I honestly did not want to misstep or make anyone uncomfortable. James assisted me as much as possible and we exchanged numbers and went our separate ways.

As I waited at the customer service desk, I observed other people arriving and realised that the entire cohort for my course was arriving on the same day\. We travelled through the night by bus and taxi and was housed at the KOICA headquarters. The flight was long, the day was long, and all I wanted by then was a bed. Sleep on the first night came quickly, and I hardly noticed the time difference. In the morning, I almost missed breakfast and learned really quickly that being on time was very important, especially when it relates to being fed.

We spent a few days at KOICA and was introduced to a few thing Koreans, particularly the hanbok, the language, and what to do and not do. I thought to myself that if this is what living in a dorm will be like, then I must be in heaven. Sadly, living in the lap of luxury came to an end and I soon found out that life in a real dorm was a totally different setting.

I attended the University of Seoul in the heart of the capital. This was great, because all the adventure and excitement was only a train or bus ride away — once you got the hang of the transportation system. Within a few weeks of arriving — I learned the importance of catching the train before midnight. Otherwise you might find yourself scampering to find your way home, especially when you're lost and don't know Korean. I made it home safely, thanks to a great Korean guy who ensured that I was taken directly to the entrance of my dorm; I even got in before my curfew that night.

The adventure didn't end there however, as I lost my wallet with all the money I had, my passport, and all forms of identification.

Korea is such a great country with honest people, that after crying for almost two hours and retracing my steps, I found my wallet at a sandwich shop I had visited several weeks before. Money, cards and everything else were still within.

As time progressed, and I started exploring my immediate surroundings, I summoned the courage to venture further out and tried to see as much of the country as possible. The scholarship body had graciously planned several key field trips, some of which took us as far away as Busan. These trips were not only educational, but they allowed us — students from 18 different countries — to interact with each other and several individuals and organisations in Korea which helped us better understand the culture, history, vision, drive, and ambitions of the people.

There were many lessons to be learnt from living in South Korea, but I think the one that stood out most for me was the drive of the people to have a better and honest life.

Historically, the Koreas were among the poorest nations on Earth. Today, they stand proud among the most technologically advanced First-World countries. While there, I learned that they discovered early that being educated was one of the key ways to drive economic growth and prosperity, and they strove for it.

My time spent in South Korea afforded me the opportunity to learn a new language (though I am still a novice) and meet a multitude of people from countries that I hope to visit some day. The experience taught me that, although cultures can collide, with understanding and appreciation for the differences in of us, we can all live, love, learn , and exist in the samespace.

South Korea is beautiful, the people are friendly and, despite the fact that a language barrier existed, there was no mistaking the love and appreciation of the people. One example was my Saturday morning swimming lessons at the pool where I became known and loved. We did not understand much about each other's speech, but we surely enjoyed swimming and hanging out in the pool together.

South Korea is an exciting place to live, and if given the opportunity to re-visit or live there, I would not hesitate; I would grab it with both hands.

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