Seoul, South Korea may be known for being quite Westernised (especially with it’s reputation as a tourist destination) but it is as far from Australia as I could have imagined. Many people, especially those who have an online based knowledge of Korean culture and language will find themselves surprised when they actually arrive. It is nothing like the television shows, but perhaps that is for the better. Seoul is a city that is best experienced by those with a genuine interest in the culture and one should never assume expertise unless you have lived here previously. The language, culture and society is vastly different to what the bloggers tell us and it is intricate, complicated and strict.
We are not in Kansas anymore.
About the City
Seoul is a city of contrast; on one hand, it is highly commercialised with large billboard advertisements, flashing lights and sales people screaming about discounts. On the other, it is still clinging to its history and culture with entire areas dedicated to traditional villages, art and independent Korean designers/artists. Coming from Sydney where historical sites are fairly sparse, it is experiencing this culture that will make the trip worth it. Don’t be afraid to try new foods, jump at opportunities to explore and live life like the locals. Also, bring a camera.
The transportation system is Seoul is extremely reliable and affordable, meaning that fewer people actually drive here. If you are travelling in the nearby areas, you are looking at around 1,050 won on the train (the equivalent of approximately $1.20). However, people usually use T-Money cards so ensure that you get one of those or, if you are officially a Yonsei Student, then you can use your student card for that. It is also possible to pay for things like cabs with the same card.
There are no student rates for transportation – not that you would need it. Trains are generally five minutes apart, ten at maximum, so you’ll be absolutely spoilt here. Train stations are read out in English, but having basic knowledge of Hangul would definitely be beneficial.
Before you go to Seoul, it would be best to look up where you will be staying. I’m told that it’s not too big a problem if you figure it out once you’re here too (since there are Goshiwons everywhere) but I still think that it is safest to book in beforehand. I came to Seoul three weeks in advance, which I definitely recommend, and booked into a Guest House online. Don’t expect too much from these places because housing is expensive in Seoul and many places are small and cramped. Your main concern, really, is to ensure that it is clean with good security. You’ll spend most of your time outside, anyway.
Shopping in Seoul can be either very cheap or very expensive, so it is definitely up to you. Areas around the universities (Sinchon, Edae, Hongdae) are very affordable while the upper end areas like Gangnam or Apgujeong can be more expensive. If you are a girl and wanting to buy clothes, like myself, then you should be shopping around. Many of these stores sell the same things from the same Dongdaemun wholesaler, so you can usually find things again. Also, a lot of people talk about haggling in Korea and I just want to say that you should only do this moderately and in certain establishments. Many sales people will give foreigners a higher quote so don’t be afraid to just walk away or show your objections (politely). If they are rude to you, just walk away.
For restaurants, things work differently to in Sydney. 95% of these establishments will have free water that you have to get yourself and chopsticks/spoons are located in a small drawer attached to the table. In some, they will bring you kimchi or you will be getting your own. I feel that, in Sydney, waiters/waitresses are expected to serve but in Korea, the general consensus is that you are a patron, but they are not ‘lower’ than the customer. Generally, no one will ever be rude though.
Food is often sweeter than they are in Western countries so look forward to sweet sandwiches, super sweet toast desserts, and even sweet salted popcorn. Fusion food is generally huge here but you’ll be finding some pretty creative combinations.
(Don’t be afraid to try these. Just do it.)
A lot of these restaurants also deliver and the service is approximately a million times better than it is in Australia. While you can get pizza, you can also get noodles, rice dishes, Korean fried chicken, snacks.. McDonalds delivers as well. All of these services are very reliable but most will need some knowledge of Korean language so you’ll need to ask someone to help you out.
A lot of people talk about Korea being the most polite country ever and, while I would never generalise an entire population, I have to say that the idea of politeness and formality is very different to Westernised society. Many people will charge through streets without care for the people around them and, if they bump into you, they won’t stop to apologise unless they’ve seriously knocked the wind out of you.
These are just differences in culture and society though so you don’t need to be offended by this. If anything, I think that you will just gradually get used to it.
About Yonsei University
Yonsei University is known as one of the most prestigious universities in South Korea (accompanied with Seoul National Univ and Korea Univ, they make up the SKY Universities) so you should definitely be proud of being here. For many Koreans, they will actually approach or treat you differently if they know you’re from Yonsei as well, so it’s definitely a quirk. They’re very big on school pride here, so you’ll be seeing a lot of varsity jackets, school chants and events.
The Yonsei University system is very strict on attendance and deadlines, so make sure that everything is submitted on time and find out from your professor how many classes you can miss. If you go over that, it’s an automatic fail, irregardless of circumstances. I’m told that everything is recorded digitally, so even the professors don’t have the power to fix that afterwards. A lot of assignment submissions are also done online through their YSCEC portal, so you need to hit that deadline on the hour.
When you’re choosing subject, make sure that they are offered in English and on the right campus. Yonsei University has two campuses (the other is the International Campus) and since it is too far away and not very feasible for students, they don’t allow us to attend them. Subject selection is also a very competitive process so, once you receive instruction son how to enrol, wake up in advance and list your courses in order of priority and the number of seats available. Also, have back up subjects selected and click like a mad man. Definitely don’t leave this to last minute or you’ll regret it.
Seoul is extremely different to Sydney and that is exactly why I love it so much. Although I had confusions to begin with, I became accustomed after meeting more local students, discussing their culture and starting to properly learn their language. Although I had been warned about experiencing culture shock while I was here, I’ve yet to have any problems with that. My taste buds have been adapted to the Korean style, so I have a feeling that I will actually experience shock when I’m forced to return home.
However, living in Seoul has taught me both reasons why I want to stay in this city and reasons why I don’t. Unlike viewing everything through a computer monitor, there are no colour filters and scripts to make things rosier. I think that people have to learn to accept the country for what it is – good, bad and the different. It’s the same everywhere, really, but a lot of people seem to come here with romanticised expectations.
The city is massive and, since it’s so different to home, there’s a lot to see and do. University work loads can get quite intense here, meaning that it’s almost impossible to go sightseeing during the week, so it’s best to do that beforehand. I went to see the traditional houses, museums, palaces, galleries, design buildings and to the markets – things that you definitely should not neglect. You’ll be walking a lot, especially because Korea is quite a mountainous country (even in the cities), so bring your comfortable shoes!
Staying at the university’s dorm is also a good idea, although it’s a long distance from the main classrooms. It’s helpful to have friends who will go out and experience things with you – even when it’s a late night trip to the convenience store. Having friends also keeps you grounded and, really, I think that this is the main reason that I’ve yet to have any shock.
I would highly recommend Seoul and Yonsei University to any UTS students. It’s such an eye opening experience and so different to the Sydney lifestyle that it would be silly to miss.
Written by Stella Thai [ 11723525 ]