Essay: Embracing Korea

[This essay is for my graduate school application and i am not sure if i am actually allowed to publish this but nevermind.. I already did. The DAD scholarship credits goes to a long time colleague, Sam. He does have that sense of humor where I can have a real cracker.]

Embracing Korea

If somebody in high school would have asked me if I ever planned on doing my undergraduate studies in Korea, I would have given him an emphatic “No, of course not!”

And here I was, strapped around in economy seat in Flight K90 to Incheon from Kathmandu making my way to Seoul National University’s freshman orientation that was scheduled the very next morning. With absolutely no language skills and with modicum of knowledge that I got to associate it with the “hermit kingdom”, I finally set foot on the nation that I would call my home for the next four years. Korea had embraced me; I wasn’t sure if I was ready to embrace back.

The first few months were incredibly painful. When you come to new country, you leave behind the comforts of your home into a zone that is blindingly dark. You have to have the ability adapt to everything, from early morning sanitation to your eating habits during meals, from your body language to the language that you speak, from having everyone around you to having literally no one. I seemed to lack exactly that, struggling to deal with the full brunt that the change was imposing on me; it felt as though somebody simply picked me up, flew me to a rainforest and dropped me down. I was desperately trying to maneuver through uncharted territories without a working compass.

There were further issues of adaptation. Having to deal with students who are equally brilliant and hardworking meant that my first semester wasn’t exactly a breeze. I actually had to roll up my sleeves, get down on my knees and work like a dog to receive respectable grades. Clearly, it wasn’t like how college brochures advertise their colleges to be. It is not always rosy and all smiles when I was stacked up at the library like the other, stagnant books.

Amongst all this, I was already carrying a mental burden of some sort. Most international students I had the pleasure of meeting throughout these years had some of scholarship they could boast about. “I am a KGSP scholar,” one would say. “I am Glo-Harmony,” the other would add. I, on the other hand would jokingly say that I was from DAD scholarship. Obviously, it would arouse curiosity as it was not exactly what they had in mind. “DAD?” they would ask, “I have never heard of that!”

All I meant to say was that my dad was paying for my fees. It was, of course, something that I wanted to change early on. However, with my inability to change in time and with the added pressure of having to deal with Korean medium classes, my grades plummeted and kept plummeting. Coming from a country which is enlisted as one of the poorest, this was grave news. Fortunately, my parents, being farsighted folk they are, had just enough savings to send me to college. I cannot imagine what life would be like without their constant support. One could argue that it is their responsibility, but Seoul is not cheap. Paying for both education and for lifestyle that the place demanded was draining their savings fast.

I knew very clearly that I only had one way out from all this: to adapt quickly. The question that really bugged me was, “How?”

One way I saw it was to open myself to Koreans. The more amiable I was willing to be, the more help I would obtain and the better I could sink my teeth in the Korean way of life. Unfortunately, my Korean was just good enough to take me to the nearest toilet and I struggled to find a club that would accept me as their own. While I was busy firing blanks every time I tried to enter a club, language was having a good laugh at me.

My quest for acceptance didn’t go in vain though. When a friend at the dorm, whom I had befriended after bumping face to face while frantically making my way to class, told me that SNU had an English language journal (the Quill) and they had an opening for a reporter, I jumped at the chance. Soon, I was interviewing people from all departments, writing about the music culture in the school, participating in events and meeting people from almost all walks of life. I was expanding my circle to include people who would eventually prove influential in helping me put a firm grip on life here.

Working for Quill opened up other doors for me. I was invited for SISF (Seoul International Students Forum) to bring out ideas and propose a way to improve the lives of foreigners in Seoul. Since the Seoul Metropolitan Government was organizing this, I realized that I was actually making a difference. Our team wrote a proposal that bagged the first prize. I also got the chance to go to Vietnam both as a student volunteer and reporter and write about our activities there. The people worked together in the trip invited me to join SISA (SNU International Students Association) where I got to introduce myself to a host of internationals. Since I blogged at the same time, web magazines called in asking if I could write a piece for them about my experience in Korea. I was starting to get myself involved with people and the culture. 

I was finally adapting.

If life is a box of chocolates, as one quote of the multi-Oscar winning movie Forrest Gump stated, and you never know what you are going to get, then that chocolate box must be pretty big. Because every layer you pull out from that box seems to excite you, surprise you and at times, utterly confuse you and depress you. Seoul was that box for me and it took time to get used to the flavor of what was in it. But when I did, I couldn’t get enough of it. It has truly been a remarkable ride so far and I have every intention of peeling the box for some more. 

Korea had embraced me, now I embrace her back.