This article was originally published on our blog in Spanish. You can find the original article here.
For many who are still harbouring doubts about South Korea, this article is meant for you. South Korea is a great place that is worth knowing. For more than a year I learned that I was going to take a semester in South Korea as an exchange student. Although it was not my first choice but one thing was certain; I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and, for me, that was going outside Europe. I made the procedures for the Erasmus Program from my university (link), and it was really worth applying as I was selected to travel to South Korea.
I was excited about the idea of knowing a new culture, new people, a new gastronomy, etc. But above all, I wanted to know how I would develop in a country more than 9,000 km away from home, without knowing the language and, most importantly, without having my parents to go to whenever I have a problem.
It was a test that I put myself to, and up to this day, I am still grateful to have done it. Not only did I mature, but I became a better version of myself, I became a more responsible person and got everything I set out to achieve, both personally and professionally.
You are probably wondering what life is like for an exchange student in Korea.
For me it was perfect! However, that is subjective, and you probably want to know more. I always try to explain it with an expression, and that is “carte blanche.” South Korea has a collectivist culture and respect is the most important value of South Korean society. There are rules of behavior written, and others you learn while you are there. But for better or for worse (as you see it), exchange students (and more if you’re Caucasian) have carte blanche to do whatever they want, within limits, of course. Personally, I tried to adapt everything I could in this new culture. I am a faithful believer of the ideology that respect is one of the most important values of any society. However, Korea takes it to the extreme. If I were not a foreigner (not to say Caucasian), for example, simply by respecting the elders, I would have been forced to drink whatever I had been offered. In Korea, if someone older than you give you alcohol you cannot refuse it, as it would be disrespectful (unless you are on the brink of ethyl coma).
One of the things that surprised me the most was the nightlife in Seoul, not unlike the one in Madrid, and even better for me. There are parties, yes, and a lot. I would say that 60 percent of my stay there was the party to party and festival to festival. Seoul organizes a wide variety of festivals and concerts every month, even in the most crowded areas of the capital, every weekend there are street performances, flash mobs, and live concerts. Etc.
Korea is relatively inexpensive. But it all depends on where you go. Obviously, the capital will be more expensive than the coastal areas with less population and fewer foreigners. However, university areas tend to be quite cheap. South Korea is a consumer country, and its capital, Seoul, which means that prices are quite competitive and what you wanted to buy in one store for ten, you will find in another for eight. However, it’s everything that glitters is not gold. The most expensive in my opinion, compared to Spain, is fruit and vegetables. I came to a point where I realized that it was more profitable to eat every day in a restaurant than to buy the ingredients and cook them.
During those five months, my house was one of the dormitories of my university and, although there were not enough common areas to be with the opposite gender, the facilities were great and the prices even more affordable (900 euros per semester). However, I was lucky, some universities set a curfew for their students, so either you quit the late night party or decide to find a flat off campus. Ajou University was the university that accepted and welcomed me as a student, and what more can I say? I was enchanted from the facilities, to the treatment of the teachers. As you may already know, respect for teachers is fundamental in Asian cultures, but it is not unidirectional, teachers show the same level of respect for students by creating a relationship beyond the professional. The dynamics of the classes are quite similar to the Spanish but somehow different. Classes are more practical and less theoretical, which for some may be better or worse.
The treatment that I and the other exchange students received from the university was excellent. Not only did they help us with academic subjects, of course, but they also helped us with the insurance, the residence card, our new bank account, the mobile number, etc.
South Korea is a country for adventurers, for those who like to discover new things and get out of their comfort zone. For me, it is probably one of the best countries I have visited. My stay there has given me the opportunity to make friends from all over the world, travel to places I would never have imagined, learn a new language and realize the person I want to be and what I want to do in the future.