It’s been a bit over a month since I first arrived in Korea and started studying at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, and I feel like I can break down my experience so far into three categories – the good, the bad, and the weird. Which, coincidentally, is also the title of this article – look at me go!
Anyone even considering exchange in general should definitely consider Sungkyunkwan University, even if you don’t want to study Korean. In fact, of the six ANU students that came to South Korea this semester, only three of us are Korean majors, and majority of students in my dorm do not speak or study Korean. Thirty percent of classes are taught in languages other than Korean, mainly English and Chinese. The university is situated on Seoul’s Line 4 at Hyehwa station – also known as Seoul’s theatre district – where there are a stack of cheap restaurants and bars with food from all over the world, so if kimchi ever gets to be too much, a burrito is not far away. It’s one of the world’s oldest universities, founded in 1398. It also has an entire building and department dedicated to international students – and Shim Myung-Bo and his team are uncannily like genies, able to solve any problems you have pretty much instantaneously.
Ok, anyone who knows anything about South Korea knows that the Koreans know how to party. Clubs are open most nights of the week with heavy discounts when you flash your cute SKKU student card. For those who are less about nightclubs and more about bars (me), beer and soju is cheap and Korea has a range of fun drinking games you can play. For a good feed I highly recommend trying out 치맥 (Chimaek, AKA chicken and beer) – KFC has nothing on Korean fried chicken.
SKKU is 4 subway stops from Myeongdong and 1 stop away from Dongdaemun. ‘Nuf said. And if you don’t know what those places are, you’ve been missing out.
The 편의점 life:
In Australia, convenience store food is oft avoided due to the hazard of food poisoning. By this I mean the whole “put down the pie, you don’t know how long its been chilling in that oven” sort of thing. Korean convenience stores (편의점) are a whole other world- they have microwaves (for the burgers), hot water dispensers (for the ramyeon), kimbap triangles and general happiness for sale – often with price tags lower than 2000 won ($2.20 friends, for a MEAL). Oh, they’re also open 24 hours, so you’ll never run out of study snacks again friends.
The difference between bad and good is taught to us from a very young age, yet I feel that it carries a different connotation in this context – the bad things when you go on exchange are either the things that go wrong, or the things you don’t quite understand yet. This is the challenge of exchange – to understand and therefore become accustomed to the culture.
The size of Seoul:
Coming from a small country farm in northern New South Wales, and attending university in one of Australia’s smallest cities did not prepare me for the sheer size and density that is the world’s fourth largest metropolitan area- 25 million people in an area smaller than the metropolitan area of Sydney (11,704 km2 vs 12,367.7 km2 for those who are interested). So I’ve had to embrace the challenge of trying to pack into a full subway car in morning peak time and learn the art of queuing, because it’s all part of the fun. I do miss grass though. Also, because of the density, the shop you’re trying to find may be on an upper level of the building, so it helps to look up.
Curfews and dorm rules:
Many university dorms have curfews – it’s the trade-off for living so close to campus, and the policies differ from university to university. Some, like Seoul National University, have no curfew, but they’re so far from the city centre (the campus is literally on a mountain) that you generally stay out with your friends waiting for their curfews to end/the subway starts anyway. Others like SKKU, are more flexible – you can’t go in or out of the dorms between 1am and 5am – so COMMIT TO THE PARTY. Others require students to be back by certain times, or they accrue penalty points. Too many points, you’re evicted. Dorm life in Korea is VERY different from Australia, but it’s all a part of the Korean University experience, so embrace it, play by the rules and complain with your friends at language exchanges about how you feel like you’re back in high school. Just make sure you do your research before you come, and if it’s not your sort of game, look into gosiwons (houses than hire out individual rooms to students with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities)!
The subway ends at midnight and starts again at 5.30am:
I shouldn’t have to explain why this is inconvenient and puzzling in such a large city. Thankfully, taxis are cheap. Even Koreans aren’t quite sure why this happens.
The coffee addicts in Australia will struggle to get their coffee fix in Korea, as most places serve their coffee super sweet. It’s all part of the fun though, finding a small café with epic coffee that you can study in and make your haunt. I’m yet to have that experience and I dream of a good latte on the reg.
Cappuccinos here are served with cinnamon, not powdered chocolate on top. Go figure. Also, all bread is sweet and sugar is often HEAVILY sprinkled on garlic bread, pizza and deep fried cheese sticks.
Also; toilets here you cannot, I repeat CANNOT, flush toilet paper down. There aren’t any signs telling you this (which is the weird part), but you can and probably will block the toilet, as the plumbing can’t handle the toilet paper. There are bins provided.
It’s amazing how quickly and often I forget I’m technically in a country at war. As I submit this article, China’s government is negotiating between North Korea and the US to not resort to violence, and North Korea attempted to test a missile in the early hours of this morning. However, if it weren’t for my Dad ringing me in a panic, I would have no idea. It’s weird in a way how unbelievably normal it is, but as the country has been at war for over sixty years, how can they treat it as anything but? More to come as I think about this more in the future!
Note: The title is a reference to the Korean film “좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈” (The Good, The Bad and The Weird) – Korean cinema is extremely popular at the international box office and this movie has 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, so watching this film definitely counts as exchange research.