Places to Study In South Korea

Adding to the attractiveness of studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea, are the myriad places where students are able to study other than local public libraries, which, unlike Toronto, Seoul lacks in abundance. In the area around Yonsei University, known as Sinchon (신촌), there are numerous cafés and restaurants where students may study in rather comfortable and hassle-free settings. I’ve had a chance to experience quite a few.

It may be said that trendy cafés are to South Korea what fast-food providers are to the U.S., in that there are many options just about anywhere you go in most large cities. In most areas of Seoul you can’t walk more than a minute without seeing one of the many local coffee chains; many of them are open 24 hours and provide comfy and often unique environments. The average price of a coffee at one of these places is anywhere from about three to six dollars, which is fairly expensive if you’re used to Tim Hortons or even Starbucks or Second Cup prices in general.

One of the many cafe chains in seoul, Holly’s Coffee provides a comfy and well heated place to relax or study.

Around exam time you can easily find coffee shops full of young Korean students cramming for tests or meeting about projects, but perhaps more interesting is that one can see the same sight at Korean McDonald’s and Lotteria (a local fast-food burger chain) locations. That’s right, friends, no 20-minute seating limit in Korean Macdonald’s, and you don’t need to buy things either! You can just sit around and study, hassle-free. It’s quite convenient, especially if you live off-campus and can’t make it to the university library.

My Taiwanese friend Alice and I at, Dragon Spa, a jimjilbang in Seoul.

Perhaps the most comfortable place to study is a spa/sauna known as a jimjjilbang (짐찔방). Though not a popular location, probably because the price of admission ranges from 8,000 to 15,000 won (about $7–14), it’s quite a nice place to study—in comfortable clothing provided by the spa while sitting on a bed mat or at a desk in one of their study rooms. Just make sure you don’t fall asleep after the hot bath and steam room! There are jimjjilbangs all over Seoul, and a few of them are within walking distance of Yonsei.

 

There are many areas and vistas in Seoul, so I’m always finding new places to spend my reading time. It certainly makes studying a bit more interesting, at least!

The Rigors of Cultural Immersion and Language Study in South Korea

I imagine that for many students going abroad to study, language learning makes up a large portion of their goals for foreign education. Sure enough, it does for me too. Speaking as someone who has continually struggled with this necessarily rigorous subject, even at home in Toronto, I feel I must impart my experience to you, just in case you happen to be thinking of pursuing language or cultural immersion abroad. I realize that this may be old hat for a lot of you, and it deals solely with my experience in South Korea, but nevertheless, heed my words!

 

The main drag of Yonsei after a big snow fall.

Before going abroad I had a rather romantic view of what would constitute my language study here in South Korea. I would go to a language class where, at a comfortable pace, a passionate and attentive professor would teach me the various nuances of Korean for a few hours in a class full of like-minded students, eager to learn yet striving to overcome their own unique struggles with the language. After a detailed lesson in which the teacher would ensure that the students were on the same page by answering myriad questions, we would then go out into the surrounding area (Sinchon, in the case of Yonsei University) and go shopping or have dinner or just stroll around with local friends we had made, giving us excited and enthusiastic students ample opportunity to use our newly acquired grammar forms and vocabulary. Based on this pattern, my language skills would evolve naturally at a gradual pace, and I would experience both improvement and heightened cultural awareness at a previously unimaginable rate. I mean, how could I not, right?

Having a clean study area would probably help to some degree!

Well, big surprise—life’s not that simple. Speaking to peers about language learning in a foreign environment showed me that many shared sentiments similar to mine: It’s super easy to learn a language if you’re in the country of its origin. The reality, of course, is that it’s never “super easy” to learn a language, unless you’re some sort of prodigy. A more accurate representation of the reality of foreign-language learning is this: It’s easier to learn a language if you’re immersed in it. The trick is, of course, to ensure that you’re immersed, which is easier said than done.

Perhaps the biggest misconception when it comes to studying abroad is that you will be instantly surrounded by the culture of the land you choose to study in. You may have romantic visions of living in a dorm or attending classes among native students from that country, who will be open-minded and cannot wait to converse with an intrepid North American exchange student. You may expect that you will easily befriend locals who will be eager to assist you in your language studies and make lifelong bonds with you. These idealistic notions may be the reality of studying abroad in countries where English is spoken by a large percentage of the population, but in South Korea—and, I would imagine, in many other non-primarily English-speaking countries—if you are lacking in linguistic prowess, you may find it more difficult to immerse yourself than you initially expected.

Here at Yonsei I, like most other international students, live in an international dormitory, surrounded by other international students, mostly from Europe and the United States, who primarily speak English. I was not able to register for a Korean dorm (and I’m not sure if I would have anyway, but even so, the option was not available). Moreover, my classes cater especially to exchange students and my classmates consist of nothing but. This naturally has its advantages—it is easy for us to touch base and to share helpful survival tips about things like banking or going to the pharmacy—but from an immersion perspective this has been somewhat debilitating.

The global lounge at Yonsei where international students can get info and chill.

During our orientation I was surprised when one of the speakers told us that we exchange students might be more comfortable hanging out in the Global Lounge—a space designed for but not limited to international students on the Yonsei campus—as there were “fewer Korean students there.” Certainly I can understand classes that cater to English-speakers in a country that does not primarily speak English, but I find the lengths the university seems to be going to keep us separated from the Korean students rather discouraging, despite the fact that the administration seems to feel it is within our best interest. For example, the international dorms are located on the other side of the campus from the Korean dorms, and a relatively large number of student clubs seem to be exclusively for Korean students (I applied for four clubs and got contacted by only one, although that could simply have been the result of lack of organization).

Thus the reality of my cultural immersion and language study has so far been more like this:

Every day we learn Korean for two hours in the evening, after a day of classes that are entirely in English (no surprises there) with classmates who are almost entirely non-Koreans, with few exceptions. By the end of our language class we are really tired, and the teacher takes off right afterwards, leaving little time or motivation to ask questions. I go off with friends from the U.S. whom I met in my dorm and my Korean class, and later I study with another friend, from Taiwan, and my roommate, from Indonesia. I speak English to all of them except for the rare times when we try to speak Korean together. Occasionally, when we both have time, I hang out with my language-exchange partner, but I haven’t spoken Korean to her yet. This also seems to be the reality for most of my classmates.

Befriending locals is always a good way to get immersed. Here’s me with my South Korean friend, Yumin.

I’m lucky in that I have quite a few Korean friends whom I met in Toronto, and if it wasn’t for them I would find it very difficult indeed to find an opportunity to speak Korean. Despite this, most of the time I don’t speak too much Korean beyond ordering food in restaurants.

 

So why am I telling you this discouraging tale? I’m simply offering a warning. Though you will inevitably have many wonderful experiences with other foreign students while studying abroad, if you want to be culturally and linguistically immersed in the country you’re visiting, it won’t happen if you sit around and wait for the culture to come to you. You must be proactive and insert yourself in situations where you are able to experience the culture and use the language you have been studying; otherwise you’ll end up being more of an academic tourist. If that’s all you want from your exchange experience (and there is nothing wrong with that, mind you), then sit back and relax. But if you’re hoping to increase language proficiency or mingle with the locals, you’ve got to get out there. I still have more than eight months of study left here, and I’m certainly planning to get out there a lot more.

Some people search for alternate solutions!

Midterms Complete!

Many apologies for the sparse posts! Getting used to how things are over here has been quite a bit of a challenge, since I’ve only once taken a full course load at U of T prior to coming to South Korea and doing the same.

I promise more updates from now on!

Fall is here and so is the cold weather! I feel as though I’m quite lucky to be from Toronto, as many of my Californian and Southeast Asian classmates are shivering in their boots.

Midterms here at Yonsei were quite interesting and rather different from what I’m used to at University of Toronto. I realize that I haven’t actually explained my classes at all in this blog as yet, and since a major part of studying abroad is the studying (duh), I feel as though I should. Being an East Asian Studies specialist, most of my courses are — you guessed it — centred around the country I’m studying in, which of course is South Korea.

So, without further ado, my classes are as follows:

1. Contemporary Korean Cinema and Society

2. Topics in Korean Language and Culture

3. Introduction to Korean Music

4. Communication Media in Korea

5. Beginner’s Korean level 2

The midterm for Contemporary Korean Cinema and Society, structurally my most unconventional class, was to conduct an interview on any familiar space and present it in any visual medium of my choice, whether writing, film, photography or even other stuff. I’ve decided to do a montage of scenes on Korea as a space, which I must upload this evening and will embed in this blog when I do so, for all of you to see! The midterm for Topics in Korean Language and Culture is to choose a historic site in Seoul, visit it and write a research paper about it. The best part is it’s not due until finals! Introduction to Korean Music was rather conventional and consisted of a series of questions and answers based on various topics of study, such as names of musical instruments and styles. Communication Media in Korea was also rather conventional and involved writing a comprehensive retrospective of presidents and press history from the Korean War until 1992. Somewhat tedious after having studied Korean presidents in two separate courses at U of T, but not too bad, all in all.

The most taxing midterm would have to be that of the Korean Language Institute, which consisted of three separate tests over four days that covered writing, speaking, listening and reading. Here at Yonsei, if you opt to take the Korean language course (as I have), you must attend it EVERY DAY. It takes a lot of energy and sadly does not leave a lot of time for study. It’s rather difficult for me, as I’m much more used to learning language twice or three times a week and taking time to study on my own instead of being forced to attend classes every single day that move (for me anyway) at breakneck speed. As a result of dividing my attention between midterms, I’m currently behind on my language lessons (sigh).

But enough of that boring stuff . . . You want to hear about adventures, right?!

Well, as I mentioned in a previous post, early on in my exchange, being the only person who’s been here before of the friends I’ve made at my dorm, I decided to take some of them on an excursion from Seoul to the much smaller city of Cheuncheon, where we were treated to fantastic rural vistas.

We arrived in Cheuncheon via the Seoul subway(!) and took a bus straight from the subway to a river, where we took a boat to a mountain. Once there we climbed the mountain and saw a quaint but elegant temple. Behind the temple was a rather treacherous hiking trail, which we climbed to get a great view of the landscape. On the way down from the mountain we ate at a restaurant where we sat on a platform suspended over a small waterfall. It was a great experience, very cheap, and can easily be planned for a day trip out of Seoul!

Chuseok Travels: Incheon

So . . . sorry for the long wait, friends. I’ve been working through some technical issues that made it very difficult to upload pictures! Perhaps you will recall that I said in my last post that I was going to Namhae. Such was not the case . . .

That week was Chuseok, which is the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving. Turns out that it’s quite the holiday over here, and constitutes approximately 80% (unofficial statistic) of Seoul’s entire population leaving the city by bus, car, rail, and whatever other method is available. As such, it was impossible for my hiking buddy from California, Kyle, and I to secure a ticket to Namhae, which, as I may have mentioned previously, is one of the southernmost points on the peninsula. However, my roommate, Calvin (from Indonesia), Kyle and I managed to make it out to Incheon, a coastal city that is famous for being the site of Incheon International Airport as well as the landing site for General MacArthur in the Korean War, among many other things. Indeed, one of handiest things about the Soul subway is that you can take it just about anywhere in or around the city. Want to go to the countryside or the next city over? Hop on the subway! Yay!

The main gate of Incheon’s Chinatown

Although we only spent about six hours in Incheon, we were not disappointed by what was available. Immediately after exiting the station we saw a huge Chinese-inspired gate that invited our curiosity. It turns out that Incheon has a famous Chinatown, which is handily located across the street from the subway station. We began to investigate . . .

The main street in Chinatown just behind the gate.

Beyond the gate we were treated to a street full of restaurants and shops painted in the classic red and gold of popular Chinese motifs. The streets were also not busy at all, as most Koreans at the time were celebrating with their families, so getting around was very easy. To say the least, Incheon Chinatown was quite picturesque.

A picturesque park located a way back in Chinatown.

After checking out Chinatown we preceded up a hill, or rather a small mountain, that ascended behind it and found a statue commemorating Douglas MacArthur’s landing during the Korean War. Also there was a little park with an observatory where one could get a nice view of the city of Incheon.

In the next post!

On to Namhae!

Hello, all! I know I promised pics from a previous trip, but now I’m embarking on a new one! This week is Chuseok, a holiday in Korea that is similar in all terms and purposes to Thanksgiving in Canada. The holiday mostly constitutes going to grandparents’ or extended families’ houses and eating a lot. Well, because we don’t have family here in Korea, my dorm-buddy Kyle and I have decided to head down to the southern island of Namhae for a walking/backpacking excursion. Pics and and news when I return! Stay tuned!

A Look Back at My First Month

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been at Yonsei University in South Korea for one month, but at the same time, looking back at the things that have happened to me in this first month, it actually kind of feels like a long time. I had really meant to blog about all this earlier but it has proved to be quite an adjustment from my Toronto life to this new one here in South Korea.

For the most part it has been exciting and new, even though I have been to South Korea a few times before, which helped to dilute the culture shock to some degree. However, I’ve still had a number of exciting adventures and not so exciting misadventures. Let’s start with the tough times.

In this first month alone, I nearly ran out of money, lost an expensive pair of prescription glasses, which I need to function day-to-day, purchased a smartphone, lost it in taxi and then bought another, only to find that I can’t activate it without a “foreign registration card,” which I have yet to receive. The most mind-boggling thing about all this is that I have never, ever lost a cellphone before, and I have a very good track record with glasses as of late. It was quite annoying that fate decided to wait until I was out of my element to spring these misfortunes upon me. But I digress, and it’s these things that make you tougher and more adaptable, I feel, and  so far on this exchange, the good has certainly outweighed the bad.

And now the good!

South Korea is an awesome place and I love it. The food and drink are cheap, the people are friendly and attractive, the transit is always on time, and Seoul is a beautiful city to behold. So far there has been no shortage of things to do. It’s a bustling, lively place with diverse neighbourhoods that are, for the most part, quite safe and clean, and I feel pretty darn comfortable here. I’m currently staying in a dorm (more on that later) and so far the people I’ve met have been totally cool! A few of my dorm neighbours and I went on an excursion a few weeks ago and it proved rather awesome.

One of the fantastic things about the Seoul Metro is that you can take it out of Seoul to the countryside and other interesting parts of the northern province, Gyeongi-do in South Korea. For example, a few weeks ago some folks from my dorm (two Americans, a Swede, and a German friend) went to the much smaller city of Cheuncheon, which is about two hours out of Seoul on the subway! I had to play tour guide as I was the only one who had previously been there.

I’ll tell you all about it in my next post, as I have a fair bit of studying to do right now. Check back for more, with pics!