On a Friday evening on Metro Line 1, my friend, another exchange student from Singapore and I were going to the Lotus Lantern Festival next to Cheonggye Stream. Lots of people were on the train, which was nothing out of ordinary. That is, until we heard two old ladies wondering why nowadays there are so many foreign students in Korea. It got me thinking, too. Really, why are we here in HUFS, so far away from home?
Of course, being practical often comes first. Exchange programs are a good way to add job-market value to oneself. In my home university back in Lithuania, when I was asked why I chose Korea as my destination during the interview round of selections for exchange programs, my answer was not any different from a lot of my peers. “Business relations between Korea and Lithuania nowadays are getting stronger and stronger, so I want to become an educated, more skilled future employee with international experience in that particular country”. However, when my flight landed in Korea, I came to realize that academic credits and possibly a better job are not the only reasons why we, exchange students, are here.
Looking back at it now, when my calendar says “36 days until departure to Vilnius”, I came to realize that Korea helped me mature more than any country I have ever been in. Coming from a small town with a population of a bit more than 90, 000 people, Seoul was a reality check, a sign that I had to kick myself out of my comfort zone, which I have gotten too attached to. It started with trivial things, such as simple shopping for groceries, a thing that I used to do automatically without much thought. I will never forget my first days here, with my back sweating from anxiety while trying to ask a cashier for a shopping bag using only gestures, because she did not speak any English and the Korean conversation, which I had rehearsed in my head just in case, did not go quite as planned.
Other customs have taken some adjusting to as well. For example, having to bow while greeting someone, which is a strange concept back at home, always thanking the professor after a class, getting familiar with all the odd-sounding Korean dishes. I slowly realized that the last time I spoke my mother tongue out loud was two months ago, because due to the 8 hour time difference I almost never get to talk with my family or friends. At some point, it felt like I was going to have a breakdown from everything as I had to internalize and accept as the rules of this “game”. At that point, I understood that it was not all about me anymore, that I have to make efforts to adapt to the new experiences without having any shortcuts or easy paths, because I am the guest here, and not the other way around.
I was not alone in this. I soon found out that a lot of international students went through the same trial-and-error-based path of growth. For instance, my fellow exchange student from the United States, Kiara, told a story about how once a friendly restaurant owner near the campus laughed at her for thinking that a small plate of bean sprouts is supposed to be one of the main dishes. Another international HUFSan, Michelle, lost her documents during a weekend trip to the city of Pohang, so we had to visit a local police station for help. It was rather comical. Police officers were just as frightened by us, as we were by them. Due to all the panic, we could not even communicate properly, spilling of words in a weird mix of Korean and English, and yet they tried their best to calm us down and help us.
These experiences have changed me. All of these experiences might seem like something you can experience anytime, without being an exchange student; however, I believe that it resonates more when you are abroad for studying. Mostly because when it happens to you as a tourist, you know that you are going home soon, maybe it is going to be a day or two, or perhaps a week. Meanwhile, most of the international HUFSans stay here for at least four months, some of them even for a few years, so we have to “suck it up” and adapt in order to survive. Through these experiences, we learn to be flexible, and tolerant, as well as being independent.
Another reason why we are here, is that exchange students feel the urge to explore places in ways we usually would not otherwise. As I have already mentioned, being a tourist is one thing, and actually getting a taste of everyday life is a completely different deal. It teaches you to be critical, and sometimes to take off your rose-tinted glasses, and realize that no country is as what it looks like on tourist booklets.
Many exchange students have realized their false assumptions about Korea. For example, Tako, an exchange student from Georgia, once said, “Sometimes, reading the news, one can get the idea that Korea is just a land of idols and enormous pressure on students, the kind of news we usually get. There is no way to check it without experiencing it for yourself. It took me only a week to realize that a lot of things are left unseen to people. I am glad I chose to see all that with my own eyes, not through what media tell us.”
Summer is approaching and a lot of us will leave soon, but the experiences we have gone through while in HUFS and Korea will stay with us forever. Some of those experiences are fun, sometimes even hilarious; others are not that positive, as life cannot always be a flower-laden path. Nevertheless, these memories will always remind us that we did something more than people who stayed at their home countries. We decided to challenge ourselves, and that is why we are here, at HUFS.