A Few Questions I’ve Received…

And their hopefully concern-relieving answers.

I’ve received a few questions about my study abroad experience and I’m going to try to answer them to the best of my ability~ FOR THE GREATER GOOD


1.) You weren’t there for a whole semester, right? Was it a special summer program kind of thing?

INDEED. This is a thing that may not apply to your particular experience— my school offers something called an Exploration Seminar, which takes place over 5 weeks in late August-early September. It’s worth 5 credits (we take 3 classes per quarter, at 5 credits each), and the credits apply to Fall quarter (so this fall quarter I’m physically attending only two classes, but still getting 15 credits worth). To my knowledge this isn’t something that many other schools do.

I have had friends on semester systems take full semesters abroad though (… in Ireland, but), and they enjoyed it very much. If you have any questions about the semester study abroad, I can forward them to her, if you like! It’s much more about getting into the swing of that country’s school system though, whereas mine was kind of like ~LET’S GO LIVE IN KOREA FOR FIVE WEEKS YAYYYY and some days we’ll even attend LECTURES OOOOOH~
2.) Does your school have a partnership with Kyunghee that allowed you to go?

Yes and no! We’re not one of Kyunghee’s ~official partners~ as far as I know, but we have connections there. Basically, we attended special lectures by Kyunghee professors. When we were at KAIST in Daejeon, we sat in on graduate-level courses. There were fifteen UW students in my program— it was specially designed to allow us to kind of float around, experiencing facets of Korea. I’M SORRY THIS IS VERY UNHELPFUL.
4.) Does one need to know a certain amount of Korean?

ABSOLUTELY NOT. You can’t really rely on everyone speaking English, though people do tend to speak a little. But all the street signs, subway navigation, etc. are in English. Knowing how to say please, hello, and thank you will take you ALL THE WAY. If you read Korean letters it’s also quite helpful, and only takes about an hour to learn at a rudimentary level if you do flashcards. But there were many people in my group who didn’t at all, and they had a great time.

More importantly than all that, I did not meet a single person who, if you were polite, wasn’t completely willing to help me get where I was going, buy whatever food I needed, etc. People are super nice. And this is something that I’ve encountered over and over again in Europe as well. I think the language/culture barrier was the most frightening thing for me before I went to Korea, but upon arriving there everything went incredibly smoothly. I wouldn’t let having a minimal knowledge of Korean dissuade anyone from going.
5.) And possibly most importantly: You seem to be a well traveled person, living in France etc. and I also get the impression that you’re pretty outgoing? Is it a stupid idea for a shy person to even consider exchange programs?

IT IS TRUE THAT I AM QUITE OUTGOING, HOWEVER! I am also kind of shy sometimes, and I think that if you’re shy, the joy you get out of study abroad will come from how comfortable you are with your shyness.

If spending time alone is something that you’re totally okay with, that is absolutely fine. As long as you’re smart about it, Korea is a very safe country. You can get plenty of enjoyment from wandering around Seoul alone, if that’s what you feel comfortable doing.

That being said, I have found making friends in a study abroad setting much easier than making friends in normal university classes. Foreign students generally find each other and clump together. Even if there are no students from your school on the trip, you will probably know the others from orientation or what have you. Abroad, everyone is kind of tetherless and alone and you basically become automatic friends with whoever is right there because you need to. It won’t be a situation where there’s a clique of people that is impossible to get into (though on all the trips I’ve been on there have tended to be a couple friends among the group)— everyone is sort of looking to be friends with whoever is around them, and if you just stick with the people that are in your group, you will never be lacking for friends.

For a shy person, at least in my experience, the hardest part of that is acknowledging that you have a right to be among that group, and to make sure to say things like “Hey, let me know what you’re doing later” so that people don’t forget to include you. Which can definitely be hard, but if you just keep in mind that EVERYONE IS AS ALONE AS YOU ARE it will hopefully get easier.

(also there will probably be one really assertive outgoing person who is really good at making plans and organizing people and has lots of ideas for what they want to do. Find this person. Stick with them.)

As for making friends with Korean students, IT IS A UNIVERSAL RULE THAT WHATEVER THE LOCALS OF A PLACE ARE LOVE FOREIGN STUDENTS. Everywhere I’ve been (… Europe and Korea…) people have wanted to ask me questions about America and show me stuff and talk to me and even just practice their English. And if you’re a really lonely foreigner, THAT CAN BE REALLY NICE BECAUSE YOU JUST WANT FRIENDS YOU’RE SO LONELY OH GODDDDDD.


My number one piece of advice for traveling alone (as opposed to with family as a dependent) is whenever you get stressed about something, sit back and realize that apart from your dying in a horrible freak accident, nothing can go wrong. If you miss a flight, you can catch another one. If you get lost, you’re not going to be lost forever. If you order weird food in a restaurant by accident, RUN OUT THE DOOR no really it’ll be okay.

I realize this is a policy tooooooooooooootally founded in ridiculous optimism, but seriously, nothing can go wrong permanently. There is no one thing that you can do that will totally screw up your life. Rather, you’re going to make a bunch of great stories that you can brag about later and probably have an awesome time.

Also never do drugs in foreign countries because you will be arrested AND DIE

Google Korea

Can I just open this post by saying I really, really want to work at Google? And yes, the Seoul campus would be great.
Immediately after leaving Daejeon we were on the road to Seoul, destination: Google Korea. I didn’t get many pictures, unfortunately. I was a little wary because there were a lot of security regulations, but they told us we could take pictures of posters and community spaces. Which is fortunate because the lunch room was just fabulous.


In fact all of the complex seemed fabulous.
It was a pretty small space compared to what I’ve heard of Google’s other campuses, but it was full of what seemed to be a very high concentration of attractive and well-dressed people. I ate lunch among them, feeling like a total slob.
P.S. Google food? Just as good as you’ve heard.
The view was good too, I guess…

We had a brief lecture from Cameron Jones, who is actually the husband of one of our faculty, Jin Ha Lee. He works at Google on Maps and image rendering, so he spoke a bit about crowd-sourcing and how the Maps project is helped by user-content and photo data.

I’m so pleased to have finally seen the inside of a Google workspace. The bathrooms were also superb…

Our tour was short and sweet, and as we were walking back to the bus I took he opportunity to creep on the people of Gangnam and remark on how well-dressed simply everyone is. It’s actually a little painful at times, though I’m trying hard to be fashionable. I can never live up to the Koreans. The best part of it, to me at least, is that the men seem to put as much effort into their fashion as women do. Maye they’re not wearing spike heels, but their hair is coiffed and their suits fit very well indeed. I mean, I guess the gender equality on that front only contributes to me feeling like twice the slob if I don’t dress up, but I appreciate them making the effort!
Yeah, I’m creepy.

Grad School in Korea: Visiting KAIST

After a less-than-academic week due to the typhoon and a trip to Busan for some seaside culture (read: delicious fresh seafood), our group bussed back north through Jirisan National Park and finally arrived in Daejeon, home of the famous KAIST. Full name: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.


…yeah, it’s that kind of school.

Our professor, Matthew Saxton, kept telling us that KAIST students are basically the Korean equivalent of MIT students in the U.S. It is a graduate school of small size and dynamic influence, which often sends sees grads employed at companies like Samsung, Hyundai, and LG. We were there for a series of workshops and lectures in the Culture Technology program, otherwise known as What I Want To Do With My Life.

Our home for the three days we were there was the futuristic Guest House, situated in a giant, suspiciously clean office park/construction zone, right next to an empty exhibition center. The doors opened with magnet keys and required a button to be pressed on the inside if you wanted to actually leave. Once we left the door open too long and triggered an alarm when I tried to close it, which only turned off when I went outside and put the key to the lock. It made all kinds of whirring and beeping noises and I’m certain it was more technologically advanced than anything I own.


Anyway, lectures.
It was great to be back in class after such a long break! We had five lectures and a workshop, with both our own faculty and KAIST faculty. Some of our KAIST lectures were in fact classes taught to KAIST students- in English. At KAIST, we learned, teachers get a pay boost for teaching in English and the entire business program is actually taught in English. Our lectures included topics like Sociological Ambilvalence and Social Networks and Music Information Retrieval. It actually reminded me quite a bit of the interdisciplinary classes at UWB!
We spent a lot of time talking and learning about networks, both in the sociological and technical sense. Also, I learned how the Internet works, which was definitely a highlight for me, because for someone who spends most of her life online, I sure as heck had no idea what went on there.
A definite bright spot of the KAIST experience was working with grad students, many of which were conducting research on sites like Twitter and Facebook. One guy actually took the opportunity to interview us about the spread of Kpop in America, which is… Well, a subject that I have a, shall we say, somewhat large personal interest in. I would love to read his paper when he’s done.
The KAIST campus is large, thought he student body is rather small. Still, the cafe was always packed when we went (maybe because coffee there is a good 2,000 won cheaper than most other places…), and we saw more foreign students than we had seen at Kyunghee University in Seoul. Daejeon itself seemed a bit small, especially after being in Seoul for a week. We did venture out and find the college area though, which was packed with people, brightly lit, and full of delicious food. Pretty much the Korean standard. The thing about Korea, at least that I’ve found so far, is that the college areas are twice as busy as the U district in Seattle, and about ten times as safe. Seems like a pretty good deal to me. Our tour guide, who was a Culture Technology grad student, said that most students still go to Seoul on the weekends. I can understand that. No matter how cool your town is, it is certainly hard to compete with Seoul.
The little bit of Daejeon that we saw was lovely though, and I’m sad that our lectures ended so quickly! It seems like most of this trip has been determined to give me a taste of Korea and make me crazy for more.
Well-played, Saxton. Well-played.

Typhoons and Templestays

A typhoon is hitting Seoul right now, and not just the typhoon of my excessive enthusiasm for Korean culture.

Nope, we’re legitimately in the middle of a storm which, I have been told, will probably skirt this coast before being buffeted north to hit North Korea. As foolish college students, we’re all very excited, though I have some misgivings about being cut in half by flying debris.


Really though, it’s not that bad! I swear! Don’t tell my mom I made a joke about flying debris!

The most striking thing about the typhoon, besides how lovely and warm it is, is how stylish Seoulites persist in being, despite the fact that some public schools have been closed. I still see women walking around in short dresses under their plastic ponchos, stiletto heels soaked from the rain.

Of course, that might just be because we decided to come to Myeongdong to wait out the rain. Myeongdong is one of Seoul’s premier shopping areas (one of MANY, MANY, MANY), and by far my favorite. While COEX, Asia’s largest underground mall, is a claustrophobic maze of identical hallways and flourescent lighting, Myeongdong is a chaotic, beautiful mess of street vendors and tiny shops, which are basically giant traps for my poor bank account. At night, everything is completely lit up, and even during a typhoon the streets here are livelier than any day in Seattle.

So far our group has been in Seoul for a little over a week. We’ve seen so much, and yet we’ve still only covered a fraction of this enormous city. This past weekend we left the center of Seoul and bussed to Geumseonsa, a Buddhist temple on one of the mountains that rings the city. Seeing Seoul from above is incredible. Unlike Seattle, Seoul wasn’t built up onto the hills. The buildings follow natural valleys between the hills, like a river. The mountains remain untouched.


The entrance to the temple.

As our program focuses on modern, digital Korean culture, our professors included the temple stay so that we could get a taste of a more spiritual aspect of Korea. At the temple we were issued baggy pants and t-shirts and given a crash-course in Buddhism for People Who Don’t Know Anything About Buddhism. This included eating fully vegetarian meals, and attending an evening service conducted by a tonsured female monk. After she sang a series of sutras, we bowed 108 consecutive times in reptentence for our greed, jealousy, and other flaws, and also with vows to be better and to be grateful for the gifts we have.

It didn’t exactly hurt while I was bowing but right after I had to walk fifty steps down the mountainside and couldn’t really feel my legs (read: I almost fell off the mountain). By the time we woke up for the morning service at 4:30 am EVERYTHING WAS PAIN. It certainly was convenient that every building in the temple complex was built on a different level of the mountain and only accessible by stone steps. Yep.


We had a morning service, sitting cross-legged on cushions, did more bows, meditated for maybe twenty minutes (PAIN) and then went out for a walking meditation. As we paced around the Buddha hall, the world slowly woke up around us. Lights went off down in the city, and the cicadas started to buzz. Also, I stepped on the heels of the guy in front of me like, twice, and I felt really bad because obviously I was not paying attention to myself like I was supposed to.

I’m really bad at meditating.

Photo credit: Geumseonsa Temple Stay Program

Photo credit: Geumseonsa Temple Stay Program

The highlight of the day was a terrifying traditional Buddhist meal, eaten in the Buddha hall in complete silence. Every aspect of the meal had a ritual, from the serving to the cleaning of our bowls when we were done. The entire thing was presided over by two very benevolent and non-judgmental monks, but I was relieved to see the Korean participants screwing up the rituals at least as much as I was.

Our temple stay ended with paper lotus lanterns, and a hike back down the mountain through another temple that was built inside a natural cave. We left with sore legs and a CD recording of the 108 bows on it… just in case I want to inflict them on anyone I know.


Yeah, we didn’t really get to shower.

Temple stays are available at many temples in Korea, with varying degrees of intensity. The program at Geumseonsa is apparently pretty hardcore. Last year the study abroad went to a different temple and didn’t sit on the floor as much as we did, or do the 108 bows. It was great to step out of my comfort zone and try something new, though. Kind of like camping.

Still, I’m glad to be back in bustling Seoul, even in the middle of a typhoon!