My Tryst with the Land of Morning Calm

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I’ve always been considered an atypical child. From my behaviour, to my interests and ambitions, I’ve always been a little more divergent than my peers. In high school, where everyone else seemed determined to traverse a sensible path, my ambitions were wrought with uncertainty. In the 10th grade, I posed a seemingly innocuous request towards the only foreign students in my school. These students were Korean, and for curiosity’s sake, I ventured to learn the basics of their language from them.

A hobby that initially stemmed from boredom during breaks, quickly progressed into a sincere desire to further my studies in the Korean language. I was enrolled into a year long language course at a university in Seoul (the capital city of the hyper modern country of South Korea). What followed was a series of life changing experiences, essential epiphanies and an in-depth insight into global culture and etiquette.
Upon arriving in South Korea at close to midnight, I found myself struggling to find my PG accommodation. The owner of the premises resided in Oman, and was renting out the apartment during her absence. Her phone was out of reach and her provided directions (that seemed very detailed back when I browsed through them in India) suddenly looked like rocket science to me. We (My mother and I) wandered aimlessly, too shy to ask for directions, until a lady noticed our plight and asked if she could be of any assistance. Turns out the instructions may as well have been rocket science, because despite having a local at our side, it still took us thirty minutes to locate a cornerstone building that had been right under our very noses. The entire duration of thirty minutes though, had been spent with my mother and I coercing the lady into giving us back our bags and insisting that she need not help us with them as she was already doing enough, but she persisted till we were within the safety of our residential premises. She left soon after, waving away all mention of thanks, and thus I had my first taste of Korean hospitality.

School was a delight, as it was saturated with people from a plethora of different countries. It seemed I wasn’t the only oddball drawn to the Korean language like a moth to flame. In my first semester I had classmates from Colombia, China, France, Australia and Russia. It was surreal to be in one room with people from so many different countries, and to be speaking a language other than English with them all.
Being a student in a course that is primarily directed towards international students, I can’t give an informed opinion on the education system in regular Korean schools, but I was told by my Korean friends that it is extremely competitive. Classes end in Korean high schools at around 6pm, but a majority of students remain in school for extra tuitions till late at night, so as not to fall behind their peers.
As for my language course, it was an absolute delight. Every class was conducted by highly competent and impeccably trained teachers. They had a practical syllabus and their textbooks were formulated in ways that made learning incredibly engaging. My teachers were kindly and never raised their voice, but in retrospect, they never had any reason to. All my classmates were absorbed in the lessons and seemed very driven and serious about learning the language. There wasn’t any disrespect directed towards the teachers, no cacophony during class hours and we all treated each other like a little family, our origins be darned!
I often encountered a lot of friendly Koreans on my long walks around the ridiculously safe city- friendly people who bore no ill-intention towards me, and merely wanted to strike up a conversation.
Koreans tend to be shy and subdued around people that don’t speak their language, to a certain extent. From observation alone, I’ve sensed a tangible uneasiness that descends upon them, at the prospect of potentially having to speak English. I think many people aren’t confident in their English skills, and while initially anxious to respond to me when I stopped them on the street to ask for directions, the second I reassured them that I was versed in Korean, they visibly eased up and were not only willing to give me directions, but also happy to walk me to my destination. I’ve known several foreigners who’ve misconstrued their reluctance as discrimination, and I’ve instructed them to brush up on their Korean skills and utilise that medium when approaching natives. They were surprised that it seemed as though people’s entire disposition towards them had changed, once they followed my advice.
I personally have very few complaints against Korea, but food however, was always an issue for me. By this, I don’t just mean the stunning lack of vegetarian options, because that is manageable to a certain extent, but rather peoples’ reaction to vegetarians. I was often made to feel guilty by my friends for not eating meat. I had friends that were incredibly accommodating of my dietary preferences, but I also had several that constantly whined about how hard it was to eat a meal with me. It may have seemed a trivial thing, but repeated admonishment made me cave and start eating chicken and fish.

Koreans usually are great hosts and refuse to let their guests pay no matter how much you insist. Going dutch is often unacceptable for them when in the company of a foreign friend. Food is a huge part of Korean culture and you’ll find people eating on the streets well past midnight. In addition, Korea is also an exceptionally safe place for women. I would sit at cafes, studying till the AM and walk back just before sunrise and not feel the least bit threatened. Of course, the safety factor could depend on the neighbourhood you reside in, but Seoul in general is a wonderland in terms of safety for women.

During the course of my 1.5 year stay in Seoul, I encountered people who were kind beyond imagination, locals that befriended me and were willing to help me when I was in need of it and made true and long-lasting friendships. I only experienced discrimination once during my entire stay, and it was a negligible incident, but my wounds were soothed by the kindness I received from pretty much everybody else, and very soon, the incident was an inconsequential part of my stay in Korea.

To conclude, I’d like to add that Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world. In going to Korea, you have to adhere to their culture to a large extent, respect the people and maintain public decency. The number of foreigners in Korea is few compared to other nations and if these few foreigners that have the privilege of staying in this beautiful country, make a spectacle of themselves, it often results in locals having a tainted view of foreigners in general. Be respectful, and you’ll be respected, and thereby pave a pathway for other foreigners to be viewed positively and welcomed into Korean society.


– Trishala Ballal

Image Credits: Pexel.

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