Stretching into New Spheres of Seoul: Challenging Comfort Zones in South Korea

When I left to study abroad in South Korea this fall, I was excited to leave the claustrophobic Claremont bubble behind. Seoul is a bustling metropolis of 10 million people. Although I love Pomona College, I don't love that whenever I leave my dorm looking like a hot mess, I am guaranteed to run into at least 10 friends, roughly 30 casual acquaintances, two professors, and a bunch of people that I kind of know, but am unsure whether to say hello to. I chose to spend a semester here because I wanted to experience Korean culture, but I also looked forward to the change of scenery that Seoul offered.

However, upon entering Korea, I unwittingly became part of a new bubble: the American international student microcosm. English-speaking exchange students cluster together at my Korean university and at the other schools nearby. With the exception of a few Scandinavians, most of my friends are native English speakers from universities in the United States and Canada.

Most of them haven't studied Korean, and the prevalence of English in Seoul allows them to get by without actually learning any. Except for our daily two-hour intensive Korean lessons, all of our classes are taught in English and consist of mostly international students. In Sinchon, the neighborhood around my university, it is difficult to avoid the hordes of snapback-clad, gum-chewing white girls who come out at night to take filtered pictures of sushi, then proceed to put them in Facebook albums entitled “Heart and Seoul” (I may or may not be guilty of this).

Some of my friends have improved their language skills by meeting girls from Hello Talk, an app that is purportedly for language exchange but is actually Tinder for the linguistically challenged. Scrolling through their stilted conversations (“Do you like the fall?” “Yes.” “What are you eating?”) is the height of hilarity. Alas, I’m madly in love with my monolingual Irish boyfriend, so the wonders of Hello Talk are closed off to me.

Deprived of Hello Talk’s witty romantic banter, I had to find alternate ways of making Korean friends. My friends and I attempted to join Travelers Club, a student club affiliated with my Korean university whose members stay in hostels around Korea. We quickly found ourselves out of our depths, unable to even understand the messages in the club’s extremely active group chat. To date, we are not entirely sure whether they have actually traveled anywhere, or even where their meetings are.

Finally, I started desperately asking my Korean friends from the United States to introduce me to their friends in Seoul. This organic method, though extremely awkward at first, has worked the best. I still make stupid mistakes in Korean every day, but I can now hold a simple conversation without hyperventilating, and I have made good friends in the process.

I have also discovered that traveling outside of Seoul forces me to use my Korean skills, or lack thereof. In smaller cities and the countryside, English signage is nonexistent and far fewer people speak English fluently. During trips to other cities with friends, I have used my Korean to give incorrect directions to a cab driver, to fend off a missionary from a religious cult who tried to lure me into his church, and to correctly discern that I had mistakenly walked into a brothel rather than the fried chicken restaurant where I was meeting with people (to be fair, they were located in the same building).

During my study abroad program’s orientation, we drew diagrams depicting the “comfort zone,” the “stretch zone” and the “panic zone.” The program head told us that we should aim to stretch ourselves while we were in Korea while mostly avoiding the panic zone. At the time, I felt rather foolish drawing a bunch of circles on a blank sheet of paper, but I began to appreciate the insight behind the diagram after a few months.

Studying abroad is scary. In a big city like Seoul, it would be easy to stay in my comfort zone. I could eat burgers and fries from McDonald’s, drink Bud Light and play pool at American-style bars, and Skype my family and friends from home every time I felt homesick.

Although breaking out of the American bubble here is hard, it is also richly rewarding. I know that my best memories of South Korea will be the times that I took risks and stretched myself, even if my badly-accented Korean sounded terrible as I did so. Just don’t tell my mother about the brothel thing.

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