“Wow! Do you speak Korean?” This is usually the response I get when I tell people that I spent a gap year in Seoul, South Korea, before I came to Pomona. My answer? “A little bit … now.”
Before my gap year, though, none at all. Though I’m ethnically Korean, I never spoke the language growing up, and while I visited the country with my family before, we never stayed for longer than 10 days. In contrast, I spent nine months in Korea during my gap year — and I flew there all alone.
I decided to take a gap year fairly late in July 2020. I had just gotten an internship offer at an English-speaking animation company in Seoul, and from the moment the email came in, everything after happened like a blur. I submitted my gap year proposal, got my working visa and tried to work through all the logistics involved in my upcoming international adventure.
I was nervous but incredibly excited to begin my gap year in Seoul. My heart fluttered at the prospect of living in a foreign country, working in a creative field and having the opportunity to do all these things at the ripe age of 18. I honestly thought that only good things lay ahead.
Needless to say, I was bright-eyed but also a little naive. After completing the mandatory quarantine in late September, the high that I felt from being a new resident of Seoul lasted maybe a month. In November, the homesickness that I had pushed aside from being too enamored by the sights of the city started to bear its unwelcome face.
I was frustrated at my blatant inability to communicate: when someone asked for my phone number and I couldn’t recite it back to them, when an elderly man asked me for directions and I couldn’t help him, when I couldn’t even take out the trash correctly (Korea has a very efficient trash collection system that is different from that in the U.S. but is quite confusing to learn at first).
Ultimately, I longed for a piece of familiarity in such an unfamiliar place. I also knew, however, that I had to be proactive about creating that sense of familiarity for myself. Simply sitting in a puddle of homesickness without trying to change my outlook on the situation would do me no good.
Thankfully, my old art teacher from elementary school was living in Seoul too, so through her recommendation, I visited a little dumpling stand one evening after work. When I stood under the fluorescent orange awning, I was immediately greeted by ajummas scooping plump dumplings into to-go boxes and the savory fragrance of kimchi-meat dumpling filling. The stand was a cozy escape from the bustling city life located just outside the flimsy plastic walls, and I felt at ease ordering my dumplings in broken Korean, thanks to the ajummas kindly encouraging my every utterance.
From that evening on, the dumpling stand became my one “safe spot” in the unfamiliar landscape of Seoul. I frequented the stand a lot, especially during the winter when the temperatures dropped and shocked my Californian self. After work, I would look forward to greeting the ajummas and ordering some steaming dumplings to-go, treating the box as a warm, precious gift to myself for getting through yet another week.
Over time, I started to feel better about living in Korea. The dumpling stand was my primary source of familiarity, but as time passed and I grew more confident in my Korean abilities, other things started to bear semblances of familiarity as well. The nearby GS25 convenience store was my one-stop shop for snacks, condiments and designated trash bags (so that I could actually take out the trash correctly), and I even befriended a barista at a coffee shop who always gave me freebies with my drinks.
Gradually, the daunting abyss of Seoul grew a little less intimidating, and eventually, I was thoroughly enjoying life in the city. I didn’t change — I was still very much a Korean American — but I was able to create some familiarity out of the unfamiliar. By designating the humble dumpling stand as my “safe spot,” I proactively refused to succumb to the feeling that I simply did not belong in Seoul. And, as it turns out, I did belong — it just took a little time to get there.
It’s a common sensation, feeling out-of-place. It applies to situations far beyond navigating a foreign country, and it is something that I, even after returning from Korea, consistently have to combat. But the comforting thing is that, just as I found familiarity in an unassuming dumpling stand, you oftentimes don’t have to look very far to find something for yourself.
So if you ever feel discouraged or believe that you don’t belong, I challenge you to find just one thing that you can hold on to as you push through whatever unfamiliarity you are facing. Just like my experience in Korea, I firmly believe that, with time, you will be surprised by the ways in which your situation has changed around you — or, rather, just how much you’ve grown.
Emily Kim PO ’25 is from Irvine, California. She loves baggy sweaters, YouTube karaoke and banana bread.