I remember the day I arrived in Seoul at the end of June, when I couldn’t even figure out the way from the nearest bus station to the University but didn’t have courage to ask for direction because of my poor Korean; after wandering about for some time in the intense heat of summer with heavy suitcases I was already exhausted and sweating all over by the time I finally made it to the International House of Ewha Womans University. When I left the campus one month later upon the completion of the program, however, I was feeling much more comfortable walking around the neighborhood and even had gained confidence in talking to people on the streets in Korean. It seems to have passed by in an instant, but one full of discovery, learning and self-reflection. I learned so much, not only about the Korean language itself, which was my original purpose of attending this summer college, but also about the Korean society in general, the city of Seoul, Korean food, history and culture, and to some extent, about my home country Japan.
One of the things that I liked most about this international summer college was its diversity of the participants. Until I got to the campus I had no idea as to how big this program would be, but as it turned out, there were more than 200 students from more than 15 countries. Simply meeting these people from different universities all over the world was itself a valuable experience, as well as learning what motivated them to come all the way to Korea; many Korean Americans (and alike) seemed to have come to learn about their heritage language and culture; some were East Asian Studies majors and pursued their academic interests; others were K-pop lovers and of other Korean popular culture; yet others, including myself, were language freaks – coming to learn Korean as their fourth or fifth language “just for fun”. In my classes there were students from Singapore, Britain, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, US, and Korea (Ewha students and others) and I truly enjoyed learning about them and their perspectives. Their levels of Korean varied as well, from very beginner who had never studied Korean (not even Hangul) to very advanced. We explored the city together, tried Korean food together, learned from each other, laughed together, and had fun together.
During the program, I took modern Korean history class in the morning and Korean language class in the afternoon from Monday to Thursday. Between the two classes I often went to Posco building to have cheap but tasty Kimbap (only 2000-3000 won) for lunch and did homework or took a nap, and after class in the evening I went out to try different Korean dishes for dinner. On weekends I ventured into the city with my new friends. Seoul is such a vibrant city and has a lot to offer; although I didn’t go to many tourist spots that guidebooks tell us to go, I got to catch a glimpse of modern as well as traditional aspects of the city by simply walking down the street – looking up the skyscrapers, admiring historical temples, looking at numerous advertisements of plastic surgery – or by just people-watching while riding the well-air-conditioned, highly-digitalized Seoul Metro.
Seoul is also very international, and so is Ewha Womans University; I could totally have survived without using Korean during the program and initially my Korean didn’t seem to improve much. With that realization I pushed myself to use Korean as much as possible during the second half of the program and I started to feel more comfortable speaking in Korean. The language class and daily life conversation complemented each other in my learning of Korean. Although I could hardly maintain conversation in Korean when I arrived, by the time the program ended I could hold a conversation in Korean for more than a few hours, which was a great accomplishment for me.
In addition, what made my experience all the more significant was the modern Korean history class, even though at first I was a little reluctant to take an academic course (I wanted to devote my time to learning Korean). I enjoyed this course so much partly because we used Korean cinema as a means to understand and analyze the narrativization of modern Korean history, which was different from a normal history class that we imagine. Another reason was because the class was a mix of international and Korean students, from different class years and majors. Through in-class discussions and blog posts, we exchanged our views and opinions on difficult – and often sensitive, because they are so recent – topics such as Japanese colonization of Korea or movements for democratization. This class helped me understand Korean perspectives on its recently history slightly more, which was eye-opening because they are often very distinct from Japanese perspectives on the same topic, with which I had been more familiar. What I discussed, learned, and came to question in this course, has gone well beyond the classroom and enriched in many ways my understanding of the Korean society that I glimpsed, as well as given me a new perspective on Korea-Japan relationship.
After all I liked Korea more, and my interests in Korean language have expanded well to Korean history, cinema, popular culture, society, economics, etc. In fact I’m leaving with more questions than I had when I arrived in Seoul a month ago, which will continue to motivate me to study more about Korea. I left many parts of Seoul and other cities unexplored, but it means that I should come back here again soon.
I am truly grateful for Ewha Womans University and the Office of Global Affairs for making this wonderful program possible and giving me the opportunity to come here, a privilege not just anyone can enjoy. I will always remember the summer I spent in Seoul. Thank you so much!