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Summer Exchange in South Korea - What makes it worth it?

At thirteen, I had a dream of visiting South Korea. I wasn’t influenced by Korean pop culture at that point in time - I was simply enchanted by how beautiful South Korea looked when I scrolled through endless holiday pictures on Instagram.


Fast forward 8 years later, I was blessed with the opportunity to visit South Korea. Not just for a holiday, but to embark on a summer exchange programme to Yonsei University in Seoul. To say that I was excited was an understatement; I had waited almost a decade for my dreams to become reality. Before summer school officially started, I spent slightly more than a week in South Korea with my mother as a short holiday for her, and to familiarise myself with Seoul.


My experience was nothing short of amazing, and oftentimes I find myself reminiscing about the days where I would people-watch at the Han River, walk into Olive Young (a famous cosmetic store in Korea) multiple times a day, and satisfy my sweet tooth with a $3.50 matcha latte.


Yonsei University’s iconic architecture on my digital camera


But what is it about my whole experience that made it so worth it? Let me share with you the (non-academic) reasons on why it was an experience I’ll never forget!


A taste of everything

When asked by people about why i decided to go on an exchange to South Korea , this is usually my main answer - South Korea gives you a taste of everything. Some people love admiring nature’s beauty, some prefer to spend their days along shopping streets, and some enjoy soaking in the vibes at a cafe.

In South Korea, you get the chance to do it all!

  • Nature

Personally, I really enjoy sitting down and doing nothing, just admiring views and capturing photos. One of my favourite places to do that in Seoul is Hangang Park. The Hangang river flows through the city, and there are many different parks along the river. The most popular one would be Yeouido Hangang Park, but you can also enjoy the scenic views at Banpo Hangang Park, on the other side of the river, or at Mangwon Hangang Park if you’re staying in Mapo-gu!


It is a lovely place for you to enjoy your own company. Don’t be afraid of seeming alone, as Hangang Park is usually crowded with couples - I went there alone three times during my trip!


Han River on my digital camera :)


Seoul Forest is another place where you can admire nature. It is located very near Seongsu, known as the Brooklyn of Seoul. Although it is prettier in spring or autumn, where you can admire the cherry blossoms or autumn foliage, it is still worth visiting during summer!


Seoul Forest in summer


  • Shopping

Pretty self-explanatory, as South Korea is very known for its lively shopping scene. If you’re looking for a wardrobe refresh, Seoul has everything for you, from thrifted items to the trendiest pieces!


Apart from the usual Hongdae and Myeongdong Shopping Street, do consider Dongmyo Flea Market as well! You can find pieces for as low as $7, and in good quality as well.


Thrifting at Dongmyo Flea Market!


  • Cafe hopping

Last but not least, cafe hopping is on almost everyone’s itinerary in South Korea. The vibes of the cafes in South Korea are unmatched, and some of the drinks can be pretty affordable too! It’s a fun way to unwind and catch up with friends, or just to relax after school. You’d most likely find a cafe along the streets wherever you go, so take full advantage of your time in South Korea to enjoy their cafe scene.


Nuldam Space Cafe


Gaining Independence

Although I did not embark on my exchange alone, I definitely gained some independence. I had never been away from my family for 1.5 months, so living in a country I’ve never been to for an extended period of time was a new experience for me.


Being overseas alone meant that I had to take care of myself properly, as my mother was not around to tell me “Zip your bag when you go out” or “Be careful when you cross the road”. Eventually, I did engrain these habits in myself. Although South Korea is relatively safe, you still have to take care of yourself. When you don’t speak the National language of the country you’re visiting, you are definitely more susceptible to falling for scams, danger or even getting roped into a cult. I was blessed enough to have a safe trip this summer, and I hope to never encounter such dangerous situations.


Learning more about other cultures

If you spend 1.5 months in a foreign country, you’re bound to learn a bit about their culture. While I see some similarities between Singaporeans and Koreans, South Korea definitely does have different cultural norms compared to Singapore.


Some of the more famous ones would be the public transport norms. In South Korea, you stand on the right of the escalator. If the seats on the train are reserved for the elderly, you do not sit down, no matter how crowded the train is. It’s normal to see girls fixing their foundation and curling their bangs on the train. It was very interesting to see the difference in culture compared to Singapore - how looks are of utmost importance in South Korea, and the emphasis on respect for elders.


But respect is not just limited to elderly; Koreans place a lot of emphasis on respecting F&B and retail workers too. It is very normal to be greeted as soon as you enter the store, and if you leave, you are also expected to say ‘’감사합니다 (Thank you)’ to the staff as well. When you eat at a cafe or restaurant, return your cutlery to the designated spot, if not to the staff at the counter, just to make their lives a little easier.


I’ve met many friendly staff during my trip, including a male staff at Nature Republic who is fluent in Thai (I am half thai, though unable to speak the language, so he conversed with my mother). I also met a girl around my age mending a souvenir shop in Suwon, who tried her best to converse with my friend and me in English to know us better. Meeting friendly people really makes your experience better, so don’t be too intimidated if you don’t understand Korean!


If you’re afraid of going on an exchange in a country where the culture is totally different from what you are used to, there isn’t much to worry about if you want to visit South Korea. As Singapore and South Korea are Asian countries, the values each culture upholds are not entirely different, but different enough for you to be able to learn and appreciate.


Some challenges I faced

Of course, not everything was smooth sailing, although it was for the most part. One of my biggest struggles was that I was very afraid of speaking to the sales staff. I did quite a lot of shopping in Korea, so having to ask the staff for assistance was a given. Although I understand a bit of Korean, and can form a somewhat coherent sentence asking “Hi, is this item available?”, I was very afraid of being judged for my Korean. I’m already a pretty introverted person, and generally would prefer not to speak to sales staff, so it was even more intimidating for me in South Korea. Plus, I visited Olive Young almost every time I went out, and you usually have to ask the staff to check the item stock for you.


I ended up relying a lot on my friend who is more brave than I am, even though I’m the one who can understand Korean better. On the bright side, I managed to put my skills to use in other settings, such as ordering in a cafe. It was less intimidating for me, because the cafe I studied in was much more calm than in Olive Young, where everyone was squeezing past each other and the staff are stressed out by the large crowds.


One of my Olive Young hauls :)


When I visit South Korea again (God willing), I do hope that I can overcome my fear of speaking to sales staff.


The moon in the evening near my AirBNB, one of my favourite pictures taken


This summer was definitely a remarkable one. Aside from being immersed in South Korean culture for 1.5 months, I learned a lot about myself, deepened my friendships, and got to live the dream I had always dreamed of. Until the next time I get to visit again, I will continue to look back and reminisce about my exchange.


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