Rachel Wong ’19 (Atlanta) is one of the nearly 60 percent of Mac students who spend a semester studying away from campus. But unlike most, Wong earned a Benjamin Gilman International Scholarship from the State Department to help fund her semester at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. As part of that scholarship, she’s been blogging about her time abroad, sharing everything from reflections on her identity to exploring cafés around the city:

First Impressions of Korea

It’s Week 3 for me in Seoul (even though it still occasionally feels like I arrived yesterday), and it’s not called a megacity without reason.

As soon as I step off Ewha’s campus, finding a place to eat for dinner becomes my most difficult decision. I pass at least 20 restaurants and 10 cafes in my two-minute walk to the subway station. My goal? To try as many restaurants and eateries as possible!

In a surprising twist, I found Charcoal, a coffee shop near Ewha that serves Hong Kong street food, within that two-minute walk to the subway station. Walking in, I was greeted with placards of various Hong Kong neighborhoods and miniatures of the Kowloon Motor Bus Co. (KMB) double-deckers. While their Hong Kong-styled foods are more expensive than those in Hong Kong, this café has managed to recreate Hong Kong milk tea! It truly felt like I found a taste of home away from home.

Taking Classes at Ewha

“Introduction to Korean Culture” is my favorite class this semester probably due to the fact that it resembles a class that I might take at Macalester. Most students are international students and class participation is more frequent because the class size is around 25. So far, we have learned about Korean shamanism, Confucianism, and the Korean educational system. Later in the semester, I will be researching and presenting on urban spaces in Korea so I’m really excited about that. (I really enjoy learning about sustainable urban development in the East Asian context.)

Personally, being at Ewha has made me value the education I am receiving at Macalester. I hadn’t realized how academically rigorous Macalester was, and I have also learned to appreciate my Macalester professors even more. I miss having intellectual discussions with students every day at Café Mac. I value my time here at Ewha and in Seoul very much and will treasure all the memories that I will make here, but at the end of the day, I do think that a small higher ed institution is for me.

A Seoul-ful Mid-semester Reflection

In all honesty, I still haven’t accepted the fact that I’m studying abroad right now. While many people assumed that I chose South Korea because of my passion for Korean entertainment, ultimately, I wanted to learn about East Asia from East Asian scholars; I was/am curious about their thoughts on Western academic writing on East Asia, and wanted to see the contrast between the two perspectives.

In my social life here in Korea, I have met great people and made new friends from other parts of the U.S. and the rest of the world. I regularly chat with other Ewha students through the E-Pal English tutoring program, and catch glimpses of their lives through their anecdotes. I even reconnected with my middle school best friend after not seeing her for seven years, and we conversed as if we had never been apart.

In all, I have been extremely grateful for the experience of studying abroad. Not everything has been all sunshine and flowers, but at the same time, being outside of Macalester’s bubble allows me to interact and communicate with others who don’t share my opinions. I don’t have to agree with them, but I think I have the duty to listen and understand others’ perspectives. And for me, that is the beauty of diversity; studying abroad gives me the chance to not only see a different culture but also an opportunity to be understanding and empathetic to someone else’s background, beliefs, and life choices.

What We Miss From Home

I knew studying abroad would make me miss Jennifer since I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call her with a 15-hour time difference (like we do when we are physically separated in the States)… But I didn’t realize the extent of this feeling until I started getting thoughts like, ‘I wish I could talk to Jennifer about this,’ or ‘I wonder what Jennifer would think about this topic?’ It’s crazy, I know, because I never get homesick with family, but I think Jennifer and I have so many shared experiences that it’s weird not to debrief with each other. As same-aged friends, I can honestly say that Jennifer has been my cheerleader, roommate, and sister at Mac. We have been inseparable since Week 2 of our first year at Macalester, and having a 15-hour time difference has made me appreciate my friendship with Jennifer even more.

Semester-end Reflection

The stress of exams, the bitterness of winter, and the dead silence of hallways can only mean one thing: the impending end of another semester.

Although it seems like such a cliché, it honestly does feel like I wrote my mid-semester reflection just last week. Conversations about possible things to do in the future evolved into activities that we must do on the remaining weekends before we move out of the dorms. I can’t say that I have done everything that I wanted to, but I can say for certain that I have made the most of my semester here in Seoul. The weekend trips to Jeju Island and Japan, laughter over Korean barbecue dinners, study sessions at local cafés, and conversations with Korean friends will all eventually become distinct memories. These will be the memories that I will forever treasure fondly.

It’s amazing how a semester-long immersion in a different culture can make you discover things that you didn’t know about yourself. I learned to converse with others who hold different political opinions. I learned to navigate in a society where I don’t speak the language. I befriended people in the most unexpected situations. I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. I learned to be comfortable with my identity, regardless of where I am. And, ultimately, I learned that everything will be okay—even if I don’t think it will be okay at that moment.

Korea, thank you for a wonderful semester. Until we meet again…

For more of Rachel’s posts, visit her blog.

February 5 2018

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