By Victoria Bullett; philosophy, politics and economics student on exchange in Korea University.
My adventure in the “land of the morning calm” began on the 24th of August. After many hours crammed in Economy seats designed for Oompa Loompas, I finally landed at Incheon International airport with bags under my eyes larger than my 22.9kg suitcase (the limit was 23kg). I was going to spend two semesters at Korea University, in Seoul, and I had no idea what to expect.
The first couple of interactions I had with Koreans quickly set the scene for me: these people are lovely, but Shakespeare’s language hardly made its way to the Korean peninsula. This language difficulty was a sign that the assumption one might have of Western influence in South Korea is merely superficial. It was something I loved instantly about South Korea: I was entering a country that had nothing to do with the rest of the world, attached with its own traditions and culture.
Living in Korea for the last four months has taught me a lot about this country – sometimes the hard way. I learned that Korean people are very kind, unless you accidentally sit on the reserved seats in the subway! An even more valuable lesson was that Korean cuisine can be unexpectedly spicy. However, I also discovered many (milder) delicious dishes, which has led me to consider Korean cuisine as one of the tastiest I have ever tried (unless you are vegan, in which case abort mission!).
I could not write about South Korea without mentioning the two bosses of Korean culture: K-pop and K-beauty. K-pop can be heard in every shop or street in Seoul, and the famous bands have become a cult, attracting fans internationally. There is even a museum dedicated to a K-pop record label! As for K-beauty, it is very popular to follow a cosmetic routine, involving unique products such as snail essence (from snail mucus) or placenta face masks. But what surprised me most is that the industry makes cosmetic products specifically targeted at men – everyone in Korea wants to glam it up.
Looking good is important in Seoul, which is why plastic surgery and cosmetics are so popular. Personally, being guilty of going to Jimmy’s in my pyjamas, I had to up my game to get into Octagon, the 5th best club in the world, located in Gangnam. Gangnam is truly the elite area, as PSY explains in his “Gangnam Style” hit. It is also the best place to get a nose job, as all the plastic surgery clinics are located there!
Other than their keen interest in physical appearance, Koreans do know how to have fun. The hip clubbing areas, such as Itaewon and Hongdae offer an abundance of bars and clubs, from disco to techno, EDM, and so on – there is a club for everyone in Seoul. But more importantly, they play a wide variety of drinking games revolving around a drink that is (sadly) missing from our dear bar: Soju (John’s bar manager, make it happen!). Legend has it that it is cheaper than water, but I cannot confirm this yet, as I have not tried the water.
Despite all these fun activities, the reason I find myself in South Korea is to study. My host university, Korea University, could be a useful source of inspiration for improving Durham.
Being a KU student is great. The campus is beautiful – there are several libraries, all of which include napping rooms. Campus life is very different too. There are no colleges, but the university as a whole is tightly bound. An important event that took place in October were the “Kore-Yon” Games. These games are the annual sports competition between KU and their arch nemesis: Yonsei University. In anticipation of the event, all exchange students were taught the cheers and songs. During the games, we all came wearing the school colours (crimson red) to cheer for our team. It was a great event, but I must admit we let Yonsei win this year, just to be nice.
In conclusion, I would recommend a student experience in Seoul, simply because they know how to host international students, despite the language difference. I find Korean culture to be underrated, and everyone in the world should have itchy feet, when hearing about this wonderful country.