I met Sarah about nine months ago on a Christmas skiing trip in Pyeongchang, South Korea. She struck me as an easy going gal that liked to unplug from daily life and have some fun. It turns out this 24-year-old, or 26-year-old if you’re counting by Korea’s method, would become a great friend and guide to navigate me through the blogosphere. Check Sarah out at her blog Mapping Words or her Twitter.
You studied at Pratt, right?
I studied at Pratt, but I was an exchange student my junior year at Korea National University of Arts.
Oh, How long was that for?
I stayed here six months. The semester lasted four months, but then I stayed for the summer.
Did you live in Seoul?
Yeah, I lived right where I live now. I was kind of pissed about it. With EPIK, they can place you anywhere in Seoul, because I got accepted into Seoul. I think they saw on my application that I’d already studied at KNUA and they placed me in the same area, probably thinking, “Oh, she liked it then. Let’s place her in the same area.” It’s in north-east Seoul.
What did you study?
I studied art education and fine arts. In Korea, just fine arts.
Have you had any shows in Korea?
I did have one show in Insadong. It was a group show. It was in a really small gallery called J Gallery. There were four artists. I just showed a couple of pieces. That was fun.
So, you were doing university and you studied abroad here for six months. What drew you back?
Well, there are so many opportunities to work in Korea and I felt like six months was pretty short. I had already started learning Korean. I felt I could go back and get a pretty good job in the public schools, I could keep learning Korean, and I had friends here. Also, I had a boyfriend then. We planned to come back here together. That wasn’t the only reason why I wanted to come back to Korea, though. When we were thinking about how we could be together, Korea was a good option.
Well, when I was an exchange student, there weren’t that many [study abroad] options. There were a few in Europe, Japan, and Korea. I decided I wanted to go to the place that’s the most different from where I’m from. I wanted to challenge myself. That’s why I originally came to Korea. I didn’t really know anything about Korea before I came here. I had one Korean-American friend, I had met some Koreans, and I had tried Korean food. Other than that, I didn’t know much about Korean culture.
How do you stay active?
I like to stay busy. So, I’m always looking for things to do in Seoul. There is so much available for expats here. I’ve been here a year and a half, but I’ve done Bikram yoga, Hatha yoga, pole dancing, zumba, hiking, and weekend trips outside of Seoul. A lot of these [activities] I just find on the internet or through friends. I meet up with different friends a lot and go to different parts of the city. There are so many events posted all the time. You really have to choose what you want to do, because there are so many options.
Where have you gone hiking in Korea?
I’ve been to many places in Seoul, like Dobong-san and Surak-san. But I’ve also been to Seorak-san in Gangwon-do. I’ve been down South on this jagged ridge-island hiking trip, which was really cool. I went to Jiri-san. I went hiking on Halla-san on Jeju. I’ve been to the three biggest mountains and various others.
Where have you travelled around in Asia?
I’ve been to China for three weeks. I went to Beijing, Yunnan Province, and Xi’an because I had three weeks of vacation last year in the summer. I really wanted to take advantage of it. Then, this year I went to Taiwan for two weeks and Japan for two weeks. In Japan, I went to Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
Which one has been your favorite? Why?
They’re all so different. But I guess some of my best experiences were in Taiwan. I had such a great time because of the people I met, and I couchsurfed. I also couchsurfed in Beijing. Both times have been really awesome experiences because I stayed with local families and they took me to see things that I would never see on my own. In Beijing, we went to a Beijing duck restaurant that only local people really know about. We went biking through the hutongs. I learned a lot about Chinese culture and modern family life in Beijing. It was pretty cool.
So you would definitely recommend couchsurfing?
Yeah, definitely! Some of my best moments traveling have been through couchsurfing.
Did you couchsurf in Japan?
No I didn’t. I wanted to, but I couldn’t find many people who were offering space when I was there. Honestly, I didn’t really look that hard. I did put a notice up on my profile. This thirty-five year old man messaged me “Hey I’d like to drink sake with you.” I responded no thanks. Other than that no one messaged me. Later, I would definitely like to.
What has been your most memorable experience since you’ve been living in Asia?
Let me think. There’s this one ajumma at my work that I talk to a lot. She doesn’t speak English but she’ll invite me over to her house, we’ll go hiking together, she’ll cook for me, and she’s so cute. Even though there’s definitely a language barrier and sometimes it takes a little while to understand what she is saying or for her to understand what I’m saying, she’s not shy to talk to me. A lot of Koreans are. They feel like they have to speak English to me. That’s been a really good experience because it just shows that I feel really comfortable with her trying to speak Korean. I feel really good afterwards when I’ve actually communicated something.
For places in Korean that I’ve been, I really loved that island hiking trip on Saryang-do. It was on the Southern tip of Korea. It was just a really beautiful place and the scenery was really gorgeous. The people on the trip were really cool.
Some of my best experiences were when I was a studying as an exchange student. Everything was new and exhilarating. I developed some great relationships with both Koreans and foreigners, many who I’m still friends with.
How did your experience change after you returned to work?
It changed a lot! When I was a student here, I was studying all the time. I had tons of free time. I could work in my studio, I could travel on the weekends. I made Korean friends at school. I also met my boyfriend at the time. He was an exchange student. We would go places together all the time. We went to Busan, Jeju-do, Gyeong-ju, the Incheon islands, and all over. It was the honeymoon stage [of culture shock] experiencing Korea, but in a new relationship too. Everything was just great, I loved Korean food, I had all these new friends, and I could make art all the time. I was learning so much about Korean culture from the ground level.
When I came back to Korea, I started feeling more culture shock and learning about the parts of Korean society that I’m not necessarily drawn to or really feel connected to. I have no right to say [Korea] should be this way or it should be that way, but sometimes the standards of beauty, materialism, and my co-workers always talking about dieting wears on me a bit. Sometimes age relationships at work are a bit awkward. I had an ajusshi co-worker and I pretty much I had to do all the planning—which is fine, but then he would just decide what he wanted to do during class. I could make all these games, but then he might spend twenty minutes talking in Korean about Jesus and poop. All my plans would go out the window, and sometimes the students didn’t have a chance to speak any English. That was a bit frustrating. I’ve definitely learned a lot about Korean culture because I’m working in a public school environment.
Going off that tangent, would you consider yourself a passive observer or a lot more involved?
I wouldn’t consider myself a tourist. Since I’ve lived here for a year and a half now, I feel comfortable where I live. I’m still aware that every time I walk out of my apartment people stare at me because of my appearance. That’s not going to change no matter how long I live in Korea. In my neighborhood, they don’t see foreigners very often. Sometimes I get discouraged because I feel so comfortable living here, but I’ll still never really be accepted.
I do like to travel. For example, visit other parts of Korea, go to new places that are appealing. I don’t really see that as touristy, more like exploring my surroundings.
Going off what you said about people staring at you. Have you fully adjusted to that? Does it still catch you sometimes?
Now, I’m used to it–I’m a foreigner. I live on the outskirts of Seoul, so people always speak to me in Korean. They either don’t speak English or they’re not comfortable speaking English–Which is fine, because I don’t want people to feel like they need to speak in English to me. I’m more aware when I’m in areas with large foreign populations, like [Haebangchon]. Yesterday, I needed to put more money on my T-Money card to swipe out [of the subway]. I asked the man working near the exit to put more money on my card. He said, “In English.” Around here, they kind of wonder “Why are trying to speak to me in Korean when I obviously speak English?” At first, this kind of situation bothered me because I wanted to fully immerse myself in Korea. I’ve realized that since I am Caucasian, I will always receive this kind of treatment. I can have relationships with Korean people, but I will never fully be accepted into this society.
Is there anything else you want to add or any advice you want to give to anyone coming who might read this?
Have an open mind. There are things that might bother you about Korea. There are definitely things that still bother me. You just have to realize that it’s Korea and this is how it is here. Try to be flexible. Get out of the city once in a while. There are so many beautiful places to see, and the atmosphere is completely different in the countryside. Learn some Korean, and don’t be afraid to try new things.