“What’s the one thing you’ll take away from this experience?” my friend Brian asked.
One night walking back to the dorms from Sinchon, one of Seoul's college-town districts, my good friend threw out this question out of what felt like nowhere. Knowing I had to sit down and reflect before giving him a substantial answer, I told him I’d get back to him on that.
. . .
This summer, I studied abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. This experience was awesomely followed with a 6-day stay in Tokyo and a two-week trip to the Philippines.
This should not surprise anyone: Studying abroad can be an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Mine was no exception, and I’m definitely grateful to have had the privilege to do it.
Prior to deciding to go abroad, when I would talk to friends and the topic of studying abroad came up, I’ve gotten two types of responses:
- From those who have done it, it was one of their best college experiences.
- From those who haven’t, it was one of their biggest college regrets.
When I concluded this, I realized I had to do it. I didn’t want to do it to “escape reality” (never travel for this reason). I knew this experience would ultimately help me be a better person.
I was ecstatic to undergo what I anticipated would be one of my best lifetime experiences.
How Does One Korea?
Fast forward to the end of my first week abroad, I had to quickly learn the basic ropes like:
- common Korean phrases
- polite mannerisms
- cultural norms (like being butt-naked in a public bathhouse)
- how to get around a new campus
- how to get around a new metropolitan city
- where to get good exchange rates for currency
- where the best places are to shop at and not get haggled
- where the best place is to get a cracked phone screen fixed (guess what happened to my iPhone)
- how not knowing anything about KPop can kill a conversation (lol)
I felt like a total beginner at everything.
Going to Japan and the Philippines was a similar deal. Even though I took a year of Japanese and am a Filipino-American, there were still whole new sets of mannerisms, norms, and phrases to learn.
The last thing I’m trying to say is “0mg #studyabroadstrugglez”. Far from that. I know there are tons of people who live in non-native countries for much longer than a summer, for purposes usually less fun than studying abroad.
But prior to going abroad, I was in a hardcore focused-grind mode with school and personal projects. I felt like I was effectively moving toward my goals. I was confident with where I was at and where I was going. And have you ever unfollowed a massive amount of people on social media to focus on people that matter? I did this too.
Now I had to pause the focused-grind mode to be a total noob in a new city, at a new school, with a new bunch of people. Why did I decide to go abroad, again?
Where’s a Legit Place to Get a Haircut?
The good news is I learned the ropes quickly. But I didn’t do it on my own.
Luckily, I met amazingly genuine friends—some who were also beginners at everything, and some who were familiar with certain things. Everyone was extremely helpful. We all helped each other out.
There were over 200 other students studying abroad at Yonsei. On our Facebook group, I'd say 85% of our posts are questions.
“Those in Korean 1 know if there’s homework due tomorrow?”"Where's a legit place to get a haircut?"“How do you get tickets for [insert any famous KPop group here]’s concert?”
I wasn’t the only one who felt like a beginner at everything. There were hundreds of others who felt the same, and hundreds of others helping out.
I got help from others almost every day (thanks, friends!). For me, this was uncomfortable at first. My brain always gets me to think that I don’t need help, that I’d rather figure it out myself, and/or that people are too busy to help. Perhaps it’s also tough for you to ask for help.
But people will help you out more than you think.
My friend Hamilton told me this when I asked him for his advice as a study abroad alum at Yonsei. Even research shows we underestimate how willing people are to help us. But it still took me a while to learn that.
Coincidentally, I finished Adam Grant’s Give and Take during my trip. Adam talks about how decades of research show that the most successful people aren’t the selfish, taking types.
They’re the selfless, giving types. They’re those who help.
. . .
A week after Brian asked me the question, we went to a jimjilbang (the Korean version of a spa & sauna) to chill out with friends. Brian and I went into in a super hot salt room and shot the shit. I finally told him my answer.
“I learned to be comfortable with being a beginner at everything.”
We were totally sucked into deep conversation afterwards. So much that we were drenched in our own sweat from head to toe by the time we left the room. Imagine how exhilarating the ice room felt after.
It’s necessary to remind ourselves to be comfortable being a beginner at a lot of things.
If we weren’t, then where’s the beauty of helping and learning?
. . .
Photo credits go to whiteryan and my good friends: Brian Park, Anna Tri, Cheyenne Rofe, and Janet Ji.