Keely, outbound to South Korea

Protip, never flush your toilet paper in Korea without asking if you can unless you want to be responsible for a broken toilet. 

I'm going to skip the story of how my flights were because everything went pretty much according to plan. I left with a smile on my face, ready to leave, and I landed with an even bigger smile, ready to start my exchange. Now, I gave you that wonderful advice about the toilets because I, on my first day, broke my host family’s toilet. I woke up at around 6 AM extremely jetlagged, mind you, and on my way to the bathroom. At first I couldn’t find the button used to flush the toilet. That wasn’t a big deal. I just had the girl my family back home is hosting, Seulji, text me and tell me where the button was. The button wasn't the problem though. I did something that I swore I would never do after researching Korea. Yes, I flushed the toilet paper. No amount of research was staying with me, being that tired and that included the little bit about Korean toilets. So there I sat crying in the bathroom while asking my fellow outbound friends for help. Seulji, once again, came to my rescue and texted my host sister who came and helped me with the mess. After trying to flush the toilet again (don’t ask me why we thought this was a good idea) we went and got my host mom. Thank goodness she wasn't mad. I like to think the crying helped. Instead of yelling at me, she called someone to come and fix the toilet and made me beef. Nicest. Host mom. Ever.

With all that happening on day one I was more than nervous when the first day of school came around. As if I didn't stand out enough, I didn't have a uniform yet either (And won’t until about the end of September). But… it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Everyone is extremely nice and by the end of the day it was like I belonged there. I had friends and the teachers liked me. Nothing embarrassing just any other school day if you take you take out the fact that I barely understood anything. School is pretty nice though. Not as hard and strict as everyone says it is but I am in a middle school right now. I’m sure it will be different when I move into the high school because that’s when the students have to start preparing for college. School here is from 8:00-5:00 (not too much of a difference), there are eight classes that are 45 minutes each except on Friday when there is only seven classes, and the students only switch classes for English, social studies, gym, and Thursday meeting in the auditorium. I did follow the normal class schedule until the rest of the exchange students arrived and started school. Once they were settled in, we started our Korean classes.

This is where I want to give a BIG “thank you” to the training Florida puts us through before we leave. When I got here I was the student who knew the most because of the assignments we had to do and it has gained me so much respect. I just simply said, “Sorry,” to my host dad and he looked at me like I had 50 arms and was purple. I guess most exchange students that come here know 0% of the language so they were so taken aback that I even knew that. This came in handy when we started our Korean classes because guess who was given the advanced work because she could read the language and understand some of it. That’s right, this girl. Most people would probably be like, “Ew, extra work,” but it has helped me out so much. It also kinda makes me the teacher’s pet which is an added bonus because the Monday and Tuesday Korean teacher uses the “tiger teacher” method and because I’m the favorite (I know it sounds like I’m bragging but she has told my host family multiple times that I am the favorite), she goes easier on me. The same goes for the Wednesday and Thursday teacher we have. It’s pretty awesome. So advice to any future outbounds to this lovely country, STUDY THE LANGUAGE LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW. It will gain you so much respect here, you’ll make friends faster, and it will give you opportunities the other exchange students won’t get.

So cultural differences are next. Another big thank you to Rotary on this one with that 12 page culture essay we had to write. Yeah I don’t really need to know everything on that outline but the little things that I found out like what is acceptable to wear, how kids interact with each other, and how you treat your elders, even if it’s only by a year, differently really helped out. I’m telling you right now that if you’re coming to Korea with tank tops and V-necks that you need to go repack right away. Here it’s pretty much the opposite of the U.S. on what is appropriate to wear out. In the U.S. you can show your shoulders or your back or your chest and it’s all cool until you wear short shorts. Here it’s the exact opposite. You could probably wear your underwear out and it would still be alright but as soon as you expose your shoulders or chest it’s a big no-no. It’s also really nice to know what is in style at the moment because you will feel under dressed about 95% of the time compared to most people here. It’s like every day is fashion week.

Now onto how kids interact with each other. Now, I heard a lot of “it’s frowned upon for guys and girls to have contact here” back in the U.S., so when I saw most of the playing around and contact between the opposite sexes I was a little surprised. They act just like me and my guy friends back in my school. One major difference is not how the girls interact with each other, but how the guys do. Now, I wasn't the least bit fazed by the way they interact with each other, but someone with different views from myself would probably be completely shocked. Guys here act just as close as the girls do. Unlike back in my school where the girls would cling to their friends and hold hands and the guys would maybe hug once in a while, here it’s the same for everybody. You see those girls walking to the bathroom while hugging? You’re going to see guys doing the same thing.

They also punch each other. A lot. Everyone here does. I said something funny so my friend punched me in the arm, you say something really cheesy and they punch you, you lost at a game so as a punishment they punch you. They will hit you for anything but it is important to label this as a big cultural difference. If you don’t recognize this as a cultural difference there’s a chance that you may get offended or take it personally and blow the situation way out of proportion.

Also with the students, even if you are one year older you get treated differently. Here in South Korea respecting your elders is extremely important. You use formal language, you bow like crazy, you always watch what you say and do. It’s completely to that extent with the students to each other but instead of saying 안녕 (casual greeting) they’ll say 안녕하세요 (more formal greeting) which isn't that much of a different but it’s still there.

One more thing I want to address is making friends here. The one thing I was afraid of, and a lot of exchange students are too, is if I’ll have friends here or not. Especially being in Asia where I was told it was going to be hard making friends because the kids were so shy, I was worried. But worry not, at least where I am, the students want to be your friend. As long as you’re nice, friendly, and approachable. You smile at one person and say hi, it’s like the whole school wants to know you. It’s amazing how friendly everyone is and how willing they are to help out with the language. I’ve learned more hanging out with the students than I ever would have just studying by myself. They want to be your friend, as long as you’re willing to let them. I know that sounds odd because who wouldn't want the students to be friends with them, but I've already seen it where someone is a bit closed off and unwilling and the students notice. Trust me. Be happy and bubbly your first days at school and have your bad days after that. It’s for the best that they like you. If they don’t, you won’t ever know because they don’t want to upset to foreigner, but everyone else will.

So that pretty much wraps my first journal entry up with it being almost midnight on a school day.  I couldn't have asked to be in a better country. Sure the language is a bit difficult but if that’s what I have to struggle with a little bit to be able to experience this amazing life in a year, I’ll do everything I can to work through it.