Getting ready for a semester abroad is uneasy as it is, not to mention when you have to worry about your destination getting nuked.
When I learned about the possibility to study abroad in Seoul, South Korea, I immediately knew I wanted to go.
My personal relationship to South Korea was definitely a reason; my friends living in Seoul together with other Koreans I have had a chance to meet made me think that they are one of the nicest and most polite people I have ever met.
On top of that, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) is the No. 1 university in Korea.
Schools and universities there are extremely focused on academics; the students are under such pressure to get the best grades that South Korea has had the highest suicide rates among OECD member states.
Jungduk Seo, a third year Korean-American CEA student from Cornell University explains: “They have extreme rules to prevent students from overworking themselves.” Among these are for example restrictions on how much time you can spend in the library.
The reason more European students did not apply for this program might be because of the broad selection of other exchange programs with destinations including the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom or Uruguay, which probably seem more attractive to most students.
However, Korea represents a beautiful country with a remarkable history that is finally somewhat appreciated even here, in the Czech Republic.
It might seem sad to some that it is only because of the mega hit music video “Gangnam Style” but, to be fair, the Czech Republic (Prague, to be more specific) became famous in Korea because of a soap opera that launched in 2005 called “Lovers in Prague,” also known as “Praha Lovers” – because Koreans pronounce Prague the same way Czechs do: Praha.
As Seo said, foreigners often think South Korea is a third world country and Seoul’s resemblance to Manhattan, packed with people and skyscrapers, surprises many. “The entire city is on WiFi,” she says.
So does the high percentage of smokers (in 2000 70-80 percent of Korean men were smokers). And, because it is an industrial city, its smog can cause breathing problems to those who are not used to it. It’s especially bad in summer.
There are more surprises awaiting foreign students. Public restrooms in metro or train stations have squat toilets and it is not easy to find a non-Asian non-fastfood restaurant, but many might be pleased to find Wal-Mart.
English speakers will be amused by nonsensical captions and writings in English on food, public places and clothes. “It’s usually difficult to translate,” explains Seo. “I highly doubt it’s made on purpose,” but wonders how come nobody noticed and corrected these mistakes.
Often T-shirts don’t make sense: “You can have a pajama with cats printed on it and some random words in English around it.”
Beyond culture clashes, the biggest obstacle I am experiencing so far, five months before my planned departure, is that HUFS has not been responding to either of my e-mails concerning visa documents I need from them or classes that are available.
Even Jan Vasenda, AAU’s assistant academic officer who is responsible for dealing with partner universities, admits he has not heard from HUFS for quite some time – but he is optimistic and believes that they will soon reach out.
The first e-mail I sent April 4 and as of April 30 I have not received any feedback.
On April 23 I finally received confirmation from HUFS, together with an online application, so now I know they have acknowledged my existence, although more questions have arisen with the application.
Accommodation details about students’ dormitories are not very clear and there seem to be only a very limited number of classes available in English.
Also, knowing Korean is an advantage, as the elder generation does not usually quite master English. Seo advised that, if lost, it is always better to ask younger people for help.
Living and studying in a war zone is a great experience for not only journalism students and for somebody who hopes to become either a travel journalist, foreign correspondent – or perhaps something completely different – such experience can open many new doors.
Being a foreign correspondent would, of course, mean there is something to report about – like a nuclear war. Or another war or conflict. The world – or at least the part of the world that is aware of what is happening on the Korean peninsula – is divided into three parts: one believes something will happen and the other does not. And, of course, there is whatever the North Koreans believes in.
South Koreans do not seem to be worried. On April 17 HUFS posted on their Facebook site that they wish to reassure students “that there is no increased risk in traveling to Korea as a result of [the increased tension].”
Seo is of a similar opinion: “Obviously South Korea and the US can’t NOT take their threats seriously but at the same time, I think the general understanding is that no real threat actually exists (at the moment).” She thinks North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is just “running his mouth because he can.”
But she admits that she feels more American than Korean and that her perspective is American-biased.
Whether I end up going or not depends on many factors and, perhaps paradoxically, security is the least significant.