Here is the final draft of the NSLIY Korea Year Reflection that I wrote. As I said earlier, it is still hard to believe that my 9 months in Korea are almost over.
I still clearly remember walking through the Incheon Airport last September with the other NSLIY students all in our bright blue NSLIY shirts, feeling greasy, tired and in need of a shower; yet, we were all also incredibly excited for the next 9 months ahead of me. I came from a small town of about 1000 people, so moving to Seoul was a huge change in my life.
When I first came I knew only basic Korean. My mother is Korean but I grew up in an English speaking household, so I never learned any Korean language as a child. I struggled a lot with the question, “What part of me is Korean and what part is not?”. I felt a burden having the last name Kim, but not being able to speak towards my Korean heritage. So during my senior year of high school, I self studied and received some help from a Korean college student in my town, but my speaking level at arrival was still very low.
For the first two months in Korea, I had low confidence in initiating a conversation with people I met in public or even with some of my classmates at Daewon. I tended to take a backseat in conversations and only talk when someone directly asked me a question. Despite my strong determination to regain the lost language and culture of my half-Korean background, I was caught up in the idea that people would not understand how I could look somewhat Korean but not speak the language, and then consequently judge me.
The first two months of school were also very hard for me. I went to Daewon Foreign Language High School, where a good portion of my classmates were either fluent or conversational in English. I didn’t know much Korean, so these classmates only spoke to me in English. I was worried that if I established friend relationships in English, it would be awkward to switch them to Korean as my Korean improved. And every time I used English at school I felt guilty that I was not using my scholarship to the full potential and that I was wasting my time. But I was determined on my goal, and continued to try to use only Korean, even if I couldn’t get to know my classmates as well at first. At first it felt kind of lonely at school, but doing this was one of the best decisions I have made this year.
From day one I really clicked with my host family and still I look forward to seeing them at the dinner table after school every day. Sometimes we will talk together for 2 hours straight. The first thing my host mom told me to do when I met her was to call her Omma. It felt weird on the first day to call someone else my mother. Mother is such a powerful word with a lot of emotional meanings and I had just left my own mother in the US. But that feeling quickly went away and now I really feel like part of the family. From watching TV, to cooking, or to folding laundry, to celebrating Chusok or Seollal together, I have learned so much about Korean family lifestyle and the Korean language. The host family provided a safe environment where I could practice my Korean and make all the mistakes, and get corrected on them, which enabled me to increase my speaking confidence with classmates and people I met in Seoul. I am very glad that I was able to get the NSLIY scholarship that provides host family experience, whereas a college study abroad student usually lives in a dormitory. This summer my two host sisters are coming to visit me in the U.S. for three weeks where I will exchange some of my American culture and English language. I also realize I am very blessed to receive such a host family and was able to stay with them all year, as not all the NSLIY students had the supportive host family experiences.
Thanks to my host family, Korean classes and my steady improvement in the language, the following 7 months were much smoother and more enjoyable for me. At school, I was able to participate more in conversations during lunch time and eventually progressed to the point where I could joke around with my classmates in Korean by the end of the year. As an exchange student you will quickly learn that humor in a second language is very hard.
During winter break, we only went to our Korean classes and also did a group Korean culture project. Since I could focus more time on my Korean studies and because I had more time to hang out with my host family, my Korean improved the fastest during this time period. My Korean teacher is very qualified and our class environment is very supportive, so I really appreciated the extra class time during the winter. I felt increasingly determined to learn more grammar points and vocabulary and felt less burdened by previously pondered questions such as “Can I call myself Korean?”. However, I was somewhat burdened by my cultural group project. At first my group proposed to learn about the main staples of Korean food culture and how they have changed in Korea’s history and why, but due to requests to change our topic multiple times we ended up focusing on kimchi. Kimchi is great, I eat it every day, but I was not very invested in the idea of studying it for my winter break project. Yet in the end, I learned how to make kimchi and also some better ways to go about project problems later in college. During this time I also volunteered for 30 hours at the Mapo Youth Center and taught middle schoolers about American culture and conducted English classes. It was a very hard, but cool, experience teaching a language that I don’t even have to think twice about to beginner speakers.
As winter break ended and second semester came around I joined a soccer team at school, despite being the only girl, and got closer with my male classmates. I also joined an international women’s team in Seoul and met some cool people from Japan, South Africa, Canada, Korea, and even got to play with some Yonsei and Korea University players. I really missed organized sports after graduating from high school in the US, so playing soccer is one of many highlights.
During my free time I like to walk around the city and explore. Some days I would walk around for 5 hours, and on other days I would take a friend and go to the last stop on a subway line and explore the outskirts of Seoul. Getting lost and exploring in Seoul is awesome because you can run across a cool concert, restaurant, park, historical sight, “you name it” at any moment. I became known as the NSLIYian that could not walk past a traditional market without going in. Traditional markets are a great place to try new foods and get some speaking practice. I can not stop imagining my Korean relatives walking through a similar market in the past.
As the end of the year started to approach we focused on TOPIK and OPI tests in Korean class. Almost every day in April I would take a one hour practice TOPIK test. I also learned about 1,500 vocab words on my own time from a book I bought at a Hongdae bookstore. The TOPIK test provided a new source of determination, and all the NSLIY students worked very hard during March and April. Once the TOPIK test was done it was like a huge weight was taken off of my shoulders. The score reports have still not come out yet, but I am glad that I am done with TOPIK preparation. I also did my individual cultural project about the covering and restoration of the Cheonggyecheon. I went to the Cheonggyecheon Museum, walked along multiple zones of the stream, and also wrote an abstract about it in Korean.
Now that it is May, the TOPIK is done, and we have two and half weeks left before going back to the US all the NSLIY students are feeling some form of senioritis. The weather is nice and I constantly want to go outside and explore the city before I have to leave. I feel as if there is so much more I want to do. Yet, when I reflect on my year abroad I realize that I have learned so much and experienced such amazing things.
I can now hold a conversation in Korean with confidence. I feel more connected to my culture. I met four loving people I now call family. I connected with personal family in Korea that was once separated by a language barrier. I have become incredibly close with 14 other NSLIY students. I have been to countless sights in Seoul, Incheon, Andong, Ansong, Gyeongju, and Busan. I have published more than 240 blogs in Korean about my daily life, which have accumulated 9,000 viewers from 35 different countries. Personally, I have become a more diligent person, more willing to make a fool of myself in order to learn, and more curious. This year has prepared me for college, and has inspired me to continue learning Korean and other languages.
I hope for all the best for my NSLIY friends, teachers, host family, Daewon classmates, all those who have supported me this year, and to the future NSLIY Korea students in all their future adventures and endeavors. 감사합니다!