Last 2014, I had the opportunity to study as an exchange student in South Korea. In this article, I relive my experience as an exchange student through a trip to Korea sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organization (Manila office) as my prize for being the 3rd place in the 2016 Korean Speech Contest organized by the Korean Cultural Center. This article was also published on The Philippine Star in January 2017.
For as long as I could remember, it has always been my dream to visit Korea. This started back in 2008, during my first year in high school when I started learning the language for the first time. A transferee student from Korea, which I befriended, taught me the basics of the Korean language – from reading and writing Hangul, the Korean writing system, to phrases and grammar structure. Eventually, I became more confident in watching shows without the help of English subtitles, and after just a year, I started translating full Korean shows into English. I would say that the best way to learn the Korean language is not to just rely on books but to continuously immerse oneself into everything Korean –from watching Korean shows, listening to K-pop, and taking Korean classes.
My lifelong dream was fulfilled in 2014 when I got accepted as an exchange student at Korea University. I remember the variety of emotions that rushed through me the moment the plane landed in Incheon International Airport, Korea’s main gateway: I was finally in the very country I’ve only imagined and watched from dramas and shows. And, arriving on the very day of my 18th birthday just made it more special.
Being the only Filipino out of a thousand exchange students at Korea University, I was compelled to socialize with others. The anxiousness of being alone for five months encouraged me to really step out of my comfort zone. Thankfully, the buddy system offered by the Korea University Buddy Association (KUBA) is one of the best in the world and was very accommodating. It is here that I found my closest friends, who I still keep in close contact up until now, and who I have been meeting in other countries for travel. We saw each other almost every day for five months, and I became so comfortable with them that it almost felt like I have known them for years. Although I was alone when I arrived in Korea, I left with hundreds of new friends who all came from different countries.
I also learned to handle being alone, and in the process, I learned that I am much more independent than how I put myself to be. Actually, some of the greatest moments I had were spent getting lost and wandering around all by myself. I was able to grow independently in an unfamiliar environment. I got lost so many times in Korea, but it was okay because I was able to pass through places I would have never seen had I passed by the usual route. It’s amazing how from not even knowing how to take the train or being unable to take a taxi by myself in Manila, I became a person that could take the subway and roam around the streets of Seoul late at night until dawn.
Perhaps because I had limited time in the country, I ended up saying yes to everything that I was invited to. I went paragliding and conquered my fear of heights, I ate raw octopus and raw beef, I went to Busan all by myself and ended up missing the last train going back to Seoul, I had my first fall and snow experience, I reported in front of a class which was being broadcasted live in China, I shopped until 6AM at Dongdaemun, and many more. I ended up doing so many things I never imagined myself to have ever done.
My fangirl dreams were also very much satisfied as I got to attend so many K-pop concerts for free, got to watch filmings of Korean shows, and I even got to meet K-pop stars face to face. In one of my classes, Korean Media and Popular Culture, I got to meet Alexander Eusebio, a former member of K-pop group U-KISS, who sat right in front of me for an entire semester. There were also times when we ran into each other outside class, in cafes or restaurants, and he was nice enough to approach me and talk with me for a few minutes. It was surreal how someone I used to watch only from my laptop screen was right in front of me and was actually talking to me.
Being an exchange student in Korea was everything that I expected it to be, and even more. The fulfillment of a lifelong dream, meeting different kinds of people, gaining a family away from home, and having memories that are mine to keep forever made my stay in Korea more than a mere experience. In fact, I would say that it has been the best decision I have ever made in my life yet. Spending an entire semester in Korea made me fall in love with the country – from its people, the language, and the culture. Thus, when it ended, I was absolutely devastated. The minute I set foot in Manila, it felt like I just woke out of a beautiful dream: like building a life for five months and leaving it forever in order to go back to the life that I temporarily left for five months.
On the other hand, it is true that coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving. Being away and living in a foreign place made me appreciate the Philippines more. I realized that there is so much more about our country that I didn’t know about, so many more beautiful things that I haven’t recognized before. And as cliché as it sounds, I came back as a different person. On my fourth year in college, I joined so many events and became more confident in myself as a person. This was how I was able to have the confidence to participate in the 2016 Korean Speech Contest. Through this event, I was able to talk about my experience as an exchange student in Korea, and encourage other students to apply for an exchange program.
Little did I know that joining this contest was also an opportunity to bring me back again in Korea. When I was informed of my free round-trip ticket, I was ecstatic and nostalgic. I decided to stay in Korea for two whole weeks in order to get to do a lot of things. Instead of going to the usual tourist spots, I opted to visit places I have never been to yet, mostly to small cities outside Seoul such as Guri, Suwon, and Gapyeong. Since I was alone for this trip, I decided to become more adventurous and spontaneous, I just ended up walking to anywhere I could go to. I also became more confident with my Korean language skills that I ended up talking in pure Korean.
I also got to meet up with many friends. I spent Christmas Eve with my Korean high school friends who I haven’t seen for like five years now, and we also spent Christmas day in Hongdae whose entire street was filled with performances and people giving free hugs. I also met up with Korean buddies and fellow exchange students from Korea University, and was glad that even after two years our friendship still hasn’t changed and there was no awkwardness between us. Most especially, I reunited with one of my best friends from exchange who came from Hawaii who was with his friends for this trip. I spent my last three days in Korea with them where I volunteered to be their tourist guide, and I experienced so many things I couldn’t have done alone such as: riding a zip line to Nami Island (in the middle of winter), strolling around the palaces in a hanbok (the Korean traditional attire), and playing in the snow on the streets.
This recent trip made me realize how comfortable I am being in Korea, and how much I consider it as my second home. Even when this is already my fourth visit and even when I’ve been to so many places and done so many things here, I still can’t get enough of this country. There is just so much more left to explore, and so much more to experience.
I ended my speech for the Korean Speech Contest through the words of Ahn Jung Geun, a patriot of Korea, “A man keeps a great ambition through stepping out into the world”. My entire stay in Korea has enabled me to learn more about the world and myself, and also left me with so much more to wonder about. Through this article, I would like to encourage other people to find an opportunity where they can step out more into the world, perhaps as an exchange student, because just like how doing so made me who I am now, I guarantee that it would also change their lives for the better.