Highs and Lows of the Korean Life for a Non K-pop Fan

First off, let me explain why I have chosen such a title for my first article. My major at my home university in the UK is Korean studies and as soon as anyone in my Asian studies department finds out what I am studying I get asked the inevitable questions of “Do you like Kpop?”, “What’s your favourite drama?” or “Who is your favourite idol/group?”. When I answered “I have no favourite” or “I don’t listen to Kpop”, a confused look spread across the face of my conversational partner and I received the next question; “Well, why are you doing Korean Studies then?”. My answer? I thought it would be easier and less effort to learn than Japanese which I had studied at a previous university. For the record, I was very, very wrong. I am yearning for the days when I could use kanji to differentiate between homophones.

Fast forward a year and I am on my compulsory year abroad in Seoul, studying Korean Language at Yonsei University. I can happily say that I am so glad I did not choose my degree purely because of dramas or an idol, which is the sole motivation for many of my classmates to learn Korean. I’m not saying this is an invalid motivation as each person is different but there needs to be something deeper there. Why? One simple reason: life in Korea can be tough. Especially for a non-Asian foreigner.

When I first moved to Seoul, I experienced quite a lot of culture shock. I’d never been to the country before, although I had been to Tokyo and Beijing a fair few times, and I found the culture to be very confusing. I got stared at a lot, especially when having lunch or dinner with my male Korean friend: people assumed we were a couple. I was terrified that no one would be able to understand my Korean so shied away from ordering anything in restaurants or cafes; convenience stores and vending machines became my life line for a week or two. Around the 2 month mark of my stay I was desperate to go home. I would stay in my apartment all weekend just so I didn’t have to hear or see Korean anywhere. In short: I hated everything about Korea.

Around three months after I’d first arrived, life started to get much better. My confidence in my Korean skills grew weekly and I could soon order something in a restaurant or cafe without being spoken to in English. Only last week, I was in Insadong buying Christmas presents for my family and had a brief conversation with the owner of a gallery entirely in Korean. After I started Yonsei, I met people from all around the world and so far my grasp on the Korean language has improved in all areas; most notably speaking and listening. I have also gained my own Korean family through a contact from my home university. They are teaching me so much about Korean culture, etiquette and just the ways of the Korean people that I will be eternally grateful for my introduction to them. I also volunteer at a school outside of Seoul every week which is immense fun and a great insight into how Korean 13 and 14 year olds think.

Apart from having four hours of Korean classes from 9am, 5 days a week, life in Seoul is pretty good. Yes, it was incredibly tough to begin with and there are times I wished that I did like Kpop and dramas as it would have given me more ties to the country; but overall I’d say I’m having a more culturally enriching experience by not having an interest in that area. Some of my Yonsei classmates only go to music shows at the weekend or just stay in at home watching dramas when they aren’t in class; that isn’t real Korean life. By all means, do those things in moderation but there is so much to discover in Korean culture beyond the Hallyu Wave.

So, if you’re planning to come over for a holiday, study abroad period or even to live for an extended period of time, remember that Korea has many different things on offer for foreigners; you just have to search for them yourself. They won’t come to you if you just stand there and wait for them. My motto for this year has been, and will continue to be “what you get out of this year will entirely depend on what you put into it”. Not a bad motto, eh?


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  • Corena Botha

    정말 감사합니다…. for this article….. I had a similar experience although i went to korea to teach english….. not even having watched a single kdrama or heard a single kpop song….

    I struggled quite a bit at first with adjusting… to the point where I’d burst into tears for seemingly no reason, hated the constant stares, the no greeting your fellow man on the street, and like you expressed had no kdrama or kpop to console when I’d get home…. i wasn’t in Seoul, which made things a few100 times worse… i was “out in the sticks” where no one spoke English except the pharmacist and one lovely lady at the post office whom i only met at the end of my year when i needed to ship stuff home…

    It was (funnily enough) 2years after I left Korea that i watched my first kdrama.

    And actually i can’t regret my experience and going to Korea…
    In that year i did a complete 180 and anyone who knows me knows what an advocate for Korea I am.

    There’s so much more to Korea than the Hallyu Wave

  • hananohana

    Thank you for posting this article and I have to say that this site is great! So many interesting things for me to read. In regards to this article I think I went the way of first liking K-Pop…then K-Drama. After watching K-Drama’s I wanted to learn more about the culture and yes learn the language. I had already been exposed to Japan having lived there when I was nine so there was not much a culture shock. While I was introduced to Korea by way of music and TV I believe in people when they say there is so much more to Korea than that and I want to go and see it for myself. Hopefully I will have learned Korean so that I can get around.