More Than Just Korean Language Education

Oh, the good ol’ 1+1 deal. 1+1 is a popular sales method here in Korea. Walk into any convenience store and the ice cream is always marketed as 1+1. Simply put, 1+1 means “Buy one, get one free.” I have always come to Korea with the intention of learning its language and culture, but I always leave the country with more than I expected. By that, I mean friends from different countries. It’s the Korean 1+1 deal, in real life.

For me, the main medium through which I met so many different people was, interestingly, Korean language programs. I assumed that when I enroll in Korean language courses in Korea, I’d only be learning Korean language and culture. In reality, that wasn’t the case. Simply spending time with my classmates, who came from different parts of the world, was an enlightening experience for me. I came to Korea for the first time in 2012, and spent a summer taking a beginner intensive Korean language course at Yonsei University’s Songdo campus in Incheon. During the summer, most Korean students leave their dorms and stay with family. So, when I arrived on campus, it was a ghost town. I checked into my dorm room, and went for a walk around campus. There were barely any people around. On my second day, I was growing quite lonely, and so I went to the school cafeteria for dinner in hopes of making a new friend or two. Fortunately, I spotted someone who seemed approachable. She was pale skinned with black hair and appeared to be European. “There’s a good chance that she speaks English,” I said to myself. I nervously approached her and said, “Hey, is it just me, or are there barely any other English speakers here?” She stared at me blankly. “Right?” I asked again. She answered back in Korean. WHAT WAS THIS GIRL DOING SPEAKING IN KOREAN. THIS WAS AN EMERGENCY. At that time, I was a beginner, and had no clue what she was saying. A few sentences in, she realized I couldn’t understand a thing and stopped trying.

“English?” she asked. Yessss, she said something I understood! I quickly responded, “ENGLISH! YES!” She replied, “Ahhhhh,” and waved at me to follow her. It was an awkward walk to the dormitory. Apparently she didn’t speak English very well, so she continued to speak to me in Korean which I didn’t understand. She took me to a floor in the dormitory that I had never been to. We exited the elevator and I followed her to a community room with a TV, tables, and chairs. We walked in and there were a lot of people chatting in Korean. What’s the point of bringing me here, I thought to myself. She went up to a table and introduced me in Korean to a Chinese-looking girl and a Korean-looking guy. She finished talking to them and then the guy turned to me and said, “Oh, hey, you’re from the US?” THANK YOU LAWD. The sound of English was music to my ears. “Yeah, I’m from Hawaii,” I said, with my heart finally at ease. “Oh, cool. We’re both Canadian,” they said. And on that day, I made my first two Canadian friends.

As time went on, I found out that the girl I met in the cafeteria was from Turkmenistan. I didn’t even know where that was on a map at the time, but it sounded like it was close to the country where Borat was filmed. That summer, I made friends with Russian, Japanese, Chinese, American, and Indonesian students.  I also met a girl from Mauritius, an island off the coast of Madagascar.

Fast forward three years, and I’m back in Korea again. I’m now an exchange student attending the same university as the girl from Turkmenistan, who is now a good friend of mine. A handful of the people I met three summers ago are still in Korea. A few of us met up for a reunion recently, and we reminisced about that summer we all spent together. There we were, eating together again, friends from China, Japan, the U.S. and Turkmenistan. All of us were much better at Korean now, and we’re all pursuing different degrees at Korean universities. That summer seemed so long ago. The times when we studied together, ate together, played together and spent our weekends exploring Korea for the first time together were now fond memories. “How is so-and-so doing?” “What ever happened to that person?” “Remember when we used to...?” These questions added to the thick nostalgia in the air. We talked about our plans after college and our ambitions for the future. Some will stay in Korea, some will return to their home country. We were all quite different, yet so similar. We had all come to Korea with the goal of learning the Korean language, but as we looked around the table at the friends that were gathered, it was evident that we had gained so much more.

I dedicate this post to the Korean language programs here in South Korea, where many of us began our Korean journey, and walked away with more than just a Korean language education.

Here are some pictures from the summer of 2012. The last two are pictures from our reunion :)