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Exploring culture and spirit in Seoul, Korea

In January 2014, I attended the Winter Beyond Border’s Program (WBBP) at Sookmyung Women’s University, and had the best 3 weeks in Seoul, South Korea. This was my first trip to Korea, my first birthday overseas, my first time in snow and my first encounter with Korean language and culture. I went there without knowing anyone, and left the program having made the best of friends.

The WBBP offered a very intensive cultural immersion curriculum. Every day for 3 weeks, I did 3 hours of Korean language learning from 9am-12pm and 3 hours of Taekwondo from 1pm-4pm, alongside other exchange students from China, Japan, Australia, America, Canada and Germany. On top of that, the WBBP organised a plethora of cultural immersion programs that we undertook outside of university classes, such as learning K-Pop dancing, watching nanta performance, visiting the National Folk Museum of Korea, visiting Namsangol Hanok Village, making Korean food and attending Korean History and Spirit lectures. In hindsight now, it’s amazing how much I have done in the past 3 weeks!! From mastering the Korean alphabet, ingraining Taekwondo kicks into muscle memory and working through my Korean adventure bucket list, I was on a race against time to enculturation. The WBBP felt like a holistic program of mental and physical stimulation, coupled with therapeutic activities for the mind, heart and spirit. Most of us thought that 3 weeks in South Korea was too short a time, but I think the beauty of it was that it pushed us to live in the moment, and to invest ourselves in every opportunity and in the people around us. At the end of it all, I took home an unparalleled experience in Seoul, cemented in my heart for as long as I will remember.

One fateful day, I was half way through Taekwondo class when it began to pour heavily with snow outside. Watching the snow form a layer of icing on campus felt surreal. Class ended with a snowball fight with the Taekwondo Master! Truly one of my most memorable moments in South Korea!!

One of the best things about the WBBP was that it worked hand in hand with Sookmyung Women’s University’s excellent Buddy program. Every exchange student was paired with a Korean student of Sookmyung university, whom we called ‘buddy’. These buddies are the most spirited, enthusiastic and spontaneous group of university students, and had such unparalleled generosity. They played host to my three week stay in Seoul and became my tour guides, fashion consultants, street navigators and, ultimately, my best friends. We shopped till we dropped, clubbed till the wee hours in the morning, visited historical sites, savoured the best of Korean alcohol, and rampaged the streets of Korea for traditional Korean cuisines.

I have to say that the WBBP has given me the opportunity to truly immerse myself in the Korean culture for an authentic Korean experience that has challenged my preconceived notions about Korea. I enjoyed the excitement of K-pop, shopping, spicy Korean food and its exuberant night life, but what has truly attracted me to Seoul is its people, and its national psyche that screams passion, kindness, industry, tradition, spirit, generosity, graciousness and history. It has been a rigorous three weeks, and I’ve gotten only a glimpse into the heart of Seoul. Amidst the balance of yin and yang, the strong spirits of my Korean buddies, and the enthusiasm of my exchange friends, I am imbued with optimism for more travel and culture in Korea and throughout Asia. Having already made a special connection with South Korea, I want to come back soon to continue from where I left off.

In January 2014, I lived, laughed and loved amongst the WBBP exchange friends and buddies. The Winter Beyond Border’s Program seems like a dream now and I have but to look at my pictures to hear our laughter and the clinking of our soju glasses once more.

Alina Leong is an international student in Macquarie University who hails from Malaysia, Selangor. She is studying a Bachelor of Arts and Education (Primary) majoring in English with a specialisation in ESL.

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