William Thai is a current GLP student who was recently selected for the Sookmyung Winter Beyond Borders Program by the GLP team. This Program is run twice yearly and provides an opportunity to learn about Korean society through intensive academic courses, historical tours and cultural activities.
Already one week has passed since I left Seoul and I still feel like I was there yesterday. My time in the Winter Beyond Borders Program (WBBP) was priceless and offered me an opportunity to understand both modern and traditional Korean culture through classes and activities shared with students from around the world. At the start of this journey I had a lot of difficulty communicating with locals in Korean, particularly when ordering food, greeting people and having meaningful conversations.
At Sookmyung Women’s University I took on ‘Korean Language for Foreigners’ and ‘Taekwondo’ classes, both totalling an intensive 6 hours every day. However, I quickly found that I was learning to speak and read Korean at a rapid rate and even increased my strength and flexibility during a period of just three weeks.
After classes I would either take part in WBBP program activities or explore the city and absorb its atmosphere alone. As much as I enjoyed travelling solo, I opted to attend every group activity offered including a Korean clothing and food experience, DMZ tour, temple stay, k-pop dancing lesson and the non-verbal performance ‘NANTA’.
To me, one of the best things about these activities was the contrast from traditional and modern Korean culture which helped my cross-cultural understanding of Korea. On the one hand, I was wearing Korean traditional clothing and learning about Korean Buddhism at a temple and at the other, learning to dance like k-pop stars, cooking food and watching popular Korean shows.
On another interesting note, the DMZ tour addressed the divide between North and South Korea and also illustrated how they grew so differently in terms of technology and economy in a span of only 60 years.
I also really enjoyed the intimacy of traditional and modern culture so prevalent in Seoul. Myeong Dong has one of the largest shopping districts with many buildings dedicated to high end fashion and cosmetics. In contrast, Namdaemun market is the largest traditional market in Korea with products ranging from clothing to imported goods and ginseng and is just a stone’s throw away. This amazing contrast was beautifully illustrated while visiting Gwangwhamun palace where you could get lost in a world of history and culture but be transported back to the present in a matter of minutes. While there I also had some experiences unique to Korea such as visiting a cat cafe, a poop themed café and indulging on as much street food as I could find.
The cold weather only gave me better reason to treat myself to guilty pleasures in the form of Korean foods. Amidst the freezing cold, I tried patbingsu (Korean shaved ice) and frozen mackgeoli (Korean rice wine) which blew my mind!
Although I experienced many great things in Seoul, I also met many challenges which I had to overcome.These barriers involved language, transportation and communication all of which I had leapt into without the greatest preparation. However, this created a steep learning curve and left me more motivated to see and experience all I could. I would passionately recommend this program and country to anyone as it changes your perception on cross-cultural boundaries and leaves you with amazing memories and new friendships.