After a seemingly never-ending row of flight delays and a couple of hours stuck at Auckland Airport, the eleven of us on the programme were able to get on the plane, and we were welcomed by the Korean Air SUPER M safety video. The flight was 12 hours, and while I have gone on other long flights to Asia before, this was my longest. By the time we arrived at Incheon Airport and got through immigration and customs, it was around 10:00 pm, and being winter over in the Northern Hemisphere, it was COLD. Thankfully I had the foresight to pack a long winter coat in my carry-on bag, but even that was not enough to help me with the minus-degree temperatures that greeted us. Currently, in South Korea, people must wear masks indoors or on public transport, so with our masks already on from the plane and airport, at least we had that to keep our faces warm! It was about an hour-long drive to our dorm by airport van, but once we arrived, we got our card keys, found out who our roommates were, unpacked our stuff, and quickly headed to sleep.
The following morning we had our placement tests for our Korean classes, which we were a little worried about, but in the end, I was not upset with the class I was put in. We had one week before the Winter semester would actually start, so we had a decent amount of time to settle in and explore Seoul! Luckily, as South Korea is 4 hours behind New Zealand, the jetlag was not too terrible, and as I’m usually a late riser back home, it helped me to wake up at a normal time here.
Being in Korea, we had to do some shopping, so over the next week, many of us on the programme went around exploring the main shopping districts like Myeongdong, Hongdae, and Dongdaemun.
South Korean online shopping is also famous for being incredibly convenient and fast, so one of the first things my roommate Wendy and I did was sign up for Gmarket, one of the biggest online shopping sites in Korea, to sort out our daily necessities. Some of the things we bought were laundry detergent, shampoo, masks, a hair dryer, and large bottles of water to stay hydrated.
Our dorm room has two beds, two desks, a shared bathroom, and floor heating – a lifesaver in this harsh and dry winter. The dormitory does not have kitchen facilities, but we have a cafeteria open during certain hours of the day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While I have not woken up early enough to make it for breakfast yet, the lunches and dinners have been very yummy and are only 5,500KRW, roughly $6.50NZD! There are different mains every day with self-serve side dishes such as kimchi and pickled radish, though spicy food is the standard here, and many things could definitely be a bit much if you can’t handle Shin Ramyun-level spice. Another thing is that South Korea is obsessed with steep stairs, and with our dorm on top of a massive hill, part of the walk to the closest subway station includes six flights of stairs, which we need to take every time we want to take the subway. This does make me miss my car a bit, but the upside is that I’m consistently closing all my rings on my Apple Watch!
During the first week, I was pretty stressed and spent quite a few days running around Seoul searching for the popular calf-length “long padding” puffer jackets that so many Korean people around us were wearing. Having to speak in my broken Korean to find what I was looking for was also quite scary and overwhelming, but luckily I managed to find an affordable one online, and thankfully it arrived the day before the temperature sharply dropped to an icy -14 degrees.
The detergent and toiletries my roommate and I ordered also arrived quickly, but we hilariously realised that 3L bottles may not have been the most brilliant idea and we may not make it through all of it within our programme period. (If anyone on the programme is currently reading this, feel free to borrow some!)
Besides being a slight hazard with slippery roads and pathways, it also snowed the past week, and the Korea University campus looked absolutely magical! It was incredibly cold and windy, but dealing with the temperature feels more doable now that I have my walking sleeping bag.
Classes are in the Korean Language Centre, about a seven-minute walk from our dorm. They have been pretty intense, going from 9:00 am – 1:00 pm every day, but each class is very small – my class only has around 12 people coming from various countries such as China, Japan, Russia, and America. The teachers are lovely, and the classes are very engaging and interactive, so the time goes by faster than you’d think. The whole lesson is done in Korean, so we are all getting a lot of listening and speaking practice.
One thing that has been taking some getting used to is that people drive on the right side of the road here, which also means that people walk on the right side of the road! I always automatically walk to the left of a path, so this almost always means I walk directly into oncoming pedestrian traffic. The other time this comes up is when we wait for the bus, but we have to look in the opposite direction for when it comes. I wonder if I’ll get used to it and then have the same problem when I come back to New Zealand. Another fun fact: people tend to stand in a single file on the right side of the escalator, leaving the left side for others who are in a rush to walk past.
I have been studying Korean for a while now, but I have never been to a country where I couldn’t speak the language fluently or had local friends or family to show me around. Neither have I been in a country that regularly drops below freezing, so it wouldn’t be wrong to say that I experienced quite a whirlwind of emotions in the first week here.
Now that I have purchased most of my necessities and have found winter clothing to ensure my survival over the winter, I feel much more prepared to take it easy and thoroughly enjoy what comes my way. I’m very excited to see what else I can see, learn, and experience on this study abroad trip, and I can’t wait to update this blog over the next few months to share what I get up to.