In reference to the featured image this time around…
You all know I love the Korean subway system, right? But, you know, I just can’t figure out for the life of me how to buy a train ticket for this particular subway!
It’s definitely been awhile. Hasn’t it? Do I have an excuse? Most definitely not. Whoops? A lot has happened since my last update. In fact, so much has happened I probably won’t get to it all in this post, and I will have to split it into two!
First – Cultural Explorer’s Project
Second – Community Service (급식 1, 연탄, 급식 2)
Third – Cultural Experience Week (점심, 한반도 비무장 지대, 김밥, 장구)
Fourth – Life In General (생일, Gotcha Day, 시험 x3, OPIc, SMTOWN)
Fifth – New Host Family
Sixth – College/University (University of Pennsylvania)
So, as stated above, first is the Cultural Explorer’s Project. The Cultural Explorer’s Project is a thing the NSLI-Y Korean Academic Year students always do. Let me explain to you the process of how it went. First, all the way back in December or maybe even November, we had to submit two topics pertaining to Korea that we would like to further research and do an actual project on. From that, the staff at Better World compiled everybody’s answers and put us in groups of people who had submitted relatively the same interests. Then, to help us research, we had Korean college students paired with each group to help us research information that might initially be in Korean or something. From then on, we met every Tuesday and Thursday from 10:00am to 12:00pm at a cafe to discuss our research that we had done individually at home.
My group’s topic was economics. I know. I know. Sounds riveting, right?
I’m being sarcastic of course. I know economics isn’t usually considered one of the most exciting topics, and I will admit that there are certain aspects of it that I would rather pass on too, but I do enjoy certain realms of economics. So, I would’ve been enthralled to do a project on economics IF it was about what I liked in economics.
However, that didn’t happen. Simply put, because they put a bunch of people together who had showed a little interest in economics – no matter where on the spectrum – we all had different ideas of the direction of the project. So, we ended up doing a topic that was lackluster to me. I did enjoy the topic, but it definitely wasn’t what I would’ve chosen had I been given the choice.
We ended up studying the IMF Crisis of 1997. In 1990s, Korea’s economy plummeted because of too many investments, bad loans, yada yada yada. You know what usually leads to an economic crash.
In order to save their economy, Korea’s government took a loan from the IMF (International Monetary Fund). However, there’s a reason it’s called “the IMF Crisis.” Taking a loan from the IMF requires certain policies to be implemented, and these required policies caused Korea’s unemployment rate to skyrocket. Even though the IMF loan helped Korea save its economy and has been paid back, the aftereffects still hurt Koreans today.
And before any of you say anything, no, I am not happy with the final outcome of the project. Many of you who know me know I’m nothing short of a perfectionist, so while the project might be satisfactory for others, it wasn’t for me. I will elaborate more on my true feelings in another post sometime in the future. Oh well. There’s nothing I can do about it now.
To finish the Cultural Explorer’s Project, we had to give a final presentation, which included a PowerPoint and video, and I guess it went fine? Once again, like I said, I’m a perfectionist. All in all, I’m just glad it is over. I’m just dreading the individual project we have coming up.
Next we have community service. So, over winter break, we had two required community service activities. The first was 급식 (keup-sik – food distribution community service). We worked in a soup kitchen, and I spent the first portion literally ripping bones and skin off of boiled chicken that had been roughly chopped. I mean, there was full necks still there when I was working. Next, I was assigned to bid the people goodbye as they were leaving while also quickly rinsing their trays before they went back to the kitchen for a thorough wash.
I won’t lie; I was not overly fond of the day. It wasn’t that I minded volunteering, but I wish I had been assigned a different role or at least asked which role I would have preferred. I mean, they stressed that you needed to smile as big as possible when bidding them farewell, and they still gave the job to me, who is literally one of the least expressive people ever. Also, my Korean is far from being one of the better ones in the program, and I really only knew one or two phrases to say to the people as they left, so I sounded like a broken tape after awhile. I just felt like somebody else could’ve most definitely done my job better, and I would’ve been best suited in the kitchen.
The second community service activity we had was 연탄 (yeontan), which are these blocks of coal that some people still use to heat their houses in Korea if their houses are old. I actually really enjoyed this community service activity because I got to talk with and joke around with my fellow NSLI-Y students while doing it. For the 급식, I was isolated, so it was hours of kinda loneliness, but I didn’t feel lonely during 연탄. The entire community service activity was carrying the 연탄 to these people’s houses, so it was fairly simple; all we had to do was make sure not to drop them (and thus break them) and not get hit by a car when crossing the street.
As it was coal we dealt with, you can imagine it was messy, but we were given like special arm coverings and gloves and aprons, so that our clothes wouldn’t be permanently stained by the 연탄. Nevertheless, we were told to wear dark clothing anyways.
When we finished, we were given these adorable key chains that had like cartoon 연탄 on them and ginseng health drinks. The drink… let’s just say I kinda downed it all in one go because it was not exactly what I would call delicious. I was ecstatic over the cute key chains. Ever since coming to Korea, I’ve become obsessed with cute things.
Fun fact! V (from BTS) has a dog named 연탄.
The last community service was not required but it was highly suggested, aka do it. The last community service was once again 급식, but it was in a little less of a harsh situation. This time, it was at a Community Youth Center where we just served dinner but didn’t help prepare it at all. I only did it twice for about an hour and a half on Monday nights. Once again, I don’t mind community service, but I want to feel like what I’m doing is important when I do it. While serving dinner at the Youth Center, I didn’t feel like I was really needed? In fact, I felt like I was more of an inconvenience than anything – like they had to find something for me to do since I was there, not because they really needed me to do it. That was my issue with 급식 2.
Third, we had Cultural Experience Week. Here, we are supposed to have one cultural activity per month. So far, as I’ve already written about and posted, we have gone to Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seodaemun Prison, and Andong. January, we didn’t have a cultural activity, but that’s because after our final presentation of our Cultural Explorer’s Project, we would have an entire week of cultural activities.
To kick off the week, we had 점심 (jeom-sim – lunch) with the Better World staff. While Better World implements NSLI-Y here in Korea, Better World does other things as well. In reality, only a few people at Better World directly work with us NSLI-Y students, so in reality, most of us don’t know the majority of the Better World staff.
So, in order for us to meet more of the Better World staff and practice our Korean, we each got paired with a staff member and had lunch with them. The person I was paired with and the person Liam was paired with decided we should all get lunch together, so I ended up having lunch with Liam and his paired staff member as well as mine.
We ate 곱창 (gop-chang), which is the small intestines of either pig or cattle. I’m not sure which one we ended up eating, but it was delicious nonetheless, and I’m sure a lot of you are probably thinking, “that sounds disgusting!”
Eh. Like I’ve said before, I’ll eat about anything. I mean, compared to 번데기 (beon-de-gi – silkworm pupae?), I think 곱창 is pretty tame. I will just leave it at this, if you don’t like chewy textures, it isn’t for you.
But you know, now that I think about it, a lot of Korean foods wouldn’t be for you then.
In addition to the 곱창, we also had either 해장국 or 선지국 (I think???)… um…
Either way, there was congealed blood in it, so there was that.
Once again, I’m going to stress that it was pretty good. I mean, it didn’t make in into my ‘favorite foods of all time’ list, but it was good.
Next on the list is our trip to the 한반도 비무장 지대, or as most of you probably know it as, the DMZ.
Our trip to the DMZ occurred on quite the foggy day, so we couldn’t actually see that far into North Korea sadly. However, we didn’t let that deter us and still enjoyed the trip immensely. On the way to the DMZ, our tour guide was informing us of the current situation and history regarding North Korea.
For instance, here’s some of the information that particularly stood out to me, and let me apologize in advance if some of it is wrong because keep in mind this occurred in February, and it is currently April 8th.
Okay, so apparently there was this competition between South and North Korea back in the 80s about who could have the tallest flagpole? Yeah. I know. It already sounds childish. But anyways, South Korea built this super tall flagpole, and North Korea responded by building an even taller flagpole, which actually held the title of the tallest flagpole in the world for like a decade or so?
And the other thing that really stood out to me was this this:
So, one thing that North Korea does is lie to its people, and one of its most well known lies is that it tries to convince its people that South Korea is poorer and not as good as North Korea to deter them from wanting to leave. In order to disprove this lie, South Korea blasted K-pop from a tower for North Koreans, which I thought was pretty funny because out of all the things South Korea could’ve done, they blasted K-pop, and I love knowing that now.
First at the DMZ was Freedom Bridge in 임지각, which connects South and North Korea across the 임진강 (Imjin River), which separates the two countries. It is called Freedom Bridge or the Bridge of Freedom because its sole purpose was to trade prisoners of war at the end of the war.
At the DMZ, we visited Dora Station. I know I’ve already bragged about Seoul’s subway system – it’s amazing. Dora Station is practically a mock train station that one day hopes to actually be able to transfer people from South Korea to North Korea. There is a completed train line that actually goes to Pyeongyang, but it has never been used. In addition to Dora Station, we went to Dora Observatory, where we could’ve gotten the best view into North Korea, but alas, fog always has to strike at the most inconvenient times.
And finally, the most interesting and my favorite part from that day was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. The infiltration tunnels are exactly what they sound like – infiltration tunnels. After the armistice that paused the Korean War, South Korea discovered infiltration tunnels heading toward Seoul from North Korea. North Korea has denied all these accusations, instead claiming they were coal mining tunnels and even planted evidence to help support this alibi, but we all know the truth. Either way, if I remember correctly, four infiltration tunnels have been discovered, but who knows how many more there are?
The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel is the closest to Seoul of the four discovered, and at the end of the tunnel is North Korea. Of course, they don’t let you walk to the end of the tunnel. South Korea had installed three concrete barricades in the tunnel, a little bit before the North Korean border, and you can’t go past them obviously. In addition to the barbed wire surrounding the first concrete barrier, there is a small rectangular hole that lets you peek to the second concrete barrier. At these concrete barriers, this is said to be the closest you can get to North Korea without going on a tour at the JSA, where you can technically step into North Korea in one of the blue buildings. Of course, I’d really like to do that, but perhaps when I return to South Korea. On the NSLI-Y program, I have too many restrictions that would complicate that.
And here is the quirkiest part. The DMZ is considered perhaps the tensest place on Earth currently, yet, not even the tensest place on Earth can escape capitalism, and by capitalism I mean that there were gift shops at the DMZ along with a Popeyes????? I’m not kidding. Did I happen to support South Korea’s economy by buying something from the gift shops there?
Next, we had a 김밥 cooking class. 김밥 (kimbap) is the Korean equivalent of sushi, and as for its relevance in culture, I would compare it to a sandwich in American culture. You can buy them almost anywhere here, and it’s quick and clean to eat. I’d like to think I’m DECENT at cooking. Like, I’m not horrible, but I never cook, so I don’t really have any experience.
For those of you who do know me well though, you know that I bake, and “bake” might be putting it lightly. I obsessively bake, so I think that helped me during the class, but compared to others’ 김밥, mine was middle of the road.
It tasted better than any other 김밥 I’ve had since I’ve gotten here, and that’s not just me bragging about my cooking skills. There’s an actual reason why. You see, here, 김밥 is typically made with this sweet, pickled radish thing called 단무지 (dan muji), and I HATE it. Bleh. So, as I was the one making the 김밥, I opted out to add the 단무지, and another thing is that Korean food typically isn’t very salty, and coming from America, I love salt, so… I might’ve added a little extra.
But moving on from Americanizing my 김밥, after the class, we had a 장구 (janggu) class. 장구 is the Korean traditional hourglass-shaped drum.
It was fun, and let’s just leave it at that.
And now we can move onto part four, which is life in general. First, my birthday was back in February, and I officially became an “adult” in Korea, yet that comes with no benefits really. It was a lonely birthday; I won’t lie, yet I guess that was sort of my fault. I didn’t tell anybody about my birthday because I didn’t want attention drawn to it. All I really wanted was the same small, family birthday party I have had for my birthday every year since I was a child without fail. However, clearly, that was not possible. It’s okay though because I have all the holidays planned for when I get back.
In addition to my birthday, I also celebrate something we call “Gotcha Day.” If you don’t already know, I was adopted from China when I was a baby, and that is what Gotcha Day celebrates. Typically for that day, we go out and eat Chinese-American food, and sadly, I didn’t get to do that either, but it is okay because like I said, I will celebrate it when I get home.
Next, since I haven’t updated since December, that means I will have taken three end of month tests since then, and if you must know, I still hate tests, and there’s really nothing to report on there. I am scoring consistently on all sections of my test, so it might seem as though I am not improving, but keep in mind that even though I am getting about the same score on my test each month, the tests are getting harder each month, so I take that in stride.
But the end of month tests are nothing new. What IS new is the OPIc test I took this March. So, OPI stands for Oral Proficiency Interview, and it is typically a phone call conducted by a real person and simulates a conversation, but an OPI costs A LOT. I had to take one before I came to Korea, and I will take one when I return back to the US. The OPIc stands for Oral Proficiency Interview by Computer, and it’s cheaper because instead of it being a real conversation, you are just asked a question and recorded, and the recordings are sent to someone to evaluate. The OPIc took up a Saturday of mine, and it wasn’t worth it. I just believe the end of month tests that have a reading, writing, and speaking components are a better evaluation of what we’ve learned overall.
Another thing that has actually become a pretty big part of my life here in South Korea is SMTOWN. So, I can’t remember if I’ve already mentioned SMTOWN before, but as a quick recap, SMTOWN is SM Entertainment’s genius creation for their fans. I had been before (I actually went within my first month or so here), but I really took advantage of winter break and went an unhealthy amount of times. In fact, one of my favorite conversations about this went something like this:
“Yeah. I went to SMTOWN twice this weekend.”
“But McKenzie, there are only two days in the weekend.”
“Exactly. Do you get it?”
Yep. I did that.
What did I do there? Well, as much as I would love to go just for the gift shop everyday, I am not able to do that. In fact, I actually went because SMTOWN has a theater on its fifth floor, and the theater shows SM artists’ previously recorded concerts.
Listen, if I can’t actually see EXO in concert, SMTOWN Theatre is the next best thing, which along the same notes, I’ve seen 4/5 EXO concerts SMTOWN shows, and I plan on seeing the last one too, but with each passing day I check SMTOWN’ Theatre’s schedule and don’t see it, I think they probably discontinued it. I sure hope not.
In addition to EXO’s concert movies, I also want to see SHINee’s and SUPER JUNIOR’s! Speaking of which, let me get off topic a little bit here.
As many of you probably are not aware of, South Korea has mandatory military conscription for all its males for around two years depending on which branch you serve in. Well, SUPER JUNIOR is old for a K-pop group, and like when I say old, I mean that the oldest member is 35 and the youngest is 31. Due to military enlistment, SUPER JUNIOR hasn’t been whole since 2010, but finally, FINALLY, this May, Kyuhyun (my favorite member) will finish his requirement, and all the SUPER JUNIOR members will have completed theirs, thus marking it the first time in almost a decade that SUJU will be reunited.
While that is joyous news, when SUJU is finishing up their military service, a lot of groups are now just starting to send their members (ie SHINee, VIXX, etc.), so it is a double edged sword.
Next, my new host family. So, let me clear up some confusion before you all get worried. It is normal on the NSLI-Y Korean Academic Year program to switch host families; in fact, it is rarer to stay with one host family the entire year. The program is broken into three semesters: fall, winter, and spring. Between each semester, we have a new semester orientation, and during these orientations we switch host families if applicable.
There are many reasons why you might switch host families. You might not get along so well with your current host family and would like to switch. Host families only sign up for a semester at a time, and your host family might have other obligations that would prevent them from being able to continue hosting the next semester.
For me, it was the latter (although I didn’t really get along that well with my last host family either) that pushed me to move. So, at the end of February, I switched host families. With my last host family, I lived in Hongdae in Seoul, which was extremely convenient as it was located close to almost anything I needed.
I live in Hanam, which is a satellite city of Seoul, so, I don’t even live in Seoul anymore really. I went from being able to walk almost anywhere to having to take a bus just to get to the subway station, which from there, I still have to ride to get anywhere in Seoul. Not exactly my favorite situation, but I love my new host family and their apartment, so the distance can be ignored.
Last but not least is college/university. So, very recently, I announced some very exciting news about my future plans for when I return back home.
Yes, I will be attending the University of Pennsylvania (also referred to as Penn or UPenn) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania this fall as part of their class of 2023. It is official. I already committed and submitted my deposit.
The University of Pennsylvania is one of the oldest universities, if not the oldest, in the United States (please refer to this link for more clarification on the debate – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_university_in_the_United_States#Claimants_and_potential_claimants). It was founded by Benjamin Franklin (yes, THE Benjamin Franklin) and is part of the Ivy League. It is often confused with Pennsylvania State University for obvious reasons.
No, I had not intended to attend UPenn before NSLI-Y. In fact, if you check my post when I announced my NSLI-Y acceptance, I planned on attending the University of Georgia when I returned, but things have changed.
My senior year, I will admit that I didn’t take college seriously. I barely put any work into my college applications, and I didn’t do much research about different possible universities. I was so focused on NSLI-Y, and I hate to think about what would’ve happened had I not gotten NSLI-Y and didn’t realize the possible consequences of my laziness.
It was over the summer as I was preparing for NSLI-Y that I realized that I had been given a second opportunity – another chance at the college application cycle. While having been accepted to UGA and having deferred my accepted until the next year, I was not committed or binded anywhere. I had the freedom to go anywhere I wanted, and take advantage of my second chance I did. If I hadn’t been accepted into UPenn, I probably would’ve attended Georgia Tech.
Please don’t ask me what I plan on majoring in – I don’t know. Oh goodness do I not know. International relations? Economics? English? Earth science? Yes, I am considering all of those and many others, so I think I’ll just see where my first year takes me and go from there.
In fact, college applications was one of the reasons my first few months here were so stressful because I was juggling writing essays that I hoped would be good enough to get me into schools like the Ivies or Duke while also trying to deal with culture shock.
It’s surreal really. While scrolling through the 400+ GB of memories I’ve taken since I’ve gotten here (I’m not exaggerating) to find pictures to put on this blog post, I realized that having not updated since December, I went through almost the entire college process before updating again.
I applied in December, underwent interviews (via FaceTime and Google Duo despite very inconvenient timezone differences) in January and February, played the waiting game while submitting every government mandated document known to mankind for financial aid during March, and read (and subsequently cried) all my college application statuses (the majority being rejection letters) that I received, and that brings us to where we are now.
It’s been crazy. So much has happened within the span of three-ish months, and it’s hard to believe that NSLI-Y is almost over , and I will soon be closing this chapter of my life and moving onto the next phase. Before I know it, I will be moving into a dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania this August and embarking on my first year of college at one of the top universities of the world.
I sometimes feel like there’s so much, and there’s no possible way I can get it all done, but I have managed so far, so let’s hope for the best, shall we?
Well, I guess that is it for this post. I didn’t include some very important information from March, so that’ll be my next post. Please look forward to it!
Until next time.