Postcard from Abroad – Hanyang University Seoul

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Lewis is a “moderate adventurer”; by which he means he seeks to travel to nooks and crannies of the globe, find a nice quiet spot and have a warm brew. Which is why he’s living in Seoul for the year, a place where he can simultaneously feel daring, lost and at home. He’s a third year Politics student, trying to understand a new culture – a one man crusade against Orientalism – using ‘studying’ as a front while he plans the reunification of Korea. He feels blessed to be there and hopes to learn about and travel Asia throughout the year.

You’ve Gotta See Her, Go In-Seoul And Out Of Your Mind I

I’m really excited to share my postcards from Seoul. South Korea is a relatively new option for study abroad and Asian cities are often overlooked while students climb over each other for a chance to go to a tiny, bleak town in the middle of nowhere in the US.

My plan is to draw comparisons between Korean and British society but also to promote Seoul as a great option for prospective study abroad students. This first post being an introduction to this giant city:

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The Changdeokgung Palace – one of many cultural world heritage sites in Seoul

I put very little research or thought into my own study abroad application, it’s a habit I seem to have developed when approaching major life decisions. When the application deadline was approaching I remember conversations to the tune of “oh what were your grades? Hmm I don’t know…it’s a very competitive application, don’t be surprised if you only get your 100th choice University”. As a result I chose Hanyang in Seoul – the most obscure University in the most obscure city available. I still didn’t expect to get a place, the fear mongers had done their job, but as it turns out only four Leeds students chose Seoul and they were chuffed to have me.

However I’d never travelled 5500 miles to live alone in a giant city, with a different language and completely alien cultural values before. Being the first ever Leeds student at Hanyang and the only British student in the entire University, the whole thing was a tad scary really. Thankfully I found the culture shock upon arriving in Seoul to be minimal. I did manage to get into the wrong side of the taxi from the airport and I panicked and banged my head on the lower Asian ceiling, much to the amusement of the taxi driver, but that’s more me being clumsy rather than culture shock.

On the initial taxi journey from the airport, I felt confident that the city wouldn’t take too long to get used to. The first thing that struck me was the amount of English words on signposts, graffiti, etc. I had only had my first lesson of reading Hangul – the Korean alphabet – on the plane in between watching the Lego Movie and Adventure Time. Seeing place names in English was a very welcome surprise and made my transition into Korean life much smoother. As a side note, the amount of English is the only visible stench of the American military, which I’ve not yet seen much of.

The second thing was the familiarity of a large metropolitan city. The scale of everything in Seoul is ten times that of anything I’d previously encountered with hotels, offices, huge bridges and apartment buildings all racing each other to the clouds. But what is unique about Seoul is that, whichever direction you look in, you can see mountains in the distance surrounding the city like a cocoon making sure you don’t forget that an enormous and beautiful world exists outside the vast city. The juxtaposition between the mountains and the skyscrapers is very palpable and is replicated throughout the city. ‘Seoul Forest’ for example (which is actually just a big park) is situated right next to two huge hotel buildings and in between two very busy motorways. Amazingly, however, the park doesn’t feel out of place or ruined by its surroundings. I’ve never visited a place that merges nature and city so well and the authenticity of the natural areas around Seoul ensure it doesn’t feel as though they’re trying too hard.

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View from the Bukaksan Mountain overlooking Seoul

Wanting to explore these mysterious mountains on my second day I managed to climb the Bukaksan, a mountain with an old military fort, and from the top you can appreciate the scale of this city. Seoul is so big that nobody knows where the centre is.

My local town is Wangsimni, which is a tiny student town somewhere in the concrete jungle. But compare it to Watford, which is a larger town, Wangsimni has so much more to offer. There are an explosive amount of ways to spend your evening: walking down a Wangsimni street at night with Hangul lit up in neon lights overhead, businessmen dancing their way out of bars after drinking too much Soju – the traditional Korean spirit that is disgracefully cheap – and the smell of open Korean BBQs from restaurants weighing down on the air. It’s impossible to get bored. Not to mention the numerous Karaoke bars, at least one on each street, and the dessert restaurants that serve up the Korean pudding Bingsu. There are many small areas in Seoul, like Wangsimni, each with a million and one things to do and all easily accessible by the subway. (I’ve noticed that it somehow seems to only take twenty minutes to get anywhere via train… But perhaps time flies when you’re napping/ drunk.)

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A generic street in Seoul at night

Hanyang University campus is a microcosm of Seoul. Partly because it’s huge, partly because there are gigantic glittery golden buildings lining the roads as well as plenty of restaurants, cafés and ‘convenience’ shops as well as football pitches, basketball courts and outdoor gyms – even a subway station.

The campus, just like Seoul, is sat on a landscape that makes a mockery of the winding windy moors of Yorkshire. Running late for a lecture means sprinting up Everest in 30 degree humidity, arriving at a lecture dripping from head to toe in sweat and dealing with the embarrassment of being eye-balled by sparklingly fresh Koreans who don’t even know what sweating is (its difficult to buy deodorant in Seoul, Koreans just don’t need it) then trying not to distract anyone with your panting as you try to get some breath back. So far I haven’t made many friends in my classes, which is either down to the sweating or my personality – probably both.

Unfortunately the accommodation is bleak. The corridors are hospital-like and the “lounge” looks like something from Shawshank, which makes socialising very difficult. How I pine for a sofa in a grotty house in Hyde Park. The less said about the halls the better and, if you plan to apply for a year abroad in Seoul, don’t apply to halls, I’m looking to move out for the second semester.

So that just about covers the first few hours of living in Korea. There are so many things to write about and I do hope to cover the food, the people and the politics in future. In the mean time, here’s a one-word summary of one month spent in Seoul: 감사합니다.

Me, hiking and learning with a monk at the top of a mountain during a stay at a Buddhist Temple
Me, hiking and learning with a monk at the top of a mountain during a stay at a Buddhist Temple

Lewis Decker

Images courtesy of Lewis Decker

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