Final Takeoff

Seoul Tower

Coming to you live from the Incheon International Airport! Today, I am leaving Korea. 

I’ve learned so much this summer. I noticed that my reading skills became so much faster just from all of the signs being written in Korean and my listening skills have become so much sharper just from being exposed to native Korean speakers all the time. Being immersed in a country where you are forced to practice your language skills in order to do everyday things like buy groceries or order at a restaurant is truly the best way to really learn a language with all of its connotations, idiosyncrasies, and slang expressions. 

Throughout my six weeks in South Korea, I noticed many cultural differences. Things that I have always done a certain way because that’s what the culture in the United States taught me are not always done the same way in other cultures around the world. For example, the culture regarding dress in Korea is much more conservative than in the United States. Koreans are always very conscious about covering their shoulders and chest, so wearing the spaghetti straps, v-necks, and crop tops that are so common in the United States, especially during the summer when it’s so hot, are a no go in Korean culture. Even when it’s 95 degrees fahrenheit, Koreans typically wear long sleeves and long pants. I don’t know how they don’t pass out from the heat. Another idiosyncrasy is that Koreans always carry an umbrella in the summer- it’s a staple comparable to bringing your phone or your wallet. The summer is monsoon season, so it does rain a lot (and I mean torrential downpour, I’ve never seen so many waterfalls before), but even when rain isn’t on the forecast, Koreans will use their umbrellas to protect them from the sun. In Korean culture, the beaty ideal is to be as fair and pale as possible, because historically, darker skin typically meant that you had a hard labor job working in the fields whereas paler skin typically meant that you had a nice job in the city. Even when I went to the beach in Busan, almost all of the Koreans wore leggings and long sleeves under their swim suits; you could definitely tell who the foreigners were. Umbrellas also made an appearance at the beach. This is so different from beach culture in the United States where it seems like the goal is to wear as little as possible in order to get as tan as possible. 

Another difference that I noticed was how energy efficient and environmentally friendly Korean life was built to be. For example, Koreans meticulously sort their trash into waste, plastic, bottles, and food waste. There aren’t any garbage cans on the streets like there are in the United States because if there were, the trash wouldn’t be sorted. In my dorm, the cleaning staff sort through all of the trash dividing it into the correct categories. Another thing you can’t find is paper towel. In the bathrooms, there is no paper towel, but also no hand dryers, which was inconvenient at first because the summer humidity is so intense, nothing ever drys. And the showers only stay on for 15 seconds at a time in order to conserve water and encourage people to take shorter showers. Also in my dorm, the lights are energy efficient- my key card to unlock my door is also the key to turn the lights on and power the wall sockets, so when I’m not in my room and have my key with me, all the energy is off. This was actually kind of annoying at first because after using my laptop for classes all day, I left it to charge in my room while I went to go find dinner, but naturally it didn’t charge because I had my key with me so all the power was off. One thing that was really cool about Korea’s energy efficient technology was that some of the escalators in the subway weren’t moving so they looked broken, but once you stepped on, they started moving which seems like a great way to conserve energy. 

Thinking back to before I started on this adventure, I was so stressed and scared. I was terrified of flying, the covid regulations kept changing, I was so nervous about not having the right documentation to get into the country, and I kept having stress dreams. But I did a TON of research and was trying to prepare for every possible scenario. And looking back at my first blog, I can truly see how far I’ve come. I can say that I’ve successfully learned how to navigate the bus and subway systems, shop at the grocery market, and order food at a restaurant. The public transportation in Seoul is fantastic! You can literally go anywhere. Not going to lie, I’ve been kind of underwhelmed by Korean desserts though. Since the majority of the Korean population is lactose intolerant, real ice cream doesn’t really exist. Neither does cheese. I don’t think I’ve come across an ounce of cheddar in my whole six weeks here. But cake is a really popular dessert and fruit is actually typically considered to be dessert as well. Mango cake is really good. I’ve tried so many fantastic new foods as well, such as 닭갈비 (spicy chicken), 막국수 (cold noodles), 비빔밥 (vegetables and rice), 만두 (dumplings), 삼겹살 (pork), 불고기 (ribs), and so much more.

Mango Cake

I’ve also learned a lot about K-pop this summer. You can hear K-pop music playing out of many restaurants, shops, and clothing stores and a couple of my friends here are huge K-pop fans, so I now know many different songs and bands. I even went to a K-pop concert in 보령 (Boreong)! It was really cool and the dancing is so good! It was raining a little so a couple of performers wiped out on stage, but their fellow performers helped them back up it was really cute. I still don’t know too much about Korean dramas though- we never had a drama night because we were always out exploring the city!


Throughout these last six weeks, I have definitely grown in many ways. I’ve become so much more independent now that I’ve been living without a meal plan for the first time in my life and learning how to budget. I’ve learned how to travel long distances on my own and how to think through all the logistics beforehand so that I can be prepared and do more research if necessary. Additionally, coming from my place of privilege, I now have a better sense of what it feels like to be a minority. My tall stature, blonde hair, and blue eyes among a population typically made up of shorter, dark hair, and dark eyes sticks out like a sore thumb and I’ve been the subject of many curious stares. Nothing aggressive thankfully, but it definitely feels different. I’ve also been stereotyped as a “stupid American” who doesn’t know any Korean. One weekend I went shopping with my roommate; my roommate here is Chinese and is fluent in Chinese and English, but doesn’t know any Korean. In Seoul, many people actually do know English so if I walked into a store first, if the salesperson knew English, they would immediately switch to speaking in English, but if my roommate walked in first, they would speak in Korean and she would have to look to me to translate what was said. It was kind of funny because probably 9 times out of 10, this assumption works for the salesperson. 

Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in South Korea this summer, so much so that I would absolutely love to get the opportunity to come back some day. I’ve seen Korean people learn, pray, and love, fundamental human attributes of life that we all share. Even though I had many wonderful experiences and did much exploring, Korea is full of so many rich opportunities that I feel like I only chipped the tip of the iceberg. I spent most of my time in Seoul and know the area pretty well, but I didn’t really have time to explore the rest of South Korea except when I spent a weekend in Busan, the second biggest city in South Korea. Busan was beautiful; I could easily spend three weeks in Busan alone. I would love to go back again someday. 

감천문화마을 (gam cheon moon hwa ma ul) Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan

I would recommend anyone even just playing with the idea of summer study abroad to go for the SLA experience. You are definitely thrown into a whole other world and it takes some adjustment, but overall, you learn so much and the experience is totally worth it. Shoot your shot, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

The Revolution Continues: Strike for Basic Rights

In modern history, South Korea has had a legacy of student led revolutions- from the Gwanju Uprising to the April 19th Revolution, student voices have been the catalysts of change in South Korean culture.

For months now, since March of this year in fact, the cleaning staff and security workers at Yonsei University have been on strike for better working conditions and higher wages. These Yonsei employees are a part of the 공공운수노조 (gong gong oon soo no jo), the Korean Public Service and Transport Worker’s Union (KPTU). Every day during their lunch break, they gather outside the main academic building, 백양관 (baek yang gwan) wearing their red vests and banging on pots and pans, chanting phrases demanding better terms of employment. Sometimes they even parade around campus. These employees are advocating for themselves because they are facing heavier workloads because of layoffs and are asking for access to basic rights, such as showers. The union has a huge flag and there are often people giving speeches. 

백양관 is actually where I have two of my classes around that time, so I have observed these union protesters for the last six weeks. When the union starts to gather, the security officers of 백양관 become tense and stand at the main entrance in case any union protesters try to go in the building and disrupt the classes going on with their chants and noise. All of the other doors to 백양관 are closed and padlocked during this time. 

However, Yonsei University is one of the three most prestigious universities in South Korea and it surprises me that they have let their workers go on like this for so long. Even worse, three Yonsei University students became fed up with the KPTU’s racket and filed a criminal lawsuit along with three civil lawsuits for invading their right to learn and for traumatizing them.

Yes, the union caused some disruption to student learning, but personally I think that these three students went about this situation in the wrong way, not only with the lawsuit, but also by claiming that the union’s protest was “traumatizing them.” The union is made up of elderly Korean men and women, people’s grandparents, who are too old to be working as hard as they are. “Trauma” is a strong word. Seeing people advocate for their rights should be eye opening, not traumatizing, since it is a peaceful protest. 

Instead of filing a lawsuit, which obviously hasn’t stopped the protesting or made things better for the workers, use your big brain to do something about it.

As a Yonsei student, the university’s title has prestige and power that will gain attention and is able to advocate for those who aren’t taken seriously. Since the lawsuits, there has been much backlash against these three students as being selfish for only caring about their own rights. Many Yonsei students have signed a petition supporting the workers and some Yonsei alumni who became lawyers have provided legal support in combating the lawsuits. With the backing of Yonsei students and alumni, the union has gained some ground, but they still have a long way to go in the struggle for their rights as employees. The university hasn’t been taking care of its workers and the union protesters are rightfully standing up for themselves in the face of unfair treatment. Wouldn’t you do the same thing if you were in their position? 

Religious Identities: Buddhist and Christian Tradition in South Korea

Continuing from last week’s post, down the street from 경복궁 is a Buddhist temple called 조계사 (Jogyesa). Built in 1395, this temple has led the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, also known as comprehensive Buddhism, for over 600 years! The Jogye order is an integration of Korean Zen and Textual Schools of Buddhism whose guiding principle is to become enlightened by looking directly into the nature of the mind and using this knowledge to guide all beings to salvation. The main practices include Zen meditation, reading sutras, chanting, and mantra recitation. 조계사 was founded as a site of solidarity for the promotion and independence of Buddhist thought and practice. Today, the temple also serves as a center for education, culture, and social services.

In a similar way to 경복궁, 조계사 lies within the heart of Seoul, a structure of traditional architecture immersed among modern skyscrapers. When you walk through the main temple arch, the inscription above is actually written in Chinese, since the Chinese language was considered the language of the highly educated and cultured citizens while the Korean writing system, 한글 (han geul), was considered the language of the common people. Just past the arch, there is a little stream filled with bright orange and white koi fish. According to Buddhist tradition, koi fish represent good fortune, perseverance, and courage. Around the koi fish pond hang hundreds of little paper lotus flowers which are also important in Buddhism as the lotus symbolizes purity, spiritual awakening, and faithfulness. 

Inside the main temple are three massive golden statues of the Buddha. When they first came into view, this was a big woah moment for me. I don’t know if they are hollow or build of solid gold but I’ve never seen statues like this before. In a similar way to the Holy Trinity in Christianity, Buddhism has the Buddha Triad as one god in three forms: the Shakyamuni Buddha in the center who founded Buddhism, the Medicine Buddha to the left who helps all who are suffering physically and emotionally, and the Amitbha Buddha on the right who established the Western Paradise where beings can be reborn into enlightenment. While I was at 조계사, a monk was leading the people in mantra recitations and chants. I’ve learned a little about Buddhism in a World Religions class I took in high school, but it was really cool and beautiful to see this practice in person.

Although roughly half of the South Korean population identifies as non religious (56%), the other half is split between Buddhism (16%) and Christianity (28%) and as a practicing Catholic myself, I wanted to find a mass to go to every Sunday while in Korea. Down the street from Yonsei University is a Catholic church called 천주교회 (Cheon ju gyo hui) which has become my little church community for these six weeks. I actually had a hard time finding it my first Sunday because there’s a narrow driveway that’s easy to miss leading up a hill and finally to the church, but we made it on time! The church community is entirely made up of older Korean adults, so with my tall stature, blonde hair, and blue eyes, I definitely stuck out as the only foreigner and I felt a little out of place at first. But they are so kind. My first day, when I walked in looking lost and confused, a lady showed me where to get a packet with the responses and where to find a seat. And during the sign of peace they all acknowledge each other, and me, with a bow and the phrase 축복합니다, which literally translates to “bless you.”

At 천주교회, there are a few parts that are different from Catholic masses I’ve been to in the United States. For one, there is a sort of mass narrator who says when to sit and stand and leads everyone in a couple of prayers before mass officially begins and after mass ends. Additionally, at the beginning of mass, everyone is given an envelope where you put your donations and then during the collection, everyone stands and processes to the altar where there is a basket to collect all the donations. They also don’t hold hands for the Our Father prayer, but that could also be because of Covid. 

Overall though, the mass is beautiful. Even though the church is built in a simple style with few decorations and only a couple stained glass windows above the altar, the choir sings beautifully to a piano and sometimes even a cello and it feels good to be a part of such a wonderfully accepting community.

History Come To Life: Queen For A Day

경복궁 (Gyeong bok gung) is the largest palace built by Korea’s last dynasty, the 조선 (Joseon) dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 all the way until 1910 when the Japanese took over. The palace lies in front of Mount Bugak and so the architectural style it was built in was designed to be in harmony with the natural landscape. Today, the palace is open to the public as a museum, a token remembering Korea’s dynastic tradition and history. 경복궁 is located in the middle of Seoul, so the ancient, Korean-style architecture sits side by side with Seoul’s modern skyscrapers. Fun fact from my Modern Korean History class: 경복궁 was the first place to get electricity in Korea!

경복궁: The Palace

During the 조선 dynasty, the traditional style of clothing was called 한복 (han bok); 한복 is a beautiful, intricately woven garment that is very conservative, including wide long sleeves and a dress that covers the ankles for both men and women. Today, Korean people don’t wear 한복 anymore besides two exceptions: for special occasions and at 경복궁. If you wear 한복 to the palace, then you can get into 경복궁 for free, and so the streets surrounding the palace are filled with 한복 rental shops and many people, Koreans and foreigners alike, dressed in 한복. 

So myself and a couple other girls from Yonsei found a 한복 rental shop where we picked out and donned beautiful, traditional 한복 pieces and got our hair braided with pearls. As we walked through the massive gates to see the palace containing the king’s throne above, we stepped into another time. I felt like a queen. 

The main walkway up to the throne is divided into three side-by-side paths: the middle and biggest path for the king, the right path for the civil officials, and the left path for the military officials. We followed these paths up the stairs to get a glimpse inside the throne room where all the walls and even the ceiling are so intricately painted. In the center of the ceiling, there are two golden dragons circling each other, both with five claws on each hand. According to ancient Asian dynasties, especially those in China, each claw represented power, so more claws meant more power. Typically, the thrones of Asian royal dynasties depicted dragons with four claws though; a five-clawed dragon is a true rarity and symbolizes great power.

5-Clawed Golden Dragons

Behind the palace was a village of buildings made all in the same intricate style. These were once administrative buildings, living quarters for the royal family, and education centers. There was so much to learn here, especially about the last king of the 조선 dynasty, Emperor Kojong, and his family, particularly about his wife Queen Min. Queen Min was very involved in the politics and government of Emperor Kojong’s reign, so much so that Japan saw her as a threat to their imperialization. Since Queen Min stood in the way of Japan’s annexation of Korea, the Japanese assassinated her and with her, the 조선 dynasty crumbled. 

As we were leaving 경복궁, there were some Korean high school students also dressed in 한복 who asked us if we would like to join them in performing 강강술래 (gahng gahng sool rae). 강강술래 is a traditional folk dance that women performed during the holiday 추석 (chu seok) which is similar to Thanksgiving. This dance was a prayer for a fruitful harvest where women gathered together under the full moon, made a circle, and held each other’s hands while singing and rotating clockwise. The speed of the dance typically increased as it went along and sometimes the dance even lasted until dawn.

Even though our dance did not last until morning, exploring the palace and dancing the 강강술래 while wearing 한복 has been my favorite experience in Korea so far. Truly experiencing this ancient history of Korean culture brings what I’ve been learning in my Korean classes at Notre Dame and my Modern Korean History class here at Yonsei to life.

경복궁 in all its glory

Krazy for Korean Barbeque

One extremely popular cuisine in South Korea is Korean barbeque, but it’s not just because of the food (although the food is really good too!); it’s popularity lies within the whole cultural experience of Korean barbeque as an event that draws on ancient traditions of community and respect. 

Myself and a couple other students from Yonsei International Summer School went to a Korean barbeque restaurant called 고기꾼 김춘배 (go gi goon kim choon bae). We sat down at a long table which had a mini grill on each end, charcoal already hot and flaming. In Korea, at every restaurant you go to, there is a button in the table for you to call the server and once you push the button, the server comes right away. It’s different from in the U.S. where the server comes over to the table every so often to check on you; in Korea, the server coming over to ask, “How is everything?” is considered rude and interruptive. One of my Korean friends who has studied in both Korea and the U.S. said that patience at a restaurant was one of the hardest things to learn for her at U.S. restaurants because she was so used to Korean servers coming right when needed.

So we pushed the button and ordered 삼겹살 (sam gyeob sal) which is pork belly, sort of like a thick bacon; when translated literally, 삼겹살 means “three layer flesh.” This cut of meat is so popular in Korea that the third of March is even known as 삼겹살 Day because of this three layer composition! You can order other meats too such as 살코기 (sal ko gee) or 삼갈비 (sam gal bee), which are both beef cuts, but 삼겹살 is my favorite. Within minutes, the server brought out tongs, scissors, and a plate of 삼겹살 and we began to grill. Korean barbeque also comes with many side dishes such as lettuce, green onion salad, kimchi, and dipping sauces such as garlic or 쌈장 (ssam jang) which is a spicy soybean paste with sesame seeds. 

Before: 삼겹살 first hits the grill

One thing that the server did not bring over were plates. Koreans like to share their meals as a way to promote community and togetherness, so there were no plates involved- you just used your chopsticks to take pieces of pork right off the grill! You can also fold the meat into the lettuce with kimchi and garlic to make a delicious lettuce wrap. 

Historically, Korean barbeque, and 삼겹살 in particular, is a dish of the common people. During the Japanese occupation, most of the meat produced in Korea was exported to Japan, but the Japanese didn’t like the fatty cut of pork belly, so it was sold in Korea at a relatively cheap rate that most common people could afford. Additionally, the Japanese occupation began to transform Korea into an industrial society and so many Koreans would work all day in dusty factories. After their labor, workers would eat together a hearty meal of 삼겹살 to replenish their energy. The superstition was that 삼겹살 also cleaned the workers throats and lungs of all the dirt they were breathing in each workday. Even to this day when there is a high level of pollution in the air, many Koreans will eat 삼겹살.

삼겹살 is typically served with 소주 (soju), the most popular alcoholic drink in Korea (sort of like vodka but only with 16%-20% alcohol). Korean drinking culture regarding 소주 actually has a lot of rules deeply rooted in cultural traditions of seniority and respect. Traditionally, the youngest person at the table pours 소주 (with two hands) for their elders first before pouring for themselves and when the younger people at the table go to take their shot (with two hands), they must turn their face away from the table as a sign of respect. 

Overall, food and drink, especially 삼겹살 and 소주, is intricately tied in with Korean culture; in fact, the Sino-Korean word for “family,” 식구 (sheek gu), means “people who eat together.” By being rooted in traditions of seniority and respect, the culture revolving around Korean barbeque builds a sense of togetherness and solidarity among all of the members of the table and I’m so grateful I got to be a part of it.

After: 삼겹살 grilled to perfection… delicious!

Are We There Yet?

Alrighty then, fasten your seatbelts because by the conclusion of these blog postings, we will have flown completely around the world, circumnavigating the entire globe! I think that’s going to be my new fun fact.

Hi, I’m Savanna and I will be studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea this summer. T minus 30 days actually. I’ve never been to Korea before so I’m mixed excited and nervous. I’ve also never flown by myself and I’m kind of scared of flying, so this double header of an 8 and a half hour flight to Germany followed by a 10 and a half hour flight to Seoul is going to be a time and a half. The flight on the way back is a little bit shorter, since I will fly across the Pacific instead of the Atlantic; 10 and a half hours from Seoul to Seattle and then only 4 hours to Chicago. Flying around the whole world. Wild. Or, I could be at the bottom of the Atlantic, the Pacific, or 6 feet under in Russia by the end of this. Not spooky at all.

Once we get past flying, covid regulations, and SIM cards though, I am actually really excited to attend Yonsei University and be in Seoul for the summer. This experience will be so different from my classroom experiences learning Korean at Notre Dame. Things that I’ve only seen or heard about in the classroom will become my reality- food, holidays, traditions, everything. In Seoul, all the street signs, restaurant menus, and classroom instruction will be in Korean. I may have a roommate whose first language isn’t English. Maybe I’ll even start dreaming in Korean, since I will be receiving Korean instruction 24/7.

Although many Korean people start learning English in elementary school, I will be using Korean to conduct most of my interactions. I’m going to have to figure out how to navigate the bus and subway systems, shop at the grocery market, and order food at a restaurant. Korean food is very different from the food I’ve grown up with here in the United States. Koreans eat a lot of seafood (yes, including seaweed) and most everything is spicy. Koreans also have a very strict set of table manners that rely on a hierarchy of the age and gender of everyone present at the meal. It’s considered very disrespectful to go against these traditions, so I guess I must learn quickly. I’ve tried 떡갈비, 김밥, and 송편 before, thanks to Notre Dame’s fantastic Korean Department, and I am open to trying most anything. I am curious about Korean desserts though, because I have a huge sweet tooth. I wonder if I can find ice cream in Korea? I’ve heard that random items, such as deodorant, are almost impossible to come by, so this will all be a part of my cultural adjustment.

K-pop is another aspect of Korean culture that I expect to learn this summer. K-pop has taken the world by storm and has even gained ground in the United States. Bands such as BTS and SF9 are such a huge part of Korea’s global economy that there’s even debate over whether these band members should still fulfill Korea’s military service requirement. Many people, especially students, love K-pop music and watch Korean dramas. I’ve started listening to a little bit of K-pop recently in order to learn some pop culture beforehand, but I am going to learn a lot more once I’m there and I’m sure many of the students I’ll be with will have recommendations, not only for music, but also for dramas. Maybe we will have Korean movie nights? That would be fun!

During my time in Korea this summer, I think that I will change and grow in many ways. For one, I will hopefully become more competent with Korean language. I will also become more engaged with Korean culture and learn its rich traditions so that I can hopefully increase my knowledge of people and become a global citizen who fully embraces cultural differences. I will also become more independent- I’ve never traveled by myself before and my room & board doesn’t come with a meal plan, so I will be cooking everything for myself for the first time. I also applied for my first credit card because it doesn’t have international fees like my debit card does, so I will have to learn how to manage that and make a budget for myself. There are so many other things that I will learn that I don’t even realize yet, and all of these things together will hopefully help me become a better adult who acts as a force for good in the world.

Please pray for me on this flight and wish me luck! I’ll keep you posted:)