This journey was going to be my first time in a plane; not considering that it would be about 16 hours from Kenya, which I thought would be super exciting. The very initial experience with Koreans started with the Korean Airbus air hostesses. For a moment, I thought operating the airline seat’s visual device was an intriguing occurrence, until I landed in Incheon International Airport and had to use the “ladies”. The taps had diverse ways of operation and so were the toilets. At one point, after relieving myself, I realized that there were a set of over six buttons with no directions but mare unclear images. I chose to press the button that seemed to rhyme with my purpose to get the job done. At this point, it dawned on me that Koreans cared for the needs of various religions and cultures, including Muslims. Pressing the button left most of my pants drenched in water, whose pressure and volume was generous enough to splash past me and wet outside the toilet through the bottom door space. Since I feared another surprise from pressing buttons, I decided to leave the business to the next individual; hoping it would take her centuries after I had disappeared. Thankfully, I had a jacket I could use to disguise myself as a trendy and “undrenched” individual. I gathered up my courage only to open the door and found a line of ladies waiting to use the same toilet. That was my very first seconds in the South Korean soil. I wondered what awaited me in the 10 months I was to stay there.
I joined my male colleague –who was experiencing weirder occurrences than me, I bet, but held it in by the virtue of being a man- at the domestic customs section. At the desk, the attendant asked me where I was going –thankfully in English- only to remember I had no idea where exactly I was going. The thing is that the Sejong Institute was sponsoring our 10 months studies in a certain technical college. However, I had not bothered to look up or write down the address, considering the excitement of traveling by a plane. I could not inquire from my colleague since he had been cleared nor could I use my phone as I didn’t know whether I would be provided for internet, plus I barely conversed in Korean. To my rescue, they contacted our to-be teacher and cleared me. In my rush to leave the domestic customs office; for fear that they might change their minds and deport me probably in a cargo plane, I forget my phone, which I had to wait outside the heavily guarded office to get. In short, we found our teacher; who wondered if we had disowned our country because of the numerous suitcases, and drove off to school.
The school was located in one of the provinces near the city. Since we arrived as spring was setting in, the weather was still chilly. Little did I know the silence in the atmosphere would change once summer came; where the rattling sound of the cicada (매미 – maemi) which never ceases be it night or day thus becoming part of summer life. We met with other students from various countries who had come for the same program; which made us more comfortable. The first meals were not as spicy but as time went by they introduced spicier food. My favorite dish was Dak Galbi, a Korean spicy chicken stir fired dish with cheese toppings. The dish is spicy from the pepper powder, sweet from the honey, and full of aroma from the fried ginger and garlic. The cheese cools the spiciness and makes it supple. One of the spiciest foods was Topokki, where stir-fried rice cakes are boiled over water with servings combined of pepper powder and paste. The dish is finished off by adding ingredients such as boiled eggs and scallions. I observed that extremely Topokki version was preferred on various occasions. For instance, when men are heartbroken, to give them a basis for shedding tears and expressing their anger, which they pretend to be directing to Topokki for being spicy. Being a cuisine department student, I was flabbergasted by their creativity with the resources that nature provided. What we thought was just flowers, back in my country was an ingredient for delicious herbal food and beverages here.
Having rice as the main dish for every meal of the day would sound outrageous and boring. However, the Koreans have diverse and nutritious side dishes for every meal in addition to the various ways of presenting rice products. For instance, for every bowl of rice, there could be a side dish of spinach, kimchi (from salted and fermented vegetables), bean sprouts, and steamed eggplants. Most of the side dishes were either fried and seasoned, fermented, smashed, steamed or raw. The intriguing foods to me were raw whole spinach –I felt like a herbivore grazing through a garden-, crabs fermented while raw, and bean sprouts –I pictured my mother’s reaction if I were to uproot her growing beans claiming to make a side dish. More interesting was that the more kimchi fermented, the more it became treasurable and nutritious. It took me half my stay to understand that logic; which to me is still a philosophy. As for the rice presentations, rice could be blended to form a powder for making a cake –for special occasions. The rice powder could also be used for making porridge or beauty creations. I personally tried to whiten and glow my skin with a rice paste, but later stopped after imagining I would look like a zebra or panda as applying on my whole body sounded strenuous. Additionally, the rice would be used to create various kimbap designs and topokki rice cakes. Overall, having diverse presentations, tastes and nutritious values in every meal would also justify why the Koreans prefer taking heavy meals rather than just tea in the morning.
The location of our school was just perfect; in between the upcountry and the city. Most of the Friday nights we would go to the city while on Sundays to the upcountry. To be specific, the most interesting place for a foreigner to spend a Friday evening would be Hongdae. The place is lively, especially with the various entertainment places that engage in international music and culture. Hongdae was my first entertainment stopover–where I had to sleep under the table for fear of being escorted out by the bouncers for idling. The escort would be justifiable since the venues are usually crowded and more people flow in by the hour. I would, however, advice one to have a coat, especially during autumn and obviously winter if you are a party person. Since I had no prior experiences with a situation, I had to scooch under the subway chairs in the chilly weather while waiting for the first train. On Saturdays I preferred enjoying nature in places such as the Olympic Park, Namu Island, and Seoul forest; especially for picnics with my newly found “Korean language exchange partner”. When I needed exercise, I would go on bike rides along the Hangang River and hikes in Seoraksan, Bukhansan, and Naejangsan mountains. During summer, our school sponsored our trip to Jeju Island, where my colleagues and I enjoyed walking in swimsuits from the hotel to the beach due to the short distance between them. In summer, I also traveled to Busan to sunbathe at the Haeundae Beach and enjoyed aquarium sites. During autumn I enjoyed taking pictures of the falling leaves with the reflection of their color, which changed in differing periods. Towards the winter, I went to Pyeongchang to ski in the Taebaek Mountains. As a student, I could not work to earn money but depended on the stipend from the school. Therefore, for all my visits, I made sure I stocked all I could from the duty-free shops including those of Lotte and Shinsegae.
I made a lasting connection with the fellow international students with whom we participated within the program. The Koreans from my cooking class and those I met while traveling – because most times I was a lone traveler- also became long distance friends once I went back to my country. Of course, I still encountered many weirder experiences during my stay, which I now treasure and some have never told a soul. I miss the late night travels and sleeping on subway benches because I was outside past our school’s curfew time. I remember the carefree life since if I lost anything, all I needed to do was visit any police station and I could retrieve it. The system there was very efficient and officials served up to their tasks. The jovial and welcoming Koreans I met everywhere; including in the washroom corridors, and the efficient transport system that made the country one village. I also miss the diverse and rich culture, the never-ending festivities, and the positive competition in fashion and music. Moreover, I got to perfect my conversations in Korean, especially when I was in a Hanbok which made me look like a Korean philosopher. The swift changes in seasons seemed to change with the ways of life, dressing, eating and interacting.
My curiosity on why the Koreans preferred slimmer bodies, especially on girls, was quenched. As a fan of K-Pop, I went to many music functions and interacted with many youths aspiring to be artists. A crucial requirement for artists to be taken in by music agencies was the ability to dance. In other words, compared to vocals, the ability to woe the crowd through dance moves; and obviously body appearances, is more important. In the evening, high school and elementary school students usually use the wall-to-wall mirrors in the various building to practice group dances. Some would practice until around eight, especially in spring and cool summer days. In Korea, the music industry; including the drama sector; is all about perfection. Moreover, since the agencies have a higher say regarding one’s career, the artists strive to be the best to maintain their position. Although I found it rather suffocating, I would support the agencies having more control as it checks the behavior of artists ensuring the Korean culture and morals are maintained. Therefore, since many celebrities –musicians, actors, and actresses- tend to work out and maintain a slim body, the trend has been transferred to the population. People, especially the adolescents desire and strive to be slender. Moreover, the huge amounts of pepper contained in their foods burn the body fats thus contributing to the slenderness.
My perceptions from interacting with K-pop and K-drama were that at least ninety-nine percent of Koreans are slim and beautiful/handsome. However, I came to interact with individuals with built bodies and to my surprise, most of them preferred their size compared to slender ones. As such, I realized that happiness is just but a state of mind. Moreover, compared to their diverse sizes, they all appeared stylish thanks to the over a million available clothing trends. Due to my unquenching hunger for fashion and style, I found myself buying clothes every day; to a point that I had to walk with fixed money –only for lunch and transport, and maybe just one piece of clothing. On my way home, I had to leave some of my precious clothes at the airport after the attendant weighed my carry-on suitcase –only mine and not of other passengers- and found it to be twice the permitted weight. Of course, I was clever enough to wear a set underneath the ones I had on- making me seem twice my size. Overall, my visit to Korea was an eye-opener. A crucial experience was seeing couples in matching clothes literally everywhere I went, and how they cherished and celebrated their courting days. I had to look for a friend; the “Korean conversation exchange mate” to prevent depression. Through my interactions with Koreans, I realized that happiness is a state of mind and friendships are worth cherishing. Koreans are also hardworking individuals. Most of the youth, before indulging in marriage, work to travel, which means they also learn English by themselves for communication. Thus, apart from supporting their families –although the law expects parents to support their children until an age is unacceptable to most cultures-, the youth work to fulfill their dreams while enjoying every minute. Therefore, my visit to South Korea changed my perspectives in life for the better.