Let me begin this post by saying that I’m very thankful to have been given this opportunity by SIM to spend a month in Korea, learning the Korean language as well as visit numerous companies and knowing more about them.
Prior to the programme, I was really nervous as it was my first time being overseas without my parents, what more in a country that communicates in a language that was foreign to me. Just a month ago, I only knew all the phrases that would never have really helped with my daily life at all. Being alone, I had to be independent as I had no one else to rely on. That meant I have to be my own leader, navigator etc. Most importantly, I just had to trust my instincts and go with my gut feelings no matter how much I tell myself that I am terrible at estimation and reading maps. I guess believing in yourself means having half the battle won because I can safely say that for most of the time when my friends and I went to explore the city on my own, I was the one who would search for directions and figure out exactly how we are supposed to get to our destinations (From taking the subway to walking to the places). Travelling free-and-easy also meant that I had little to none napping time as I had to constantly be on my toes and know where we were headed to. Initially it was quite tiring but I gradually got used to it. Taking the public transport also meant being able to observe what the locals would do on the trains and gain a better understanding of them.
One of the new perspectives that I was introduced to was definitely the way we had to dispose of our trash. Having lived in Singapore for my entire life, it was definitely difficult to get used to the rubbish system initially as we had to separate our rubbish into different bags, e.g. food waste, general waste and others. However, it did not take my roommate and I too long to get used to the system and it became a very automated process whenever we would throw our rubbish. Though the Korean method of rubbish disposal is definitely a lot more tedious, I think that it is definitely a good habit to pick up as that would mean having the conscious effort to recycle.
Additionally, in Korea, there are many notable systems that seem to run on the basis of trust. Many food places in Korea have got designated areas whereby customers can get sterilised cups and water to drink. The used cups will then be promptly returned at the right areas. I casually mentioned on Facebook that Singapore’s food courts need to implement a similar system however, my cousin reminded me of how it is difficult to have a similar system back home as the cups will probably go missing or get damaged. Perhaps all these are due to the culture being built over time and Korea has managed to do this continuously and successfully for a long time. I am hoping that maybe one day, many Singaporeans will be able to prove that they can be granted a certain level of trust, to not damage public property and then we can all enjoy such facilities.
During the programme, the biggest challenge that I encountered was definitely the language barrier. As I was only able to read the Korean words initially, I could only make sense of words that originated from English. However, the lessons in class proved to be really helpful as I put what I learnt to good use in certain situations, such as ordering food or making purchases. Though my understanding was limited, I felt like the lessons did pay off as I definitely saw a marked improvement in my language skills prior to the programme and after it.
I was really thankful that the grammar structure for Korean was similar to that of Japanese, hence I had a relatively easier time understanding the use of words like 이/가/은/는/을/를. However, Japanese also proved to be quite a handicap, as I would sometimes mix up the vocabulary for both languages (‘haru’ in Korean means day, whereas in Japanese, it means spring).
Being proficient in a language is no easy feat and so my friends and I would practise speaking to one another, as well as study together. All that hard work did help me tremendously in coping with the language barrier, even though I was not able to fully overcome it.
What I find most significant about the programme would be the opportunity to interact with Korean students from Kyunghee University. Even though we were each assigned a dowoomi, I got to know a few more dowoomis through my friends. Though I had expected to meet more international students, it was still an amazing opportunity to have made new many new friends outside of my UB circle. The dowoomis brought us to places that the locals would go to, such as the Express Bus Terminal shopping area and Mokdong ice-skating rink. It was really interesting as we got to explore places that would never have been covered in a typical tourist travelling schedule. It was a pity though that we had very little time to interact with our dowoomis as meeting once a week was definitely insufficient (only managed to meet up 3 times in total, excluding the introductory meeting session). Communicating with my dowoomi also proved to be quite tough as I was not proficient in Korean and neither was she in English. Though we had to communicate mostly through a broken mix of English, Korean and hand signals, I was still able to know quite a bit about her.
Finally, the programme has shaped the way I see Korea as a working place a little different from what I had expected it to be before the company visits. I had always imagined Korea’s working system to be extremely fast-paced and efficient, just like their technology. While I have always known how respect is viewed as highly important in Korea, I would never have expected it to be a factor which impedes speed in their working lives too. Based on the talk given by the staff from Louis Quartoze, who gave a fantastic comparison between the Western and Korean working styles, he noted that the need to give face to someone in a higher position would sometimes mean beating around the bush and taking a longer time to get to the point. Though the working culture is definitely changing, with all the Western influences, I am not exactly sure if a Korean work culture is one that I would get used to. For now, I still feel that the way I work is more Westernised and if I were to be an employee in a Korean company, I might offend many without even knowing. However, that does not mean that I am crossing out Korea from my future job opportunities as I really enjoyed my stay in Korea. In fact, I can envision myself to live comfortably in Korea if I continue to pursue the language and be proficient at it.
Overall, the programme has provided me great insight into the Korean work and life culture as well as helped to improve my Korean language skills. Even though I’m back home, that doesn’t mean that my Korean language learning should stop too. After all, the friendly teachers from Kyung Hee University have also urged us to continue studying and send them questions should we have any. I really do admire their dedication even though they have only spent 3 short weeks with us.
Loi Hui En
Student from University at Buffalo, SIM