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Notes from Stephanie Ruizesparza: Semester in South Korea, Part 3
In this week’s journal entry I will be reflecting back on my language acquisition once again. The first entry I wrote talked a lot about how it was learning Korean my first year and how difficult it was in the United States to acquire a new language. Now living in South Korea for a month, I realized it was much easier learning the language in the country of origin. Coming to Korea, I could barely understand what people would ask me. I didn’t know the word for plastic bag, nor the follow-up question. Now, although I wouldn’t say that I understand everything completely, I still can understand most of the meaning of sentences. Now when I go to stores, I understand when they are asking me for plastic bags, and whether I have a membership and if I do not then they proceed to ask if I would I like one.
The days I understand sentences, and I can communicate to people in Korean, are victories for me. Just today I overheard a man say, “I see foreigners every day,” once he caught a glimpse of me and my friends. He didn’t sound too happy. But being able to understand made me feel pretty happy. Although, it is still definitely frustrating to not speak fluently, it makes me more motivated to study and get better.
In my Latina/o Studies courses and in my daily life in the United States I understand immigrant families in a much deeper level. Before, I was always the translator for my mother. It used to annoy me when I was a child, having to make phone calls for her and having to go up to cashiers and talk to them for her. Now being in similar shoes as my mother, I too at times wish I had a translator. I understand how difficult it is for families to move to a country that does not speak their language of origin. It also becomes much more important to me that we have access to a variety of resources in multiple languages. Things like language barriers definitely get in the way of receiving benefits in the United States, and I argue it is more important for the U.S. to have such availability because it is a country that has so many people from all over the world, unlike Korea that has a homogenous society, but can still benefit from such things.
As my time here dwindles I am starting to feel more and more comfortable living in Korea. This is different from the beginning where I felt as a tourist living in Korea. Now after living in the country for a little more than two months I am starting to feel like like an expat. I’ve visited other neighborhoods within Korea, and have made a lot of native Korean friends. I go out to a variety of different restaurants during the week. Because there are no meal plans and I do not have a refrigerator, I need to eat out every day. I’ve noticed a variety of Japanese and Chinese restaurants in the neighborhood. I’ve also noticed quite a few conversations held in Chinese at these restaurants. This was interesting to me because Korea tends to have a homogeneous population and doesn’t have a mixture of other ethnicities within their country.
This is very different in comparison to the United States, which is a melting pot of different races and cultures. Walking around the streets in the States, particularly in the streets of Chicago, it is normal to find minorities. It isn’t a rare sighting to see Chinese restaurants in the middle of Mexican neighborhoods. That is just one example of how multicultural just one city is in the entire States. In Korea as a country it is much less common. This is also due to the strong immigration policies they have. In my personal opinion it was even difficult getting the right paperwork to live and study here. In order to enter the country I needed a visa. And upon arriving here I also needed to get a thing called an “Alien Registration Card,” which basically lets me live in Korea without facing deportation for 4 months (D-2 Visa, student card).
I think that I am in a very privileged situation, because I was able to do all of this with such ease. Thinking back to the immigrant communities in the States, I realize just how hard it is for immigrants to go through all the paperwork and interviews just to be able to stay and live in the States with their families. Having to do the paperwork myself in a foreign country, reading the paperwork in a different language and having to maneuver myself in a country that I had only lived in for a few weeks was an intimidating. However, that doesn’t compare to the struggles of those in a less privileged situation.
Earlier in the semester I had set a countdown clock on my phone to let me know just how many days I had left until my departure. I did it because it helps me both cope with homesickness and motivates me to do as many things as possible while in Korea. As my days near, I find myself going out with my Korean friends more often, and going to outings with many foreigners as well. I have less time to pay attention to the news and the events happening around the world. This is a very different feeling considering how politically active I am in the States.
Being in politically active circles, working at La Casa, and majoring in Latino Studies, I never really get a break from listening about horrible things that happen in the United States; horrible things meaning, unjust policies happening in the government, our school institution not holding people accountable, and learning about tragic history.
It is a bit different studying abroad because I can choose to take a break from all of this while abroad. And although we still learn about other history, for example learning about the colonization of Korea, it is different from my own history. I also realize that even though that taking a break from all of it is fun and exciting, it is not the life I want to lead. I want to feel a connection to things that have meaning. I know that when I travel I want it to be because I have a purpose and an impact. It is frustrating to just do academics and social outings, without doing anything else. For example, I miss working with the young Latinx youth in Urbana and Chicago, mostly because they are the demographic that I know and can relate to with ease. They are also the demographic that I have interacted with and studied about the longest, which makes it easier for me to find solutions to urban problems.
In Korea, only being here for 2 months and only knowing surface level issues, it was difficult to join organizations and get involved. Also the timing is not the best. Only being in Korea for 4 months isn’t enough to do what I like to do. Wanting to work with children and woman and dealing with difficult emotional situations in a foreign country can be difficult without the proper training. Hence, I couldn’t join/find many places to do that, leaving me able to enjoy my free time, but also leaving me dissatisfied.