This winter break, I had the privilege to travel to South Korea for two weeks. It was my first time traveling internationally alone and my two weeks abroad has redefined education for me. I booked the tickets back in September and debated over traveling for months. I was wondering if it was worth the time, money, and effort to travel to Korea, especially since I was traveling by myself. It has been six years since I last visited Korea and it was nerve racking to think about exploring a foreign country without the help of others. I worked throughout the summer before my freshman year and saved up enough money to book my tickets. I kept my eyes on ticket prices and snatched up the cheapest tickets possible. I spent weeks practicing Korean with my parents and went over how to travel by subway and bus routes. I also practiced simple Korean phrases that are useful in any situation, and gathered up gifts for my relatives. Before I knew it, it was time to leave.
I departed LAX bright and early on New Year’s Day and traveled up to Canada where I had a layover in Vancouver for an hour. It hit me the moment I stepped out of my plane that I had crossed international borders for the first time by myself and that the world is so much bigger than the life I know. I made the most out of my hour and explored the airport as much as I could — after all, it was my first time in Canada, even though it was short lived and I was stuck in the airport.
I realized quickly how fast you learn to become independent and make split second decisions for yourself when you are on your own in a foreign place. My head was swarming with different questions: do I eat at this restaurant or save money and eat later? Do I have all my documents with me? Am I able to use my phone in a foreign country? Some decisions aren’t as important as others but to be able to decide on my own how I want to lead my time at this airport was just as valuable of an experience for me.
My hour flew by and I was on the plane to travel to Incheon, South Korea where my grandparents were waiting for me. I’ve spent most of my time on the plane practicing my Korean and conversational skills. More than anything, I didn’t want to be seen as a gyopo or a Korean American. Community is strongly rooted in Korean culture — confucian values run deep, and individualism isn’t as practiced in Korea as it is in America. Being unique isn’t normal or appreciated and there are always mixed reviews on Koreans living overseas. I didn’t want my first independent excursion to be met with strange looks or overbearing strangers.
Before I knew it, the pilot announced we were landing soon and I opened my window to see my first glimpse of Korean people. I started tearing up as I saw the familiar, yet foreign cities appear through my window and I was lucky enough to witness a beautiful sunset as we landed. I felt so grateful for the opportunity to travel to Korea and learn more about my heritage and was overwhelmed with emotions of happiness, anxiety, gratitude and excitement.
I soon reunited with my grandparents at Incheon Airport and they quickly whisked me home where a hot bowl of budae jjigae, or Korean army stew, was waiting for me. As my grandma has said, there was nothing better than a spicy stew to fill you up after a long day of travel. I settled into the room my mom and I would always stay in when I was younger and before long, my first day in Korea was over. The next two weeks were one of the most exciting and nerve racking weeks of my life. I was able to witness first hand my confidence in traveling by myself increase as each day passed. Thanks to Korea’s convenient public transportation, I was able to explore the country alone. It was a much different experience than when I last visited Korea when I was 12. Back then, my mother was able to take us around the country and show us significant sites from her childhood. Now I have to rely on myself and my somewhat fluent Korean vocabulary to visit different cities. Luckily, I had friends from the States visiting at the same time, so we were able to meet up and have fun together, whether we explored Hongdae, ate at cute cafes and aesthetic restaurants, or just walked down the streets together. I also spent a lot of time with my grandparents and helped them run errands or cook dinner. While it was exciting being able to explore as tourists, I loved having the quiet moments with my grandparents and settling into life together too.
I’ve come to truly appreciate and understand the value of travel and learning about different cultures. While Korea had a bustling culture full of activities, one of my favorite things I did during my trip was just observing the culture and understanding more about my heritage. I got to meet my extended family and see how much different my life could have been if my parents chose not to immigrate to America. Although I did feel like an outsider sometimes, I never felt any hostility towards me. Everyone I met, although they immediately knew I lived overseas, accommodated me as much as possible and were proud to show their country to me. I was immensely proud to be Korean when I visited and took it upon myself to become more fluent in Korean so I would be able to better experience Korea.
Now that I am back in the States, there’s nothing more I want to do than travel again. Luckily, Cornell has a great study abroad program. Who knows where I will go next?
Adin Choung is a freshman in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at [email protected]. A Dinner is Served runs every other Thursday this semester.