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Research Centre for East Asian Studies Groningen Blogs and Postcards

My experience of studying abroad in Asia

Laura d'Haese
Caution! Studying and living abroad has lasting effects!

This summer, I had the opportunity to take part in the summer school at Pusan National University in Busan, South Korea. Having studied abroad my whole university career, I have identified a certain pattern – with all its ups and downs- in the living and studying abroad experience. A few months ago, I discovered that the Centre for East Asian Studies in Groningen offers scholarships for a summer school program in the South Korean city Busan. As a total language, travel and Asia junkie, I just knew that this was something I had to apply for.

A few weeks later: Ping! The email I had been waiting for finally hits my inbox, the offer letter from the university for the summer school program. So it was definite, soon I would be going to South Korea to study Korean and learn more about the country’s history and culture.

Fast-forward 3 months. Once arrived in Korea, it felt as if I stepped into some kind of alternate reality: the overload of neon lights in the streets, the unfamiliar yet exotic mixture of smells combining tofu, car exhausts, fried chicken, kimchi, and a bunch of other unidentifiable flavours, the overwhelming number of cafés on EVERY corner of the street – seriously did not know Koreans were such coffee aficionado’s?!- and the mind-boggling amount of K-pop music blasting from the numerous shops…

Oddly quickly though, I get used to the new life and everything starts feeling strangely familiar. All of a sudden, I catch myself having traded my breakfast cheese sandwich for a bowl of fried rice, drinking iced coffee, thinking in Korean Won instead of in Euros, and asking for extra chilli sauce and a glass of hot water at the restaurant. In short, it becomes hard to imagine that I ever even had another lifestyle…

When in Asia, I always experience how people I meet along the way tend to connect with each other on another level, ranging from the fellow international students at the university, the friendly grandma’s at the street food stalls, the random strangers on the subway, to the occasional backpacker. We all have something in common: we did not grow up speaking the same language, nor did we get raised in the same culture, and yet we are here together in this very moment trying to figure something out, trying to get somewhere. If you’re lucky enough, English becomes the go-to language, but in many cases, sign language, Google-translate and the 5 words of freshly learned Korean or even a simple smile go a long way.

What baffles me every time though, is that no matter how different cultures are, when it comes down to the every day life, people all around the world are so similar. Everyone enjoys a well-deserved beer at the end of the busy work or study week, we all know the words to Beyoncé’s songs, and even humour can –despite the language barrier and cultural differences- be so universal.

It is the realizations like these that make a study abroad experience so unique… The friendships created abroad have something so incomparable, because after the initial nervousness of going somewhere you don’t know anyone, the thrill of meeting and getting along with so many like-minded people with the most diverse backgrounds conquers.

Inevitably, however, the end of the program will approach. The goodbyes are hard, both to friends, as well as to my most frequented restaurants and the convenient store in which I became friends with the cashier, but the excitement of going home and tell everyone my amazing stories makes up for a lot. Family and friends are over the moon to have you back, but this is when reality hits you like a ton of bricks. Time and time again I realize how this is truly the hardest part. The excitement and newness among friends and family about my return eventually wears off and life at home returns back to normal – as if I never even left. Except, I did leave, and it changed me for life. The hard thing is that not many people can relate, because apart for some worn out travel bracelets, a fading tan and some ridiculous elephant trousers I bought when in Asia, I look same old same old.

And here are some lessons I learned from that experience:

Maybe this makes you want to leave again to chase thát feeling and surround yourself with ‘your’ kind of people; the kind who have gone thought the same experience of leaving, adapting, growing and changing. Maybe you don’t. One thing is sure, after taking part in a study abroad program, you will have friends from all over, which makes that now you have homes away from home all around the globe. You will understand issues that come in the news on another level: you will remember your South Korean classmates’ stories about their time in the army, your South African roommate’s take on things, and your American best friend’s inspiring enthusiasm about virtually everything… Studying abroad does not only teach you about the culture and language of the country you visit, but you will also learn so much from the stories you hear from the people you meet along the way. And let this be something that is irreversible, because you will never look at the world in the same way as before you left.

my experience of studying abroad in Asia
Last modified:14 September 2020 12.00 p.m.