University Student a.k.a 학생 (Hagsaeng)
I went to the Korean language center office at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies with one of my fifty pounds bags and a notebook. I knew that I couldn’t check into my dorm room until three p.m., but I thought I could carry one of my bags with me while I checked out the school surroundings.
After our shopping trip to Myeongdong, my cousin’s friend took me to where the school was located. She thought it would be helpful if I knew how to take the subway to the school and find out where I was supposed to go beforehand. I felt like it was a mechanism for making sure that I didn’t get too comfortable at her place. Like she wanted to make sure with her own eyes that I had a place to live and I was actually doing something while I was living in Korea.
If you talk to someone and don’t have a definite plan with clear intentions for your future they seem to get extremely nervous around you, like you’re a lost child with no clear plans and no home. After going to the office and being told they would not be able to let me check into the dorm before check-in time I found out that I was already late for my first day of class. I was actually assigned to a morning class and it had already started an hour ago.
1st Korean Language Class
My first time going to the class was a bit embarrassing. I realized that I was the oldest person there and no one else spoke English. This was like a cold bucket of water being thrown in my face. My teacher would only explain what she was trying to teach in Korean. The frustration quickly set in when I would try to ask questions and instead of answering the questions she would repeat what she had just demonstrated. Frustration doesn’t begin to explain how I felt.
How was I supposed to ask questions when the rest of the class seemed so much more advanced and understood everything she was trying to teach them? Instead, I focused on copying the characters and repeating the words she wrote on the blackboard.
After my four-hour class ended and because I didn’t know my way around the campus I went back to the only place I was familiar. The foreign language schools office. I waited for them to take me to my dorm room. An office personnel came and took a group of students to their dorm rooms. I was so jealous. I sat there with no explanations of what was happening.
I continued to sit in the office until the same office personnel returned. He began talking to a young Chinese girl. I wasn’t really sure what was going on or why it was taking so long. Another office worker joined in on the discussion. I couldn’t understand a lot of their conversation since they were speaking in Chinese.
Finally, he informed us that we would go to the dorms, me and the young Chinese girl. From her frantic gesture of looking at me and waving her hand no, I finally figured it out, she didn’t want to be my roommate.
My first experience of racism. It didn’t matter that I was from America, that I had eaten Chinese food and liked a couple of Chinese dramas. This young girl didn’t even know my name. My skin was dark and I was different from her, the end.
1st Dorm Room
I was taken to an old apartment building. After climbing three flights of stairs with my fifty-pound suitcase, I tried to focus on the office personnel. Still, in shock, I was trying to remember the building entrance code he had rattled off.
Inside the room were two twin double beds, two computer desk, one table, a nightstand and two wood standing closet racks. He told me to choose a four-digit code for my door that I could easily remember. I choose a set of numbers and went inside. My heart sank. This was definitely not the high-rise apartment that I had stayed over the weekend.
After quickly explaining how the heater worked they left and went to what was probably a place that was more acceptable to her living standards. He left me alone with a welcome packet that informed me of nearby stores, a maintenance number for emergencies and instructions on how I could place a long distance call for free while attending class.
Thankfully, I had remembered from my last year at college that dorm rooms are dusty and dirty and I had packed cleaning supplies. Travel wet wipes were my initial saving grace. As I cleaned up the place and placed my sheets on my bed, I told myself how the bouncy Chinese girl was missing out.
I was a good roommate, who always kept my room clean. I was more knowledgeable about life than probably those other twenty something’s she would have as a roommate. These were words she would never hear.
I begin to look at the positive aspects of it all. I paid three hundred dollars less because they didn’t have any single rooms available. As a result, I was only offered a double room as part of my dorm room package. I saved money and still got what I wanted. I got a room all to myself.
So happy, I wouldn’t have to get used to a new routine of sharing space with someone else. Blissfully, I had a place where I could lock the door and exhale after a busy day. A place where I called my family and talked about how I was feeling that week living in Seoul, South Korea.
The young Chinese girl did me a favor. I’m able to truly say thank you for the opportunity that occurred that day. I was able to experience a racist whether it was due to her ignorance or biased beliefs. I experienced the initial hurt of her actions and I was able to let go.
There would be many more experiences, whether it was sitting on the subway and having the person sitting next to me get up and change seats. Or the perverted old Ajusshi who believed it was okay to blow kisses or another old Ajusshi who spit on the ground as I walked past.
All were a part of my experience while living in South Korea and because of this, I am a different person than before I lived abroad.
If you want to continue reading about my life in Seoul, South Korea check out the next post in my travel diary.