by Charlie Timson, Summer School in South Korea
It doesn’t matter how many countries you’ve been to or how many friends you’ve made, moving to a new city for 5 weeks with a group of Manchester uni students is scary. Seoul is so foreign to most, due to its culture and proximity in the world. It doesn’t matter how many shows you watch or articles you read, you still don’t really know what to expect until you get there. And there can be so much paperwork with Covid and travelling you land with a headache and a half empty suitcase wondering what might be waiting for you. This is what was waiting for us.
On arrival we had barely left the terminal, and someone had lost their passport. We panicked but it was eventually found exactly where she’d left it, next to the sink in the bathroom. No one had dared touch it; Seoul is too safe for that. It provided 5 weeks’ worth of jokes towards that poor girl that soon became one of my closest friends. She then went on to leave her phone halfway up a mountain, so she clearly didn’t learn her lesson. At the welcome day we had our own cheerleaders welcome us and an incredibly awkward group photo taken by our cutie international programmes leader Mr Yu, who was in charge of everything.
On my first day of uni I was shocked to find out my Asian art class actually involved painting! I thought it was art history and suddenly felt way out of my depth. That was until the incredibly kind Ms Kim started speaking and at an instance I was at ease. We started painting with ink sticks and her enthusiastic encouragement along with teaching assistant Seungeun Lee made me feel proud of what I had made even if other Manchester students were wondering if what I painted was a tarantula or bigfoot’s hairy toes. It was actually supposed to be a grape tree. Art is subjective anyway.
After our first night out, we struggled to get a taxi until our Korean knight in shining armour Semin arrived. Semin became our own personal tour guide and introduced us to a chicken restaurant that was approved by Gordon Ramsey, a hike up Inwangsan mountain that made me nearly pass out and he took us to traditional restaurants where the food blew my socks off. On a Friday cultural trip, we went to the demilitarised zone (DMZ) where we literally walked through a tunnel the North Koreans made. At the end of the tunnel, through a window we saw North Korea which was eerie. That divide has separated families for decades due to the Korean War.
On a lighter note, at the weekend we headed down to Jack’s game bar in Itaewon to celebrate a successful week where we had games of ping pong with Korean strangers. No night out is complete without heading down to a Noraeban (karaoke bar) to sing cringey throwback songs with those you adore most. In Korean art class during the week my painting got somewhat better with Ms Kim only occasionally saying: “that looks good, but what is it?”
On the next trip to Everland we went on a safari where giraffes poked their heads into the van and one nearly snatched the sunglasses from the top of my head, but it was worth it for a picture. We even experienced cuteness overload when going to the meerkat cafe and having them sit on our knees and chase each other happily. One evening after uni we went down to the Han river and had a takeout chicken picnic with Semin; the weather was still humid, but much more bearable after the sun went down. As the South Korea trip came to a finish, we started wrapping up all the activities we still wanted to do and of course having our last day trip with our new bestie Semin. We spent the whole of the final week with him including him cooking us all my favourite spaghetti dish, going to board game cafes with him, going to Boramae park and him cooking one last meal which was basically a ginormous feast. He made sure to not add too much spice because he knows I’m weak.
At the closing ceremony there was another dance performance and goodbyes from all the teachers in charge. We received our certificates which looked like fancy diplomas, and everyone got a free tin water bottle as a souvenir. We said our last goodbye to Mr Yu who blushed shyly when we said how much we enjoyed the programme. It was going to be strange to leave Seoul, to leave uni, to leave behind friends who were merely strangers a few weeks ago. I didn’t want to leave, but I am forever grateful I even got the opportunity to go in the first place. If you are considering applying for the summer programme to Seoul, just do it. You will get over the initial doubts of whether you will make friends or will like the food, you will get over the long-haul flights, you will get over the anxieties of travelling to somewhere new. But you will never get over the city of Seoul, you will never know a safer place nor a more vibrant one. You will never get over it, it will be a memory you will never let go of, nor would you ever want to.