So Imii wrote a post – that I connected with on a deep and personal level – about her experiences on her year abroad in Paris, and how it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows and macarons and the Eiffel Tower, but it was also the best experience of her life. It’s a fab read, I highly recommend. It also resonated strongly with me as my own experiences in Seoul, as well of many of my classmates, were remarkably similar.
For all our spouting about how fab years, studies, or placements abroad are – no one ever really talks about the tough side of it. Once the gloss is peeled off and you get into the nitty-gritty of actually living there, once you’ve seen all the tourist spots and settled into more of a routine than wide-eyed excitement at almost bloody everything, when it starts to feel more like real life and less like a holiday – no one really talks about that.
If you’re new here (hi, hello), I spent 12 months of my life in Seoul as part of my degree. It’s mostly graced this space in my early posts – I started LMF when I was there – and captured almost entirely through places I went to eat. It isn’t some wonderful travel diary (although I really, really wish it was), and with the ridic turnover that is the Korean service sector – there’s a saying that your favourite restaurant will be your favourite for about a year… and then it’s gone – a fair few of those are probably now shut unless they’ve been doing super well in my absence. Whenever I speak about my year abroad I usually try to frame it in the most positive light I can. Word it in a way that won’t put people off because I think they’re fabulous and an integral part of language degrees. They teach you an immeasurable amount about yourself, how you deal with things and the path you’re on.
But they’re also horrific.
I think it’s lost on a lot of people that if you’re spending a year abroad as part of university, it isn’t some fabulous, slightly cheaper holiday. You don’t get to swan around the city you’re placed in with your squad, hitting up corner cafes and exquisite little bistros that are tucked away and totally instagrammable. Unless you fly out super early or stay on past your year. It isn’t road trips through the countryside and spontaneous excursions during term time (at most you’ll scavenge a weekend away and potentially be wracked by guilt later). It isn’t exploring temples and palaces and statues in your free time, because once you’ve seen five (or ten) you’ve seen them all and it does get dull.
If you’re on a year abroad you are there to study. You are there to use the immersion experience to your full advantage and basically bring yourself up to near-fluent capability. The Korean education system is tough. It’s majority rote learning. You’re expected to study, study, study. You’re expected to learn passages in the space of an evening to go through in class the next day. You’re expected to put the absolute maximum amount of effort in and you’re expected to not burn out. You’re expected to pass all your exams and you’re expected to be grateful and thankful and relish your experience.
I missed the sodding light show at Banpo every time I went to go and catch it. Bloody weather.
When you don’t necessarily meet those expectations, it can be crushing. Or when your city doesn’t meet your expectations it can make you question all of your decisions to bring you to this point. Studying a language when you’re older than five makes everything so much harder, especially when you have limited capacity in languages other than your mother tongue. There are times when you doubt your progress and ability so fully that you think maybe you should just give up and get a flight home. There are walls that you have to break through – sometimes they’re pre-cut plywood, sometimes they’re titanium – and you don’t always come out on the other side unscathed… if at all.
It’s not an overestimate to say that 90% of your time during term will be spent studying. However you choose to study. I spent a lot of time in my room – which in Korea is sort of unheard – sometimes switching to local chain coffee stores because I needed the change in scenery. I had people say to me from back in the UK ‘oh why don’t you go and do something fun?’ ‘you spend a lot of time inside, do something cultural you’re only there for a year, go and explore‘ and it made me feel so horrifically guilty that I wasn’t maximising my time because I was spending it studying. But going out and doing anything made me feel so horrifically guilty that I wasn’t brushing up on that days’ grammar.
Alongside that there’s a strong possibility that your classes – any and all – will be taught in your target language. Let me tell you right now that that is exhausting. Having to wrap your head around not-quite-but-sort-of understanding your teachers, having to then go and learn the vocab you may have missed and extra study because understanding the teacher helps understand what you’re learning. It’s vicious. It’s extra on top of trying to wrap your head around the new topics covered that day. That you have to instantly go and work on because language learning is not an instant thing. It’s a long, arduous process that wrings you through. Just living in the country doesn’t make you fluent. It helps massively, but there’s so much else that goes into becoming even mildly proficient that dreams of watching dramas without subtitles can seem like such a distant, future point.
I’ll also mention, as Imii does, that year abroads often come hand in hand with anxiety, loneliness, crippling homesickness, circumstances that are unavoidable (often awful), and having to deal with situations that leave you second guessing yourself for years. You don’t really change a lot of your day-to-day habits. You’ll still go to uni, you’ll still be learning, you’ll still clean and tidy and do your laundry, but you’ll also feel incredibly isolated at points. That conversation you tried to have with the taxi driver but didn’t quite catch one word of and made a tit of yourself, not being able to have really in-depth conversations with your newer friends because that language barrier means your whatever isn’t fab and neither is their English so things remain horrifically superficial. Seeing the true colours of the people from your course who are also in the country, friendships being smashed because of actions when the pressure starts to mount. It’s a melting pot of things you have to manage. Things you have to learn to sort out and put in places and forget about to keep pushing forwards. There will be times when you have to argue for your corner against someone who has a better command of everything and you’ll want to come home. It’s hard.
You have to deal with utilities and flat finding and not getting ripped off because you’re foreign and people think because you’re studying abroad you’re basically a bottomless bank account. You’ve got to deal with the stereotypes your country people come with, and whether they’re good or bad. You need to pick yourself up after every ‘not quite right’ and find it in yourself to come back stronger than the last time.
Feeling overwhelmed by all of that is also totally normal. It happened to me. It happened to basically everyone I know who’s ever been on a year abroad. There’s a phrase we all use, we all resonate with: the country/city we went to chewed us up and spat us back out a completely different person. We were all stressed out, max capacity reached. Functioning on about 3 hours sleep because trying to pack everything in around studying leaves you with zero hours for relaxation. I’ve seen burn out. I’ve seen people pack it all in because it was just too much and move on to better things. I’ve seen the best and I’ve seen the worst, and I was somewhere in the middle.
I loved Seoul. I love the vibrancy of the city and the fact it never ever sleeps. I’m looking to move back out there at some point because I loved the freedom it gave me. I loved parts of my year abroad and look back on those moments so fondly that I actually tear up because getting that circle of friends back together would mean spanning continents as well as countries.
But I also think it’s very important to show that these cities that are so beautiful for tourists, prime holiday destinations and enjoyed by so many, are not necessarily all rosy, peachy keen experiences when you’re there to do intensive language training.
The difference between expat life and year abroad life, is that as an expat you have time. You have those weekends and the hours after you’ve finished work where you can explore and travel and do things. The difference between a city as a holiday destination and one you’re physically living in, is that when you’re on holiday you’re looking to enjoy. You can bypass the bits that aren’t fab. You don’t have to try and argue with the repair people because the door to the toilet has managed to jam for the third time in as many weeks and your landlady isn’t responsive because she’s at work. You don’t see the fact that Seoul has no or very few bins???? and learning where you actually put rubbish for collection. You don’t see all the things you have to adjust to pretty damn fast.
If you’re going on, or just starting your year abroad: good luck. You’re fabulous and strong and deserve to be there. You can do this, I promise you.
If you’re not: please please don’t bite the arm off those of us who might-sort-of-ruin the illusion of beautiful cities you love to visit on holiday. It really is a very different experience.
I’m immensely thankful for the experience my year abroad gave me, and the person it’s made me as a result. It was honestly one of the best years of my life and I would do a lot of it again in a heartbeat. I’m also really excited to try Seoul out as an expat in the future, whether that be soon or later on, to see how it differs from my year abroad experience. I might end up eating my words.
Have you ever been on a year abroad? Or moved from country to country and had any similar experiences? Or did you totally breeze through your YA without any hiccups? Let me know, I always love reading about different experiences 🙂