From February to May 2006, I was able to stay in Seoul thanks to a Field Research Fellowship granted by the Korea Foundation. Getting that help was critical for finishing my doctoral dissertation about the education policies of Korea. I obtained the databases I needed from Korea National Statistical Office and conducted research at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and the Korean Foundation Cultural Center’s library. I also visited the KF’s Cultural Center weekly to attend upper-intermediate Korean language classes.
I could use this article to explain my research, but I guess it will be of greater interest for readers if I described my personal experiences during my 92-day stay. As was mentioned, I attained an intermediate Korean language level. How was I able to acquire that level in just three months? I am sorry to disappoint those waiting for me to describe a miracle method – my father is Korean and I studied Korean for several years, attending Korean classes and assisting regularly at a Korean church in Barcelona.
Therefore, my cultural shock in Korea was minimal. Apart from having an acceptable “Konglish” level, my family in Barcelona has a kimchi fridge at home, I eat Korean food regularly, and I have Korean friends and family spread around the world. Nevertheless, those circumstances did not make my stay any less interesting as I had visited Korea only twice before, in 1981, when I was 2 years old, and 1992.
Korea has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1992, and I could see that from the moment I landed. The grey Gimpo had been replaced by the modern Incheon International Airport. Quickly, the vast bridge that unites the airport with the peninsula showed me how intensive the development process has been. Huge apartment blocks explain to a visitor that functionality has been put before other architectural criteria.
Traffic and pollution are heavier nowadays, and still only wealthy Koreans drive foreign cars. Small kids are overprotected, seemingly quite rude by European standards, but you can understand their privileged status since their life from age 10 to 18 will become an endless repetition of a home-school-hagwon-home cycle. Coming from a Mediterranean country, I could not understand women’s obsession for being ultra-slim and wanting such fair skin. I found it quite amazing that, in a society in which people try to maintain a distance (no public kissing, minimal physical contact in interpersonal relationships) young women would walk around the city holding hands.
Young Koreans and Spanish youngsters share a love for mobile phones and hip-hop music (Bi and BoA songs have taken over for Seo Taiji’s 1992 summer hit “Nan Arayo”). And, I was surprised by the increase in the number of football fans; one of the first things I always heard when I said where I came from was that Korea beat Spain in the 2002 World Cup.
I stayed at my aunt’s home, so I adapted my timetable to the family’s schedule (the most difficult thing was having dinner at 6:00 in the evening) and personally experienced the Korean way of life. From Monday to Friday, work, work, and work, but during the weekends, we went hiking at Bukhansan, visited Busan and Gyeongju, and stayed at a couple of condos. I also enjoyed my first Lunar New Year (I should have brought money for my cousins!), Parents’ and Children’s Days, and Buddha’s Birthday, and the various preparations.
It is impossible to include in this article all the things I learned and felt (more information about my stay is available, in Spanish, at www.alvaroencorea.blogspot.com). Apart from the boost that the stay meant for my thesis, the three months allowed me to better understand who I am and some of my father’s reactions, which I previously had not understood well. I will always be grateful to the KF for all these reasons.
When leaving Korea, I promised myself that I would not allow another 14 years to pass without visiting my second homeland. And well, I stopped by in Seoul again last summer, during my honeymoon, and I felt that a part of me had never left.