A stranger in a strange land

UFV Study Abroad student, Kayla Briere

As part of International Education Week at UFV, Study Abroad and scholarship student Kayla Briere talked about her experience in Korea with an audience of students, faculty and staff during Professional Studies’ Internationalization event on Monday, November 18, 2013. Read what she shared about the value of human relationships.

I spent last year in Korea on an appropriately name Teach and Learn in Korea scholarship. This gave the opportunity to attend a Korean University, and teach an after-school English program at a local elementary school for 15 hours a week.

A question I was frequently asked before my departure was why Korea. While the simple surface answer was that I got a scholarship I would be crazy to turn down, the reason I had pursued a study abroad opportunity in that part of the world was that I wanted something different. I wanted to take myself as far out of my normal daily Canadian life as possible. I was hoping that doing this would lead to some interesting experience, some new life skills and hopefully some interesting stories. I can say without a doubt that Korea delivered in all these aspects and then some.

I could ramble on for hours about the cultural and social differences of which there are many, and tell some of what I think are hilarious stories of miscommunications, eating live octopus, and various other cultural differences. These are not the things that made my experience unique, and they are not the incidences that made my trip incredibly worthwhile.

What I found a more interesting experience of living in Korea was always being on people’s radar. To be perfectly blunt, being of the descent that I am, I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was practically impossible for me to blend in or not be noticed. Coming from a city like Vancouver where you could never tell by looks if someone was a foreigner, this was, at first, a strange concept to me.

I was always being watched, either confirming or denying stereotypes people already had about foreigners. To a point, I really had to have my best face forward all the time, something I’m sure we all strive for, although realistically we all have our bad days. I was no longer part of that anonymous crowd that most of us can hide behind when were having one of those days. I like to think I’m a polite, well-mannered person, but my time in Korea gave me a far better sense of how my small actions, tones, and manners, affect the people around me, re-enforcing to me how much small acts of kindness really do matter.

I’m an outgoing and sociable person, and Korea put this into over drive. Although at first I was weary of standing out, and worried about feeling isolated in my new home, I quickly found out how many doors it opened, conversations it started, and friendships it sparked.

Whether I was on campus, in the city, or on the bus, I was constantly striking up conversations, and meeting new incredible people. I can’t say if I was just incredibly lucky, or if it is only pleasant people who tend to approach strangers, but all of my interactions with people were overwhelmingly positive.

For my first semester at Chonnam National University, I was the only North American student in a student population of over 35,000. Essentially I went to a school with a slightly larger student body then UBC and was the first and only Caucasian student at the time. I stood out enough that Emma, an outgoing Chonnam student who was coming to study at UFV the next semester, was able to spot me walking on campus without ever having met me and introduce herself. While this seemed a little daunting to me at first, it did prove to be an excellent icebreaker and way to meet new people and make friends.

While eating along at the cafeteria during my first week, a very friendly and very blunt Korean student walked up and asked me, “Why are you sitting alone? Is it because you do not have friends?”  Slightly caught off guard by a question I would probably never be asked if I were sitting alone in Canada, I replied that I didn’t have any friends yet. Although the conversation had a slightly awkward start, it resulted in company for lunch, and an amazing new friend who would eventually end up helping me move and bringing me medicine when I was sick.

Another time after finishing up an assignment with some classmates, a few Korean students in the English club asked if I could explain a few questions they had about an English passage they were having trouble understanding. Even though I was absolutely no help with their English passage, which I was later told made no sense due to a formatting error, they were still very appreciative, and showed me around the campus after chatting for a bit. As fate would have it, this was a favor I was eventually able to return when their English club decided to visit Vancouver earlier this year.

Of course all of these interactions didn’t turn into long enduring friendships like others did. Some were just a brief encounter between classes, or a short conversation about how horrible Canadian breakfast is but how amazingly kind their Canadian host mother had been. Whether I never saw the person again, or they ended up being the one sitting on my overstuffed suitcase while I struggled to close it on my last night in Korea, I truly appreciated the connection, and interactions I had while in Korea. These connections, and these conversations are to me what make the UFV Study Abroad program invaluable.

Comments are closed.