Welcome back to another episode of the new blog segment Unfiltered: Unraveling Truths About Traveling. A segment where I ask bloggers, vloggers, and the like questions about traveling in order to share with you their perspectives and opinions.
For this week’s episode, let me introduce you all to the lovely:
Christina is a 20-something expat from Ohio, USA who loves learning languages, eating, and dancing. She’s currently based in Seoul, Korea teaching English to precious Korean elementary schoolers and loving life. Christina enjoys blogging about her travels around Asia (when she gets vacation days) and everyday life in Seoul as a Black woman/expat.
The first time I ever left the United States, I was 18. I was rewarded a scholarship to study Korean in Jeonju, South Korea for 8 weeks while living with a home stay family. My Korean level was extremely basic at the point and I had to sign a contract to only speak Korean for those 8 weeks – talk about a huge leap for someone who’d never left the Midwestern US! My home stay family was incredible and super accommodating. They learned that I’m a big meat-eater and upon finding out that I was to do a Buddhist temple stay one weekend, they were extremely concerned. “Narae! (my Korean name) How are you going to survive on a vegetarian diet for an entire weekend?!” I told them that I would be fine, of course, but they still seemed worried. When I arrived back at their apartment once my temple stay was over, the living room was full of people and they were all having a barbeque. “Surprise! We wanted to have a meat party for you since you couldn’t have any all weekend.” I was so unbelievably touched, I almost cried. Not being able to eat meat seriously wasn’t a big deal, but the fact that they went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and even invited their extended family was so sweet. Definitely the best Korean barbeque I’ve ever had.
* * *
Whenever people ask me this question, I always compare it to how safe it is to stay home. Random acts of violence/terrorism are exactly that; random. I won’t let something like that hold me back from enjoying my life. And to be quite honest, I didn’t feel all that safe in the US. In Korea, I can walk around at night without having to worry; whereas I would never do that back home. As for solo trips – yes, yes, yes! I took my first solo trip this January to Malaysia and Singapore. Be smart and aware of your surroundings and tell someone back home where you’re staying and how they can reach you. You’ll be forced to only depend on yourself and are able to grow in a unique way. Your itinerary is completely up to you, which is extremely freeing. It was one of the most empowering experiences I’ve ever had.
* * *
I was visiting a friend in the Southeastern part of Spain, about 4 hours from Madrid during the summer 2013. My mom had a friend who worked for Delta, so I was able to get really cheap standby tickets, meaning that I wasn’t guaranteed a seat on any flights there or back to the US unless there were any left over. I planned on staying with my friend for 2 weeks and then going back up to Madrid to fly home. My mom contacted her friend and after a couple of days, we found out that there were about 15 empty seats on a flight to the US, so I said goodbye to my friend and made the 4 hour trek to the Madrid-Barajas Airport. After going through the check-in process, my name was never called. I approached the desk and asked why my name hadn’t been called, and apparently all of the seats had been taken up and that I was going to have a very hard time finding a seat during the busy season. I just started crying. The only people I knew in Spain were 4 hours away, I had about USD $80 on my card, and nowhere to go. Also, my phone was stolen just before my trip, so I had to rely on the $8/45 minutes airport Wi-Fi. Found a payphone that was advertised as ‘cheap’ and called my mom. I made two 5-minute phone calls and went to McDonald’s to get some lunch. My card was declined. Cue more tears. Apparently those two phone calls cost around $80. Anyways, my mom ended up finding somewhere for me to stay (mutual friends of someone from back home) and sent me $100 to tie me over until I could get a flight home. I ended up in Spain for about 5 weeks instead of the 2 I had originally planned, and budgeted, for. And no, my family is not well-off, nor do we have credit cards. Being broke in Madrid is no fun.
* * *
1. Come in the spring or autumn. There are festivals, mild weather, and little precipitation. Summer is muggy and wet and winter is no joke.
2. Learn some basic phrases of Korean. Koreans looooove it when foreigners speak their language and will often give you special treatment if you do. I get free stuff all the time just because I speak Korean.
3. Google Maps won’t do you much good. You can see how to get to and from a place via public transportation, but walking directions are heavily unreliable. Better maps would be Kakao Maps (with a little bit of English functionality) or Naver Maps (no English functionality).
4. Ride a bike along the Han River. This river pretty much splits up the city of Seoul in two and is a nice, relaxing way to spend an afternoon. You can even get fried chicken delivered to you riverside and have a picnic. Protip: you can rent bikes for free near Jamsil Station and Oksu Station.
5. Go hiking! 70% of Korea is mountainous and Koreans are very proud of their mountains. You’ll get to experience Korean trekking culture – mostly middle-aged people fully decked out in gear and bring heavy backpacks full of food and alcohol. Every single time I’ve gone hiking, I’ve had people share their food and drinks with my friends and I. And there’s usually a lady selling ice cream near the top of each mountain.
* * *
You’re going to get so much more out of your experience if you immerse yourself in the culture instead of getting the same tourist experience that millions before you have. Of course if you’re taking a short weekend getaway, that could be an exception. However, really try to connect with locals because they’ll be able to show you that their country is more than its landmarks. Having friends all over the world has greatly enhanced my experiences while traveling. If I go somewhere where I don’t know anybody, chat up people at your hostel/hotel! They should be able to help you more than TripAdvisor can.
* * *
I’m extremely indecisive, so I have to plan my trips a bit before I go on my trip. Otherwise I just get so overwhelmed with all of the things I have to choose from! I don’t get as detailed as planning which restaurants I’ll eat at, because I think that’s better to hear from a local. I also book my lodging in advance as I don’t want to accidentally end up in bed-bug infested hostel.
* * *
I could write about this forever, but it’s quite literally a whole new world *cue Aladdin music*, hehe. I strongly believe that life is enhanced when surrounded by new and different experiences. I don’t want to live my life in a bubble – and I’m not saying that that’s only achievable by traveling. However, being immersed in a culture is so special and I think it’s awesome to find beauty in dissonance. We all need to open our minds, try different foods, and see new things. Feeling a city or country’s heartbeat is a unique experience that I hope everyone can have!
* * *
A big thank you to Christina for taking part in this blog segment!
You can see what Christina has been up to and hear about all her travels on her blog:
Different in Korea
Make sure to check it out!