Oberlin Blogs

6 Weeks In

October 11, 2022

Ben Smith ’24

As of this blog’s publication date, I have been in Seoul for 47 days. The time has passed in a blur, and so much has happened since I arrived that my first day here feels like ages ago. It was nearly impossible to process everything–especially during the first two weeks. Fun fact: I have never experienced homesickness before… is what I would have said 47 days ago. Although traveling and living in a new country is an exciting adventure, there was no sure-fire way for me to gauge what my day-to-day would look like here, especially since my exchange program is not affiliated with Oberlin. Because of this, I had to go through a rather drastic adjustment period. Looking back, I’d say this time spanned about 2 ½ weeks, during which every day presented new obstacles that barred me from getting acclimated to my life here: moving into a new environment, figuring out where to purchase a SIM card, purchasing said SIM card, finding my bearings on a new campus, applying for a Foreign Residency Card, communicating (unsuccessfully) with my host university, rearranging my class schedule, meeting a whole slew of new people, finding a place where I could just be alone and practice–yes… it was quite exhausting. Oh, and not to mention that the language barrier was (and still is) very present.

This update will not establish any sort of substantive “learnings” from my experience here. I have the sense that the larger takeaways will require much more time to sort themselves out. So instead, I'll simply share two stories that more or less represent the spectrum of my experiences here so far–both the bad and the good. 

Day 5 – Planned adventures... with some extra baggage

On my fifth day here, I met up with two friends of mine to attend a piano recital. This was a plan we had made about a month before I arrived, so I was quite excited. One of my friends was actually leaving for the United States the next day to go back to school. We met up at 7:45pm, 15 minutes before the recital began, and took pictures to celebrate our reunion–it was an incredible experience knowing that this was reality. The recital was wonderful and my friends and I enjoyed catching up as we left the concert hall. All in all this sounds like a lovely night, right? 

A selfie of myself and two friends doing peace signs in the concert hall post-recital.

What I didn’t detail is that at 7:00pm, I was sitting in the lobby of the mall attached to the concert hall calling my mom. Classes began in two days, but my initial application for the Foreign Residency Card was denied, my SIM card was not working, and I had received no communication from my host university about where I could receive my student ID card or even practice. As I walked around the various stores of the mall, unable to actually take in the picturesque scenery surrounding me, I began to shrink into the feeling of defeat… and I absolutely hated it. I despised admitting that all the challenges were overwhelming me. Frankly, I knew there was no way I could give up. Studying abroad was a decision I had made long ago–and I had worked way too hard for way too long to make all of it happen. I simply could not betray this promise I had made to myself all that time ago. As I sat and called my mom, I yearned to be in a familiar space–to not have to face an obstacle at every turn… Hearing her voice helped me combat the loneliness and isolation I was feeling in that moment. Our phone call did not solve the problems that had accumulated, but I left the mall lobby telling myself that things had to work out… they just had to. 

As it turned out, the next day I received my student ID card, gained access to the school practice rooms, had my first encounter with a few students from the College of Music, and located where all my classes were. This was the first day where I tasted real victory, and it was so sweet. Of course, there were other issues yet to be tackled, but I at least felt like I had a win under my belt.

Days 30 and 36 – Impromptu adventures! (sans emotional baggage)

On day 30, I had a flute lesson scheduled with the principal flutist of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Jee Eun Park. Because Professor Park is one of the flute professors at my host university, we had been in contact since the summer. She was not the professor I was assigned to study with for the semester, but I was very inspired by her playing, so I asked her if it was possible to have a lesson. We were able to meet for the first time on day 30, and I left that lesson with a renewed sense of purpose. My main motivation for studying in Korea was in pursuit of finding the best location–professor and environment included–to develop my ability as a musician. After my lesson with Professor Park, I knew that even if was unsure what path lies ahead of me, the investigation of this curiosity was the most fulfilling way to experience life. 

Flash forward to day 36. This day was quite stressful because we were beginning the first of three days of midterm exams in my Korean class (and, yes, it was just as exhausting as it sounds). The days leading up to this were spent as follows: studying, practicing, studying, practicing, studyi–you get the gist. I was not exactly what one would describe as “well-rested.” Once the first day of the exam was over, I felt like I finally had the mental capability to relax a little. As soon as I got back to my apartment, I lay down on my bed and melted into the feeling of relief… until.

*text notification sound*

“Hi Ben, this is Jee Eun Park. I have free tickets for the Seoul Philharmonic Concert for today and tomorrow at 8pm, let me know if you are inter-”

I put down my phone and ran through my schedule in my head… So, I know I cannot go tomorrow… which only leaves tonight... and the subway ride is 50 minutes… what time is it? 7:00pm.

By 7:05pm, I was running through the streets of Seoul to the nearest subway station. I threw my body into autopilot because I knew this was the only Seoul Philharmonic concert that I would be able to see Professor Park perform in during my stay in Korea (she explained to me during our lesson that she would be going on maternity leave after these concerts). To my surprise, I made it to the concert with 3 minutes to spare. The concert was lovely, and seeing Professor Park perform was so inspiring. We exchanged texts upon the concert's conclusion and I headed back home, both exhausted and exhilarated.

A picture of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra musicians (woodwind section) standing on stage to receive applause after their performance.
Hooray woodwind section! (Professor Park is the center-most flutist.) 

Each day here is an adventure. Who knows what the next days will bring, but I'll rest assured knowing that whatever experiences are in store will be all contribute to this journey of a lifetime. 

Leave a Comment

Similar Blog Entries

Winter Term in Southeast Asia

March 8, 2023

Ilana McNamara

I spent my Winter Term in Indonesia and the Philippines learning about the musical cultures of both countries, meeting incredible people, and maybe even learning something about myself along the way.
Ilana looking off to the side with a blurry nature background