Seoul: a city of 18,000 cafes…

Queen Mary Comparative Literature, Film Studies & Linguistics student and Turing Scheme grant recipient, Elliott Ijewere, reviews a year abroad, studying at Yonsei University in South Korea, exploring everything from Ttokppokki to Udo island.

So, you’ve decided to go on a year abroad. You’ve taken the time to consider all your options, where you want to go and why. But you’re still on the cusp of uncertainty. You may have a few doubts and having experienced a lengthy year abroad in South Korea, hopefully I can shed some light on why you should go!

Firstly, lets break this down into categories: we’ll have food, nightlife, daytime activities, studying day to day and socialising. During my time here, these were the major things that my life revolved around. Let’s begin with the easiest one, food. Now this is a major because obviously eating is something everyone does all the time. Your morning breakfast won’t consist of cereal and milk; a lot of the time for me it was a bowl of ramen from the local convenience store or a few kimbap (김밥). You can also choose from a selection of wild flavoured Korean beverages to go alongside your breakfast; a great one I recommend is Pocari Sweat. One of my absolute favourites go-to drinks. Now don’t get me wrong, you can definitely find cereal and milk if that’s your taste, but you’ll most likely have to head to one of the bigger supermarkets like Emart. The great thing about these supermarkets is when you happen to find yourself starving at 3am for no apparent reason, you can head down to one of these stores as they are open 24/7 and serving goods. But don’t get caught up in just the convenience stores, there are many places around Seoul (서울) that offer real traditional Korean dishes for very affordable prices. A favourite lunch time meal of mine is Kimchi Jjigae (김치 지개) – in other words, a type of Korean Kimchi based soup, it’s absolutely delicious and very filling. I highly recommend giving it a try! Next, we have dinner time and for this you have a multitude of options. Most restaurants are in full swing by this time, so you have a selection of anything, from lamb skewers and Korean fried chicken to glass noodles and Ttokppokki (떡볶이). There are many amazing dishes and can be found all over to try so I recommend you dive in and regularly try new places.

Now that we’ve covered food, let’s move onto the day to day studying, as this made up a majority of my days in and out. Typically, it would consist of waking up, showering, eating something either inside or outside and if I had no lectures on that meant heading to one of the 18,000 cafes in Seoul. Seoul literally has more cafes per capita than any other country in the world. They have all kinds of cafes with different themes, so don’t be afraid to explore a little and indulge in a nice drink while you work. If café environments aren’t entirely your vibe, try roaming around the campus as usually there are some good quiet spots to get some work done. During my time at Yonsei I roamed around the campus finding random spots which were great to get some work in during late study hours and somehow I always managed to find Wi-Fi in these spots too.

Moving on, let’s get to activities and trips. First and foremost, there is A LOT to do in Seoul and Korea in general. There are so many beautiful places to see, but one that stood out to me in particular was Udo island. This is a trip you’ll most likely have to plan but it’s a tiny island east of a slightly bigger island called Jeju island (제주도). Both islands are beautiful and vastly different from the huge megacity-esque feeling that Seoul gives. Here you can indulge in nature with its surrounding peace. Life is a bit slower here in the best way and there are a ton of sites to see such as Manjanggul Cave. Huge caverns trailing deep under Jeju, showcasing the formation and development of the land. This barely scratches the surface of what’s available to do but do some research if you plan to go. On Udo I managed to bike around the tiny island in around 2 hours with stops for lunch and beautiful photos of the surrounding landscape. I highly recommend going to Jeju and Udo just for the experience and beautiful sites.
Now there are also tons of things to do in Seoul itself too, such as travel up the Namsan tower, or go hiking up Gwanaksan, which has a beautiful Buddhist temple atop it. There are a multitude of museums, where you can indulge in Korean contemporary art, history, and culture too.

Moving on to social life and nightlife as these are slightly intertwined. I’ll begin with the nightlife aspect, letting the social life portion come in a bit later. Now this can be a daunting topic for many people deciding to travel abroad. You most likely have friends and family established in the UK and you’re comfortable with that but when you go to South Korea you will not likely have those people with you, meaning you’re alone. Now this isn’t a negative, but instead a positive, because you have the ability to meet many new people, from different backgrounds and vastly different perspectives of life that differ from your own. I suggest talking to people wherever you go around campus, in the cafeteria, in the convenience store and involving yourself in some extra curriculum activities that Korean mentors run. These are usually on the university websites with a bit of searching but signing yourself up and breaking out your comfort zone is a great way to meet likeminded people looking to make friends. Invite these friends out for things that you want to do, don’t hesitate to ask because they might be just as eager as you to go somewhere! There is also nothing wrong with doing things alone, but company can also be nice. Talk about your experiences in Korea and how they differ from back home with people as it can create very interesting conversations and allow people to open up a lot about themselves, forming easier friendships.

Now this all leads onto the last aspect which is nightlife, and I absolutely adore the nightlife in Korea. It’s one of my favourite things about the country, so you might say I’ve saved the best until last. This is also another brilliant way to meet new people – going out with a group of friends and socialising over a Korean BBQ with some soju (소주) and beer (소주) – is a great way to relax and unwind after a long day while getting to know some cool new people. What’s great about these dinners is that it opens up the social environment as you’re all situated across from each other and can talk freely, helping to create connections and new bonds. Afterwards you could go to a bar or a club with different types of music you may find yourself loving. There are a multitude of popular nightlife areas in Seoul and even in other parts of the country like Busan (부산) – a port city in the southeast area of Korea. A good student area for nightlife is Hongdae, where I met people from all kinds of backgrounds.

So, there you have my short blog. I hope from this you can derive some kind of extra push that makes you take that step to go to South Korea. When I applied to go it was a random selection, I wanted to go somewhere far and vastly different from the UK, but I didn’t know anything about it. I also found the financial costs of having to live so far away daunting, knowing I wouldn’t have immediate support, however thanks to the Turing Scheme grant, it alleviated much of the stress and allowed me to go ahead and do activities I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.

After my experience there I can definitely say I made the right decision. I met some absolutely amazing people and grew as a person a lot after realising the world is such a big place. I highly recommend South Korea as a study abroad destination and I think you’ll have a hell of a time.


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