Expectation vs. reality

If your initial reaction to my new post was “she’s probably in the middle of exams” then congratulations, Captain Obvious. When else would I have the time and energy to spare?

I usually find myself wanting to write blog posts when I’m feeling down. Maybe that’s why I have like 10 unpublished drafts. My blog is a nice listener. He doesn’t complain, he pays his full attention to me, he doesn’t tell me I’m exaggerating or stressing too much. But most of all, he is always available for a quick therapy session. And I hadn’t expected needing one every so often before coming here. Among other things, of course. So, I’ve compiled a short list for you.

*Attention! This article is incomplete. Help by asking me about points of interest so that I can expand it.*

1. Never forget your math

Time to revise your addition because calculating the time on the other side of the world is your new daily must. Don’t come at me with your “but there’s an app for that” because let me tell you that trying to coordinate a Skype call a week in advance with our busy schedules would be difficult enough without having to compare three different time zones. Not to mention that the conclusion usually ends up being that either party will be asleep during the only time interval when the other is free.

2. You thought you liked spicy food

Some people enjoy spicy food and some people enjoy absolutely destroying their taste buds. I have gone from the former to the latter in about two months. There is no other way to describe some of my first experiences with Korean food other than pain. After the first bite, they could have been serving me absolute garbage and I wouldn’t have noticed the difference. You’re sweating and your nose gets all runny and it looks like you’re about to cry. Talk about symptoms. Yet I now frequently not only bear but also genuinely enjoy some Korean dishes that would send my fragile best friend to her grave. Unless grandma steps up her game, Christmas dinner is about to be tasteless.

3. What do we want?

Speaking of food, the food sharing culture in Korea has quickly infiltrated my habits. It is unusual to eat alone and dishes usually come in portions too big for an individual to finish, no matter the starvation beforehand. Rather, a variety of dishes is ordered and shared, which makes having two food mates, one with a similar and the other with the complementing taste, essential.

4. Coffee shops

No, not the Dutch ones. I mean the ones where you actually buy a bitter-tasting dark brown drink for the price of a lunch. I feel qualified to speak about this topic despite not being a coffee drinker myself, because next to extensive options of caffeinated drinks, there is usually a thing or two on the menu that I can order. If you’re expecting to sit down and have coffee brought to you, think twice before stepping into a cafe here. You will get a buzzer that will alert everyone in a 5-meter radius that your drink is ready to be picked up from the counter. Additionally, it is not uncommon to get takeout which is usually cheaper than enjoying your drink in a reusable cup, which defies all reason and common sense. Though, it can be partially explained with the fact that cafes are usually busiest after class, filled with students who prefer the atmosphere to study rooms.

5. K-pop

Need I even say more? Unsurprisingly, when I announced my decision to study in Korea, a lot of people assumed it was due to the recent popularity of Korean music and dramas. And while I do occasionally enjoy a good binge that I justify with having to practice my listening skills and am no stranger to K-pop either, I just assumed other foreigners and Korean people would not have drastically different attitudes. Rookie mistake. More often than not, I find myself being the only one who does not recognize a famous actor or who cannot list and rank my favorites of any given group that comes up in conversation. Granted, Korean music plays when you’re walking down the street and celebrities stare at you from buses, but it plays a much bigger role in the hearts of people than I anticipated.

This is just a quick and short update, because I realized that I’ve barely talked about Korea at all. I may come back and edit this once I catch up on all the sleep I have been and will be losing these days, no promises though.

*To be continued…*

오늘은 여기까지~

A TMI on my insecurities

I’ve met a lot of new people since moving to Korea. That’s kind of what you’re forced into if you don’t want to be alone all the time. In a weird way though, it feels like I also met another version of myself by moving here. I am discovering a new Maja. A Maja who cries while eating spicy food. A Maja who is suddenly not that uncomfortable with people knowing about this blog. A Maja who enjoys disagreeing on controversial topics. And most importantly, a Maja to whom academic success is more important than she cares to admit.

With the exception of one class, where the professor postponed our midterm to my birthday, I have now survived my first exam period. Yay me. In all honesty, I was expecting to feel better about my performance on the exams. It’s not that I did badly per se, but university is just a whole another level of crazy. And I did IB. Maybe I shouldn’t generalize and stick to “Korea University”, seeing as I’m not qualified to compare it with any other institution. Anyhow. I studied and prepared, expecting to leave the lecture room with my head held high, not with trembling hands and in search of comfort food.

Korean speaking left me feeling like someone forcefully erased my entire hard drive during the ten minute break after the writing test and re-uploaded information as I was walking out. “That’s what he meant!”, “Argh, I should’ve said that 10 minutes ago!” and “I know that, oh my god, whyyy?!” kept replaying in my brain like a broken record. Hear that sound? That’s everyone who’s ever taken a language test relating to me. On top of that, most of my exams are not even related to what I want to study, which is like an instant turn-off for my tired brain. Combine that with the mental handicap of knowing you will run out of time as soon as the task is announced and forgetting to bring a calculator to your accounting exam. (I literally had one job. Smh.) So here we are, my mental state of the last week.

I might have an entirely different, possibly (and by that I actually mean very highly likely) less dramatic outlook on life in about a week, when I find out how I scored. But until then, I have found myself in the same there’s-nothing-I-can-do-but-wait state that I wrote about in my first blog post. And even though I consciously tell myself that “there’s really nothing you can do now” and “you did your best” and “grades don’t measure intelligence”, I cannot fool how I feel. I cannot fool myself. I’m smart like that.

The thing is, being kept unsure is worse than knowing you did badly. The devil is in the anticipation. At the moment, almost anything is still possible, including both extremes. So you’re trying to hope for the best while preparing for the worst, which messes you up emotionally in ways you didn’t think were possible. (Side note: if there’s a professor reading this – have mercy and grade quickly.) And then, when you finally manage to forget about it for ten seconds, some idiot brings up the topic again. It’s never-ending suffering until you see that number. Once you find out the result, you can either celebrate or start dealing with it and eventually move on. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but it is what it is.

Which brings me to another point. I have been lucky enough, and I say this in the least conceited and sarcastic way possible, not to have experienced a great deal of failure in my life, especially in the academic sphere. Thanks, parents. However, this puts me at a disadvantage when dealing with rejection, disappointment and non-success regarding my intellectual performance. And I’m scared. Because when you’re not used to barely passing and trying to catch up with your classmates, you’re not sure you’d know how to accept it, should you ever have to. It’s not something I relate to, it’s not how I view myself, it’s not how I want to be. And yet, what if. I’m scared of not reaching the standards I hold myself to. Not that I’m failing my classes or anything, but you know how some people fall and think they totally broke a bone or two? Don’t judge my cortisol-flooded brain.

I love you all in advance for sending me the loving and encouraging messages I know I’m about to receive. Tune in next time for a less pessimistic perspective.

Withdrawal symptoms

Well into my first semester at Korea University and here I am, resurfacing after a half a year of silence. Apologies. In fact, my midterm exam week starts on Monday and even looking at my phone triggers an excessive amount of guilt to swallow me like a tsunami. I worked my ass off to come here and I am not about to throw it all away for some short-term procrastination-induced satisfaction. The technique I have adopted to cope with my stern conscience is the following. We no longer procrastinate by lazing around. Instead, we procrastinate by doing something productive, like writing a blog post or studying for a class you hate a bit less than that one. So here we are.

The first half of my first semester at Korea University has been treating me well and every day feels like another reason why I never should have doubted coming here. And I’m not just saying that. Every time the time difference doesn’t manage to ruin my plans of video chatting with my family, they comment on how happy I look. And I am. I have no reason not to be. The people I have had the privilege to meet and some of whom I now call my friends are kind and interesting, I feel independent and free and the classes I’m taking are ~mostly~ interesting. Jokes aside, I love learning and going to lectures doesn’t feel like a punishment. In fact, though I will complain about it for a couple of days, spending time on an assignment and finishing it so that I’m proud of what I’m turning in actually gives me a sense of academic fulfillment that motivates me to keep investing my time and energy into my studies. So far, the only thing I have to say to uni haters on social media is: #notrelatable.

That is, however, somewhat what I was expecting to encounter at university. I’ve heard countless “university will be the best years of your life”, so the bar was high from the very beginning. What surprised me, though, a sworn my-culture-is-whatever-yay-English-and-globalization enthusiast, was how much I miss home now that I am living on the other side of the world. Now, of course I miss my family and friends and, frankly, nothing (and I mean nothing) beats a nice home-cooked meal. But the one aspect of my culture and the way in which I have nostalgically been thinking about it lately really floored me. My language. I miss my mother tongue. So much so that I have accidentally started using literally translated expressions and idioms, at some point even turning to my international friends and going on for a whole sentence before realizing that, to them, I may as well have been speaking gibberish. Actively seeking out opportunities to use it has shown to be easier in theory than in practice – spoken communication with my species still remains infrequent, be it face to face or with the help of technology. Writing letters helps but it’s not a very economical solution for a broke student. I have become so desperate to indulge in my culture, that I have consciously and willingly changed my award-winning playlist (it is now full of content I used to scoff at and I regret nothing) and the language of my phone settings. I will not go into how much this has changed me as a person, but good luck recognizing me if you haven’t talked to me in more than a month. But then the weirdest thing happened.

The sky opened and Zeus himself sauntered down to Earth in his classic nonchalant manner, opening my eyes to a world of possibilities. I discovered the ultimate combination of useful and useless, comforting and dumb, nostalgic yet modern. Podcasts. Killing this many birds with one stone should be illegal. Listening to a humorous conversation in my language about a topic I could not care less about is now what I’m doing pretty much during every activity that requires my hands but not my brain. Keep this in mind if you see me chuckling to myself in the middle of the street for no apparent reason and don’t look at me weirdly if I look too happy to be cooking lunch.

Ironically enough, I wrote this blog post right after I finished the first part of my first ever Korean language exam. The university thinks they’re forcing me to learn the language, but jokes on them, I actually came here to attend a free Korean course. Regardless, it feels as though the more languages I speak, the more I enjoy expressing myself in my first one.

I’ll end it here for now and discuss some other surprising aspects of studying in Korea in the following blog posts. I’ll try my best to post one before February, but don’t hold me for my word. If you know, you know. I really should wrap up, though, as my inner overachiever is nagging me to get back to work. A linguistics paper due in less than 60 hours.

When everything depends on Google Translate

The decision to study abroad in Korea initially started as a joke. I was talking to my older brother about university and the fact that I had no idea what to study, much less where, when he at one point jokingly said “tell mom you’re going to Korea, she’s gonna have a heart attack”. We shared a nice laugh over that one, but it was too late to go back. As irreversible as protein denaturation, the seed was planted. In the privacy of my room, far away from any judgemental eyes and disbelieving laughs, I googled “best universities in Korea”, because you gotta aim high, right?

What you should know is that the three most esteemed universities in Korea are the so-called SKY universities: Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University, practically impossible the get into as a domestic student. But I was just doing my jolly little research and would not let such trivial details stop me. I soon found myself in the 53-tabs-open-and-counting state I am sure many of you can relate to. I was reading the most irrelevant information about renovated libraries and watching Mamma Mia covers performed by students. I even went as far as to email two of the universities about their English proficiency requirements, because they requested TOEFL or iELTS on their websites, while I had successfully passed the Certificate of Proficiency in English and was not excited at the prospect of having to take (and pay for!) another exam. Mind you, that was half a year before the application period even started. I got the green light from Korea University, and so I decided on where I wanted to study before knowing which department I would be applying to. I just had to be extra like that.

Luckily for me, Korea Univrsity has a wide variety of quality programs listed on their website. So I started the process of elimination. Alright, medicine? No. History? A definite no. Languages? Love them, but not a fan of literary analysis. Bussiness? Could be fun, but I can’t see myself being passionate about it. Architecture? I don’t know anything about it. Chemistry? I cried over my Internal Assessment, maybe not. Wait a second. Architecture? I mean, I don’t know anything about it, but it sounds like something I might enjoy learning about. Click. Of couse. The entire course catalogue is in Korean. Much like everything else on here. The photos look cool though. New tab. Architecture. No, wait. Architectural drawing. Scratch that. How to draw like an architect. Cue a couple of random cube sketches in my notebooks and the excitement upon seeing “for architects” on my markers.

Deciding that architecture is something I want to pursue even if I end up studying in my home country, I enrolled into a preparatory course for the entrance exam and I absolutely loved it. With each passing lesson I was more convinced that this is what I want to study and more determined to suceed in this field. Little did I know that choosing my major was not the difficult part.

I will spare you the long and boring story of the many documents and authentications I had to get from my teachers, the headmaster, the IB coordinator at our school and the district court. But do not be fooled, there is a lot of fine print and the application guide, though concise, includes a lot of important information, not necessarily all in the same place. For someone who had zero previous experience, the whole process was stressful, to say the least. Let me just mention two points that I found surprising. Firstly, applying to Korea is much more expensive than I initially thought. Excluding the application fee that you have to pay to the university, the costs of official translations, Apostille stamps on your documents and the shipping of documents via postal service quite quickly add up to more than you anticipated. Secondly, despite having started with my application as soon as possible, I was cutting it close with the deadline. I answered the self-introduction and study plan questions before the start of the application period and had most of my documents ready for submission and yet one month was barely enough to struggle through all the bureaucracy.

And then comes that moment when you think you’re done and finished and through with it and a missed call from a number with a Korean country code hits you like a ton of bricks on the morning of the last day before the document submission deadline. And, trust me on this, no matter how many friends reassure you that it’s probably not a big deal, the only thing going through your mind is how much money and time and energy you’ve spent on this one application and how it was all for nothing. And then you call back and no one answers, because oh yeah they are seven hours ahead, they’re probably having their family dinner as you’re panicking. In an attempt not to feel useless you send them an email, but in reality there is nothing for you to do except wait. Irony seems to be the theme as you find out that they were calling you for your TOEFL scores, you know, the very reason you applied to their university.

With the issue resolved and my heartbeat returning back to normal, the next step was a painful waiting game. Two months of being powerless and knowing your fate is being decided while also trying to focus on your final exams. And so I waited. And waited. And the closer it got, the more nervous I grew. I tried everything to boost my self confidence, from starting to say when I am accepted to Korea University to convincing myself that it was their loss if they reject me. I even put stickers in my agenda on the important dates and we know a sticker is done once you use it. But nothing worked in eliminating the fear of having overestimated myself and the possibility of being gravely disappointed. That’s also one of the reasons why I didn’t really want to spread the news of having applied. Dealing with rejection is hard on its own, I did not want to have to explain the situation to others.

And then, the dreadful day came. I had been counting down the weeks, days, hours. You name it, I’ve done it. I was shaking, my fingers were cold and my stomach hurt from all the worrying. My best friend and I were on a summer trip in Beauvais and just when I pulled out my laptop a couple of minutes to ten it started to rain. We ran into the nearest tourist office, I used up half of my mobile data to open the website and find the link. Admission results for 2019 Int’l students. Click. Loading. Are you kidding me? Still loading. Finally. More instructions. Another link for international students. Application number? Where is that again? Right, I sent an email to my dad with all the documents. Argh, where are you? More loading. My fault, I should have prepared myself better. Date of birth. Alright, I think I know that one. Or not. YYYYMMDD. Got it. Name. Is that in Korean or as it is on my passport? Or the way I’d write it in English? Let’s try the English one, that one’s the most common. Loading. A message in Korean. Great. Thank you, Sergey Brin, for Google Translate. Okay, so not the English version. Let’s try my actual name. More loading. Same message. I think I’m getting a gastric ulcer. I don’t know the Korean alphabet on the computer so I text myself my Korean name over Messenger and copy paste it into the box. If this doesn’t work I’m 99% sure I’ll cry. A different page. In Korean. Of course. Now is really not the moment. I’m an international student for a reason. I guess I’ll just translate the whole page. Copy. Paste. Moment of truth.

My eyes are searching the translation for the answer. Application number, name, freshman, Department of Architecture, my birthday and then – pass. I exhale and I can’t believe I’m seeing this right. I check with my best friend on my left and she’s grinning. I copy the phrase again. Pass. Pass. A million times pass. Different dictionary. Pass. Success. Qualification. Eligibility. Pass. It still feels like a dream. My cheeks hurt from smiling, I’m blushing, eyes wide and (not to sound cliché) but I actually pinch myself. I am relieved and proud and so happy I can barely form sentences. They chose me. I guess I better get used to barely understanding websites and signs and people. And I have a lot of studying to do. Because pass. I check again, just to make sure I’m not misreading anything but it’s true. Pass. Pass. Pass. For me. Everything is in Korean but even Google Translate can get the “Admission notice” right. I text my brothers and by the time I have my mom on the phone we’re both crying.

When I tell one of my friends, she comments: “I can’t wait to read your blog now ;)”. I almost forgot I said I’d start writing a blog if I’m accepted. Partly because I’ve recently written a bit and enjoyed it and partly because I was looking for this kind of content when I was applying, but couldn’t find it anywhere. So here we are.