I had much to expect before I first set foot in South Korea. I had, of course, heard stories of the war in decades past – indeed, multiple people have asked if I am part of the US army since I arrived here two days ago (I’m guessing it’s the shaved head). I also have a circle of Korean-American friends, many of whom have told me in great detail about life in Korea and it’s capital, Seoul. I write now sitting in my friend’s family house waiting for dinner to be served.
Let me backtrack a bit, however. I’m here to intern at Yonsei University (see picture below) for one month in order to carry out a research project that studies the secondhand smoke exposure of bar and nightclub employees in Seoul.
John, my roommate in LA and the principal investigator of this project, serves as my translator and window into Korean culture. While I am here to carry out specific tasks, I also see this as an opportunity to view the first-hand barriers and opportunities to healthy living within this largely homogeneous culture.
Since being here, we have scoped out two regions with a high density of bars and clubs. One is near our current residence, south of the winding river that cuts Seoul into two halves. The other surrounds Yonsei University where bright, flashy signs seem to outnumber the bustling crowds of college-aged youths. While my cultural observations are limited at this time, I have also noticed that many Koreans thoroughly embrace the party scene by drinking one of their Korean staples, such as soju or Hite beer, with their friends.
English is spoken sparingly among the people I have encountered thus far, which has prompted me to rely on John to order food and ask questions. I have seen other foreigners here and there but we are greatly outnumbered in a sea of dark, silky hair. The fashion here is eccentric, to say the least. Many men are what you would call “metrosexual” in the US and the women never cease to amaze me with their outlandish attire and uncomfortable looking high heels. It seems that a current fad involves them wearing what looks like doll dresses. Multiple Koreans have told me that Hangook (the informal Korean pronunciation of their own country) is a land of fads. They come and go as fast as the torrential monsoon downpours that plague the city during the humid summer months.
I look forward to meeting the researchers at Yonsei on Monday and hope they can make good use of my skills and abilities. I’m grateful that I have been given this opportunity to be completely immersed in yet another culture.
Stay tuned – more to come!