Studying abroad in South Korea at Yonsei University was something I had dreamed of accomplishing since middle school. Why? In a strange way, I owe my existence to that school and its study abroad program. You see, my parents met each at Yonsei University in 1994. Although they were around the same age, my mother was a Korean language teacher and my dad was a student. A month after they met, they got engaged due to a language miscommunication—a playful comment misinterpreted as a proposal. It was a bizarre scene out of a Korean drama that resulted in their son going back to the exact location years later.
My plan was to go abroad and find my own adventure. While I did not come back with a spouse like my parents, my experience was full of joyful and impactful memories that shape the very fabric of who I am today. Here’s what I learned.
How to Widen My Horizons
Korea was a completely transformative experience. The way I think about myself, the people around me, and the world was significantly changed after studying abroad.
Taking Courses at Yonsei University
Being in a classroom with students from all over Europe and Asia taught me how to cooperate with a diverse group of people and learn from international perspectives.
Learning the Korean Language
Learning the Korean language was a hugely important development for my personal life too. I hadn’t spoken with my mother in Korean since I was a small child. Now, I get to see her smile so brightly each time we talk about our day in her native language.
Making International Friends
I’ll never forget the friends I made at Yonsei University. My Korean friends welcomed me with such incredible warmth and were always patient and considerate of my language ability. I still can’t believe how close we were able to get using just a little bit of broken Korean and some English.
Making international friends was also incredible. I grew up in a small, suburban town with a tiny Asian population. Growing up, the kids around me never seemed to know what “Korea” even was. Last year though, I was in a language classroom speaking full conversations in my heritage tongue with friends from Germany, Austria, Russia, Hong Kong, Japan, and France. My mind was totally blown.
All of these memories were highly impactful to my growth as a student and individual, and I will be ever grateful for the opportunity to have had such a wonderful educational experience.
Reconnecting with Family Is Worth It
Throughout my first semester in South Korea, I had visited my maternal grandparents each weekend, but I longed to establish a deeper relationship with them during the remainder of my stay. So, during the second semester, I decided to live with my grandparents and commute to school rather than continue staying in the dorms.
This was a crucial aspect of my time abroad that made an enormous impact on my life. Living with my grandparents changed how I thought about family and love. My first week of living with my grandparents was perfect. I would wake up to the smell of an amazing Korean breakfast cooking in the kitchen, enjoy a full day of attending school and exploring Seoul, and then come back late in the evening to a vibrant home. I felt like this was the life I had always imagined for myself while studying abroad.
It’s Not Always Going to Be Easy
Things took a turn when my grandfather suffered a stroke while I was at school. The stroke, combined with his existing condition of Parkinson’s disease, completely immobilized him. For the next month and a half, both he and my grandmother were living at the local hospital. Suddenly, I found myself commuting back and forth between campus, the hospital, and an empty home while in a foreign country. However, I think the circumstances shaped me into a more mature person and provided an opportunity to connect with my grandparents in a way I had never before.
You Can Re-learn a Lost Language
My grandmother played an instrumental role in my early childhood upbringing. She had practically raised me while my parents were at work. As a young child, I was able to speak Korean, but after entering kindergarten, I transitioned into speaking English exclusively at home and at school. As a result, I remained monolingual for most of my life.
While living and studying in South Korea, I had a chance to reconnect with my heritage roots and re-learn my mother tongue. This came at an especially opportune time. Being able to speak Korean again was crucial in order for me to assist my grandparents’ needs while they were living in the hospital. Additionally, it gave me a chance to give back to them for all they had sacrificed for me throughout my life. My grandmother had fed me every day as a baby; now, I found myself in a situation where I was bringing her food every day and making sure she ate healthy meals.
Independence and Responsibility
The situation with my grandparents also taught me much about life in general. I had become more independent. This was after all, the first time I had been living completely alone at college with no family or roommates. I needed to manage my time more efficiently too, by balancing school life, commuting, and visiting the hospital to assist my grandparents. Most of all, seeing the way in which my grandmother sacrificed so much of her own well-being for my grandfather taught me a great deal about what marriage and love looks like.
Understanding My Identity
Before going abroad, I struggled to come to grips with my own dual identity as a Korean American. Growing up in Calabasas, California, a quiet suburban area with few Asians, my peers had always identified me as being “Korean” because I did not look like everyone else. After coming to college, I had the chance to meet more ethnic Koreans and international Korean students, but these people identified me as “American” because of my inability to speak Korean properly. Consequently, I fell into an identity crisis during my first two years at UCSB and hoped to find solutions while studying abroad.
What I realized after meeting so many welcoming Korean friends and reconnecting with my grandparents was that I am very fortunate to be who I am. I came to appreciate my dual identity much more, not as a limitation, but as an opportunity to connect with a wide range of people. I understood that “who I am” isn’t what others label me as, but a product of the love and sacrifices my family has made for me throughout the past 21 years.
Being Korean American means that I love the food my grandmother makes. It means that I can pass on our unique heritage and language to future generations. It means that I have a chance to do something with my life that I wouldn’t be able to do if I was just “Korean” or “American.” I learned that my identity is a gift, and I now wish to share it with everyone around me.
Looking to the Future
This was just one part of my story, and I am sure that every person who studies abroad through UCEAP will find their own adventure and grow as a person throughout their journey. I will always recommend that everyone going abroad stay open-minded, be willing to try new things, but also take an interest in reconnecting with their past. If you have family living abroad, study abroad can be a chance to reconnect with your roots and heritage.
Despite being monolingual for most of his life, Brandon finally had a chance to reconnect with
his family roots by studying abroad in South Korea. Through befriending local students,
volunteering with refugees, and bonding with his maternal grandparents, he came to appreciate
the true gifts of his Korean-American identity. Brandon now aspires to pass on the lessons he
learned throughout his study abroad journey by tutoring Korean language for Korean-American
children and empowering them to embrace their heritage.