I have been living and studying in Korea for four years now. It’s a period of time that is neither too long nor too short, but it has been enough for me to learn a great deal, to gain some understanding and also to have some wonderful experiences, also to create good memories of the people and of the culture of a beautiful country that is really worth getting to know: Korea.
The spread of South Korean culture
The Hallyu wave (in Korean this word means spreading Korean culture abroad, showing Korea to the world through films, K-pop bands (BTS, BigBang) or popular actors such as Lee Min Ho, Song Jong Ki, or Suzy) is becoming increasingly well-known globally, including in Vietnam. This Hallyu wave has made young people dream and want to travel one day to Korea to meet their film idols or to go to one of their concerts. As far as I am concerned I remember, during my second year at high school, coming across the film Forever Young with actors Nha Phuong and Kang Tae Ho. It’s a Vietnamese-Korean film that tells the story of Thuy Linh – played by actor Nha Phuong – an innocent girl who achieves her dream of travelling to Korea to study and to satisfy her passion for Korean culture in the land of Kimchi (Korea). This girl set out on her independent life in a foreign country by getting a scholarship from a university. The main character leads an amazing life in Korea. This film inspired a huge number of people, particularly adolescents aged 14-15 like me, and fed their dream to discover and study in a country as romantic as Korea. For me, this dream became a reality. In 2017, after passing my baccalaureate examination, I applied for a visa to study in Korea. I then left the security of my family and friends to follow my dreams, alone, in a foreign country. I felt like a Robinson Crusoe in modern, bustling Korea. From that time on I began to explore Korean life. This time of living, studying and working in the land of Kimchi has made it possible for me to have wonderful experiences, to gain unforgettable lessons and to grow as a person. I have the feeling that the delicate and awkward girl that I was is becoming more stable and mature.
The four seasons
In Korea there are four seasons. I found that spring and autumn are mild, cooler in the morning and evening, and sunny for the rest of the day. Summers are hot and humid, similar to summers in north and central Vietnam. Sometimes temperatures can rise to 30-35° C in summer. Korean winters are very cold and more severe than winters in Vietnam, and the temperature can drop to -10° C. On the first day when I got off the plane in Korea, I was frozen for a moment from the cold. It was a day in November, it wasn’t even the coldest weather, but for a young girl from central Vietnam, used to the warm wind from Laos that blows all year round, it felt like sitting in my mum’s ice-box. In Korea, it snows a lot in winter. There are days when the whole sky is white. The snow covers all surfaces, so much so that all you see is snow. Roads become slippery and dangerous. But when the snow melts, and there is a cold wind, it dries the skin and the surroundings becomedamp and dirty. So in the first few days I had a hard time adjusting, I didn’t dare go out and preferred to stay in my room. Every time I had to go out, I bundled myself up completely with just my eyes showing.
Before leaving for Korea, I had very little time to learn the language. This is why, in the initial days after my arrival, I had great difficulty communicating with Koreans and my tutors. Even with very simple things, like buying something in a supermarket, it took me a lot of time to find products and to understand what was written on them. In college, I found that the words of the lecturers sounded like wind blowing in the ears. It was very difficult. The language school I attended had a very strict timetable compared to other schools. Every day from 9am until noon, the teachers taught courses and gave out information. From 1pm to 4pm, students had to complete assignments and learn lists of words, watched by their tutors. After a year of studying the language, I passed level four out of six (Korean language fluency examination), starting from scratch, and I could begin to realise my dreams.
When I arrived in college, I thought that my knowledge of Korean was good enough and that I would be quite comfortable giving presentations, just like my Korean friends. I hoped then to obtain many scholarships. But that was just a fanciful dream. The subject is difficult even for Korean students, and even more difficult for a foreign student like me who only got to level four out of six in Korean. From the third year of studies, there is a lot of homework to do, so much so that there are days when it’s overwhelming. Even working until 2 or 3 a.m., I couldn’t get everything done. Some days I had to work in a group with other Korean students. The worst thing was that I didn’t even understand the assignment, or which documents I had to prepare and I didn’t dare ask the others. Anyway, even if I had asked, nobody would have paid attention, because if they had tried to explain it to me, that would have taken time and the work of the group would have been delayed as compared to other groups. At those moments I felt like a very weak little sparrow, lost in unknown surroundings, among very high-flying people. I didn’t understand what was happening, I was unable to follow the work of the group, and I felt completely lost. Generally speaking, the teaching staff are very busy and pay little attention to foreign students. Sometimes too, there are lecturers who don’t like having foreign students on their courses. I have a vivid and painful memory relating to this. In my first year, I signed up for a course with a tutor who had a reputation for not liking foreign students. It seemed that this tutor was particularly unsympathetic to Vietnamese students. At the beginning, everything seemed normal but then gradually he started making comparisons that were not always kind. He made comparisons between Vietnam and Korea, Vietnam and China, etc. I understood what he was doing, but I pretended not to in order to avoid having useless arguments with that tutor. Finally, in that semester, almost all the foreign students received very poor grades. And, for the first time and for that reason, I lost my scholarship.
High cost of living
Life in Korea is very expensive. Everything is expensive. And there are many things that I have to buy and pay for. I need money to pay for my studies, my accommodation, transportation, living expenses (food and other costs), and so on. In addition, I send money home each month to pay off the loan my parents took out so that I could go to Korea. The amount borrowed was nearly 15,000 US dollars. It is a big sum for my parents who live in the countryside from a few hectares of rice fields. Just paying back the interest is hard enough, so paying back the full amount of the loan is even harder. It is because of this that everyone who comes to study in Korea soon starts looking for a part-time job just to have enough to live on. It was the same for me. Most of the time, I go to school during the day and work until late at night. There are days when I work until 2 or 3 a.m., then I come home, shower, and go to sleep around 4 or 5 a.m. only to often wake up before 9 a.m. in order to get to class on time. It is even more difficult in winter because it is cold and I am tired. Sometimes I was so tired that I fell asleep during the lesson, I couldn’t stop myself. It was the teachers or my friends who woke me up. I miss sleep terribly! I also eat a light diet, due to lack of time. I normally finish school around 4pm, then I have to go home, get changed and have a quick bite to eat, which is often Korean noodle soup or a burger, before taking the bus to work.
There was a tragic incident recently: coming home tired from work, a Vietnamese student at Taeku fell asleep and never woke up. This story was shared widely on social media and attracted a lot of attention, especially among students. There is yet another big worry for employees, especially students. We are sometimes unlucky enough to have a bad boss who pays starvation wages or, even worse, withholds our wages for a long time. I often think that student life is difficult. Students have to overcome so many hardships, paying with their health or even their lives to follow their dream. By law, international students in Korea are only allowed to work twenty hours per week, Monday to Friday. If they break the law, they can be subject to different penalties. They may be deprived of the right to work, lose their visa or even be expelled from Korea. Returning to your own country in these circumstances leads to malicious gossip among friends and neighbours. And what is most difficult is that parents then have the problem of coping with the many accumulated debts.
Even if life is difficult, you have to rise to the challenges. In those first days in Korea, I cried a lot, I missed my home and family. I still remember that first month, I cried every night but did not dare to call my parents as I was afraid they would be crying too, because they were missing me and were worried about me. As time went by, that most difficult period passed. I was better able to cope with life away from my family. But, at the times of major festivals, like the Tet festival, when my Vietnamese friends post photos on social media showing they are happy, that they are going out and enjoying themselves together, I feel a bit sad. Just like my friends, I too would like to be near my parents and share a festive family meal or go out and enjoy myself with them. I feel like crying, but then I remember that it was my own choice to go in search of my dreams. One time, I was very ill. I remember it very well. I had a high temperature, but didn’t dare ring my mother because I didn’t want my parents to worry. Even though I was very weak, I forced myself to get up and go for some medicine, and then prepared a little soup. That night I nearly fainted, I was so tired. The next day, when my mother called me, I pretended I was well, I told her a complete lie, saying ‘I always eat well, and eat healthy food. My studies are going well. No problems.’ I was very concerned that my parents would worry if I told them the truth and then they, too, might not be able to sleep because of me. My parents could also have become ill from worrying too much about me.
The Catholic community
The life of foreign students is made up of many ups and downs. It is difficult but, over time, I learned to adapt to life in Korea. In the end, I became aware that life in Korea doesn’t just consist of challenges and difficulties, but that I could also have very wonderful experiences. When I was in Vietnam, I really enjoyed taking an active part in various parish activities, such as singing in the choir, reading at Mass, participating in different youth activities, etc. In Korea, too, I would like to be part of a Vietnamese Catholic community in order to be able to go to Sunday Mass every week, hear sermons in my mother tongue, meet priests and nuns as well as friends. We would be able to talk about the joys and sorrows of life as foreigners and to find some relief from homesickness. But it’s something of a shame that there is no Vietnamese Catholic community in the area where I live. If I want to go to a Mass in Vietnamese, I have to go to another city. Despite the problems, I try to go to Mass in a Korean parish with some friends even if I’m not able to understand everything. As a result of going to Mass in Korean parishes, I have been able to meet Korean priests and nuns who have given us a warm welcome, encouraged us and helped us if we had difficulties or problems. Quite often they organise events so that we can find out about Korean culture.
For me, Korea is beautiful, sweet, full of emotion and dreams. This country is like a watercolour painting, with different colours, very magical, and which has developed its own unique features found only in Korea. Even though I haven’t been living very long in this beautiful country, every minute, every memory and every image is precious for me. Then, in some years’ time, when I return to Vietnam, the memories of life in Korea will be a source of great happiness and pride for me. I will always love this beautiful country with a great passion, despite the enormous effort I have to put in. The Korea to which I entrust my youth, my hopes and all my dreams.
Pham Thi Phuong Linh
Translated from Vietnamese by Fr Pierre Nguyen Duc Tin, MEP