Maija is an alumna of the 2022 Korea summer program in Gwangju, South Korea. Her hometown is Bradenton, Florida.
Prior to my summer abroad in Gwangju, South Korea, I studied linguistics during my junior year. We learned about language acquisition and the theory of empiricism, or tabula rasa (Latin for "blank slate"). The theory, in brief, stated that we are born with a "blank slate" and acquire language through interaction. Being abroad, I was constantly reminded of this concept. Not only was I a "blank slate" linguistically, but also socially, culturally, and physically.
I became interested in Korean due to my interest in politics around the Korean peninsula - what better way is there to understand an issue than to learn the exact language its politicians deliberate it in? However, I found self-studying without any prior knowledge beyond difficult, especially balancing the stress of school. When I discovered NSLI-Y after my sister had participated in the Arabic 2019 summer program, I was immediately intrigued by the prospect of formal, completely immersive, in-person instruction in my target language.
Being a foreigner in Korea, I had a complete "blank slate" culturally. Although I anticipated language struggles, I hadn’t quite foreseen the amount of cultural shock I underwent. South Korea is a collectivist culture, based on a hierarchical societal structure. This structure transfers over to 높임말 (linguistic honorifics) and traditions, such as common greetings and bows. During my first days in Gwangju, I frantically searched for the difference between each degree of bows, trying to memorize each. I was determined to combat culture shock.
‘밥 먹었어?’, I recall my language partner asking me on the first day we met. Flustered, I stared at her blankly. She then translated to me, ‘Have you eaten today?’. To Koreans, this is an equivalent to ‘how are you?’, but to many Americans, this would be a fairly odd, and potentially triggering question. From this interaction, I was reminded of another way I would acquire language – through uncomfortable situations.
My cohort did not have host families – we lived in the dorms at Chonnam National University instead. However, I met with my language partner, 윤서 (Yoon-Seo), every Tuesday and Thursday. 윤서, a 23-year-old Journalism and Anthropology major at CNU, very quickly became a friend and mentor. Despite our language barrier, we bonded over our similar music tastes, photography, and our love for the arts. Yoon-Seo had a great sense of humor, placing me at ease as we laughed over some of my language misunderstandings.
In my language classes, I felt almost naked as we began, knowing absolutely nothing besides a few basic phrases. I found the process both humbling and empowering. My teachers spoke almost entirely in Korean, besides the very occasional use of English words when teaching a new concept. I was forced to laugh at myself while developing an incredible sense of trust and camaraderie with my classmates. The process of acquisition was full of frustration, laughter, and a few tears.
Along the way, I also discovered just how much I enjoyed forming words and phrases from the characters of Hangul, the Korean alphabet. I fell in love with Hangul’s geometric shapes– configurations originating from the shapes of the mouth, tongue, and throat from which they were spoken. I took pride in my ability to compose phrases on paper.
Looking back, I remain charmed by the mystery of Hangul’s shapes. I also recognize just how strongly Korea has shaped my ideas and passion for life. Regardless of the challenges faced during my summer abroad, I am constantly reminded of the rewarding memories, mistakes, lessons, and friendships made.