Emily is an alumna of the 2021 NSLI-Y Korean Summer program in Seoul, South Korea from Atlanta, Georgia.
Spending my entire summer 6,000 miles away from home was a scary thought.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Korea, my NSLI-Y Summer 2021 cohort in Seoul was one of the first allowed to travel to a host country since 2019 — a privilege that came with a huge sense of responsibility.
A 14-day quarantine awaited us once we arrived in Korea. Now I’m not one to be scared of little social interaction — I’m actually an introvert. No physical interaction for a whole two weeks was a first for me though; I always had my parents or occasional walks at the parks even during online high school classes. During those two weeks, I exercised by using the hotel towels as a yoga mat while following along with YouTube at-home fitness videos. Never have I ever scheduled this many informal Zoom meetings to watch Netflix with my other cohort members or finished so many books on my GoodReads list. The free time sparked my interest in creating a pre-program blog to document my time, viewable here: https://journeyswithemi.wordpr...
Once the two-week quarantine ended, yet another exciting event was awaiting us: meeting our host families. An elderly grandfather and grandmother gave us a warm welcome to Seoul through their greetings and bought us fish-shaped ice cream at the 7-11 convenience store around the corner. Having my host family be supportive and cooked meals every single day for me made it feel like I was truly a part of their family. Sometimes communicating meant expressing what I wanted for dinner through my body language and drawing. Sometimes that meant hour-long conversations about updated COVID numbers and her worry for our host grandfather. Sometimes that meant filling up my plate with a mountain of rice and a heap of veggies after an exhausting workout.
Staying with them only made me more excited to learn Korean and tell my host grandmother about my day-to-day experiences. She expressed her love by asking if I had eaten, just like my Chinese grandmother at home. The fruit platters and late-night snacks she would cook for me served as words of encouragement when I was stressed out about an exam for class the next day. The two-week quarantine at the start of the trip, quite frankly, made me homesick, but meeting my host family dispelled all my fears. For me, my host family meant people that not only cared for me but also provided emotional support throughout the two-month-long journey in Seoul.
Journaling over these few months kept me reflecting on the experiences I had thus far. I was one of the many students in my cohort that did the Korean Virtual Summer Intensive program that previous summer in 2020, and all of us were thrilled to meet each other in person. All the Zoom meetings led up to the point where we started our first day of classes in-person at Hanyang University. Reading out loud in Korean was a nerve-wracking experience, but I grew my courage to hold conversations bit by bit. After school, I’d schedule study sessions at a Paris Baguette and have language practice with classmates over a cup of coffee. The improvement of my language skills extended outside the classroom, from asking for directions on street for the first time to negotiating prices in Myeongdong’s market. Of course, I was still embarrassed by pronouncing words wrong at times, but that was just a part of the process that I started to embrace.
The summer we spent in Korea, to put it simply, felt like a fever dream. We were a bunch of high schools and soon-to-be college students that met for the first time and spent an entire summer together. Whenever I hear “Next Level” by Aespa, the image of my cohort members eating together in a Korean Fried Chicken shop or trying on outfits in Hongdae pops up. The memories of ordering a Jjeolmyeon topped with half an egg from Hanyang University’s cafeteria contrasted that of my college’s dining hall. Bits and pieces come flashing back when my friends bring me Korean food or when I scroll by the old memories inside my camera roll. It’s hard thinking that the cohort friends might not see each other together again all at once, at the same point in our lives. But the fact that we did that summer, I’m grateful. Nothing would be scarier than traveling away thousands of miles away from home with a group of strangers, who I’m glad to say, became some of my closest friends.
I’m humbled by this experience that connected me with other students who also love languages, taught me about a culture firsthand, and shaped me into a more resilient adult, soon-to-be college student. To the program staff, the host families, the Korean supporters, the teachers, and everyone who made this experience possible — thank you. I will miss the summer we spent together.