Ashley, Korean

Ashley is an alum of the 2023 NSLI-Y Korean Summer Program in Seoul, South Korea from Indiana. Ashley aspires to be a journalist in the future.

Why were you interested in your NSLI-Y language initially?

At my core, I have always been a journalist. The first time I wrote for a publication was in 2015 on a self-produced website where I, along with the rest of my neighborhood friends, posted about our daily lives as skaters! During that time, I had been practicing a certain style of longboarding called longboard dancing, where you try to replicate light steps on your board while maintaining speed and direction. It’s the ultimate cross between elegance, power, and control.

Even though I was in elementary school at the time, I scoured the internet after school and was completely enraptured by South Korean influencers doing the Peter Pan step on the Han River (or 한강) or racing past green parks (or 공원) with ghost-stride kickflips. Despite not understanding one word of their tutorials, I saw their skating and I didn’t seem to need words to know we were connected through it. That day, I posted how I wanted to see the world, interview someone else other than myself, and try to spotlight them, even if we were more than five thousand miles apart.

As I grew (along with my passion for history) I rapidly signed up for all the global history courses my school offered at the time. Korean became a mystifying tool that King Sejong, the creator of Hangul, created solely to talk with his people. He wanted to remain attentive to their concerns. As a mixed Filipina in a predominantly white area, this desire to communicate with someone despite societal tensions flickered hope within me. If a King could create a new writing system for his people, I too, had hope of connecting with others even if I felt isolated due to my ethnic background. I resolved to become a journalist who spotlights Asian speakers.

Coupling my desire to connect with a deep-seated interest in Korean, I knew I had to find a way to engage with the Korean language. Naturally, studying abroad, along with NSLI-Y had been a distant dream of mine. Cross-breeding my love for skating with my innate passion for language as a multi-faceted tool for people to connect, it seemed that Korean was a natural choice. When I got accepted, it came totally out of left field, so to speak! Though I couldn’t skate while on program, I felt like I was writing for that old skating website all over again, clicking the “Post” button; it was as if my career as a journalist was truly beginning.

What are some of your favorite memories from your program?

When the time comes for you to leave your NSLI-Y host location, you’ll begin to realize that your favorite memories maybe simply weren’t the jaw-dropping art pieces you saw at the National Museum of Korea or seeing the burial site of King Sejong, but perhaps the more “daily-life” things. Maybe, they’re the times you laughed with those you’ve grown to love in a foreign place. At least, that’s what I thought.

For example, some of my favorite memories from my program would be when we found the tastiest pasta restaurant in Seoul (Shout out to Palette in Seongsu!), watching the neighborhood light show with my host family (shout out to Sweet Home(stay)!), or laughing our heads off in the 6th-floor architecture office at Hanyang with my student support group (shout out to 3M!).

However, if I had to pick a favorite…it would be at a group excursion in Wolhwa Street. We had just eaten some amazing food from the market and had spotted some Latin Dancers putting on a show. Seeing the cultural representation in what I thought was a completely homogeneous country was my first culture shock.

My second culture shock was when the performance finished, and they were calling up teams to participate in a competition - I actually understood what they were announcing! To this day, I swear that my legs moved on their own. With a cohort member, I played alongside Koreans laughing and, to be frank, failing at the games. Nevertheless, being able to smile and engage happily with strangers in a foreign country was an experience I can never forget!

What was your typical day like on program?

Though I know my cohort members would wake up earlier (or even later), I woke up around 6:30 am and felt completely refreshed by the Korean sunlight! Around an hour later, I would take the train to school with my roommate, and it took around 40 minutes with a transfer! Coming from rural Indiana (Granger, which literally means farmer!), where driving dominates transportation and most trips take at least 20 minutes, I was shocked. South Korea has its public transportation down pat!

Then, with much-appreciated support from my roommate each morning, I would end up at Hanyang University. Of course, I always had an amazing breakfast made by my host family, but I would either head to the bakery or convenience store for some snacks! There, I could meet my classmates and walk to class.

After around four to five hours of school (depending if we had a supplementary pronunciation class), I would debrief with my friends in different classes and we would go cafe hunting in Seongsu, Dongdaemun for some thrifting, or a museum of our choice (which - history lovers, do not fret! There are countless in Seoul). Then, afterward, I would meet my host family for dinner and study!

Speaking of studying, I dare to say I would not even have half of my Korean speaking ability without the earnest support of my host family, and most importantly, my host mother, also named Ashley. Her tenacity in teaching me everything from the mystifying system that is Korean numbers to the daily expressions that can be used for a good hearty laugh, inspired not only me to study harder, but ask myself if I would be able to be such a dedicated mentor and role model for everyone back home. Could I also be like Ashley?

I say studying, but that also implies spending time with my host mom along with my roommate denoted a sense of work and duty. But, every night when we spent hours pouring over our days, cultural differences, or even just laughing together, I learned the value of being with others. There is nothing like finding friendship in an unexpected place whether we’re gawking at Korean news articles or giggling at the newest episode of Crash Course in Romance (also known as 일타 스캔들).

What non-linguistic skills did you develop on program?

As I mentioned before, seeing the dedication and pride my host family had while teaching inspired me to be a better student and community member. Giving my best all the time simply isn't realistic - but I believe the desire to do good for the sake of others translates no matter what you see visually or the language you hear. Their work played a huge part in inspiring me to accept my role as my school’s ambassador. If my host family can open their heart to a girl who is from more than five thousand miles away, I can open my heart to the people around me in my community, and be a beacon for the kids who may struggle to find their voices.

Additionally, my first complete culture shock, as ignorant as it sounds, was speaking English by accident, and having no one understand me. For example, instead of saying 감사합니다, I would mistakenly say thank you. Though a little mistake like this seems minor, it constricted my ability to authentically interact with those around me. But, this made speaking Korean and getting a response all the more rewarding.

And, thanks to my little host brothers and roommate, I can also now play a mean round of Mario Kart!

How do you hope to use the skills you developed on NSLI-Y in the future? What are your future academic/career plans or goals?

Though I mentioned wanting to become a journalist earlier, I never specified what exactly I would like to focus on as a writer. Here’s a fun fact about me - since 2015, I have been helping my dad renovate houses across Michigan and Indiana. Restoring antique houses has been a weekly chore-turned-passion of mine and I’ve too turned into a rehab addict.

However, when I came to Sangye in Seoul, things were completely different. Sangye is a symbol of Korea’s battle of time: rapid urbanization to accommodate more city residents versus the will of older tenants who refuse to have their family homes torn down. I saw the stark contrast in certain areas. On one side of Buramsan, one of the local mountains (known in Korean as 불암산), there would be wood houses with tin roofs built into the gradual slope of green. On the other side, white apartments stood erect in the otherwise nature-dominated landscape. One day, on a trip to the local library, my host family explained that older homeowners had refused to move out and lose their houses, even if they would be compensated and given a home in the new apartments. But it was only a matter of time until their homes too turned into spaces for more apartments.

Seeing that dissonance between the way people live – down to their homes and what that meant for homeowners – struck a chord in me. Instead of solely focusing on spotlighting Asian voices within the media, I want to become a global journalist who focuses on people, along with their houses. What homes do people live in around the world, and how are they struggling? How are they thriving? Starting with South Korea, I want to investigate more into the relationship between the people’s past and the country’s future. After all, home is where the heart is!

Currently, I’m aiming to study Anthropology in college to get a better understanding of humans and the social circumstances surrounding their development. After college, I dream of opening my own publication and news outlet company as a safe haven for people to share their stories.

Because it made me reconcile both my love for history and my passion for building a better tomorrow, I like to call Korean my “gateway language.”

What advice would you give others interested in NSLI-Y?

Whether you’re scrolling through the NSLI-Y website on a whim (Hello! I was like you once!) or if you’re an accepted scholar for the upcoming program (Hello! I was also like you once as well!), I want you to feel confident in your story until now. Own your trials and triumphs equally. Recognize that you have so much of the world to see and experience, and prove how you can carve out space for yourself in it!

And, perhaps if you have the privilege to and decide to take on the challenge of learning abroad, don’t be afraid to live your life in your host country. Because it's a foreign place, I felt like I could take up too much space or as if I was a burden for being a foreigner. While it’s important to have cultural sensitivity, (Congratulations! You’ve begun to understand a distinctly Korean concept called 눈치) make those memories and stories you’ll tell when you get back. Take it from me! At the very least, they always make for excellent icebreakers. At the very most, they build connections you would’ve never seen before.

Finally, once you do leave your NSLI-Y experience, don’t let your work and time there fade into “that time I studied abroad.” Whether you maintain your language study routine or routinely call with your host family or even just simply checking up on your cohort members (and I have the joyful ability to do all three), remember: you just changed your life and the lives of others around you. That is something worth thinking about.