Why I nearly left South Korea as soon as I arrived

I’ve written quite a few posts about the anxiety and uncertainty I often feel when travelling. All of those emotions were blown out of proportion when I arrived in Seoul, South Korea, last week to begin my four-month semester abroad studying at Kyung Hee University.

When I stepped out of Incheon airport, I immediately began sweating. The air was hot and muggy. I was exhausted and jetlegged. The warnings and doubt from the Korean woman I sat next to on the plane whirled in my head. I was trying to stay positive when I checked into my dorm room and saw it was smaller than any room I had ever rented before – and I would have to share the space with another foreign student, whom I didn’t know.

main gate

I immediately began crying, called my mom and told her I was coming home.

It all sounds rather rookie, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t think a seasoned traveller of 30 countries would react in such an extreme way.

The reality is, travel is always messy, no matter how much experience you have. Usually, I would remind myself “I can always go home,” but I knew I had committed to this minuscule room for four months. I was filled with dread as I climbed into the top bunk and was swept into sleep.

A good, deep sleep can change everything – including your perspective. When I awoke, the room seemed less claustrophobic, my roommate was kind and interesting, and the university was beautiful after an evening of hard rain. I went to orientation and met a slew of Europeans keen to travel and explore, which cemented my growing realization: I would stay, and I would grow to love Korea.

group temple contrast

This initial culture shock is very common, especially for exchange students, solo travellers and anyone in a solid state of jetleg. My mom has a three-day rule that I try to adhere to: wherever I am, I’ll give it three days. If I am still as flustered and frantic at the end of the third day, I can come home.

Luckily for me, Korea won me over in one.

temple walk

I can’t wait to see where the next four months take me – I’m already thinking about side-trips to Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines, as well as weekend getaways to Busan and Jeju-do. South Korea is unbelievably complex, and I can’t wait to share it all with you.

Have any suggestions for where I should go? Please comment below!


  1. It’s funny – we had a similar experience when we arrived in South Korea yet after spending 3 months we loved it! Definitely go to Busan and enjoy the beach! It’s such a nice contrast to the busy and polluted Seoul after you’ve been there for a while.
    Not sure where in Seoul you are but hanging out at parks at the Han River is a great memory of ours.
    Enjoy!! Can’t wait to read more of your experiences in Korea 🙂

    • Wow – that’s great to hear that you understand, and that you stuck it out! I’m hoping to go to Busan while the weather is still nice 🙂 we were thinking during Thanksgiving holidays, but it might be too crowded…

  2. One of my student teachers found visiting the mud bath attraction rather interesting. Apparently, people go to a field where someone pelts them, and the ground, with water from a fire hose. Then, everyone jumps in the mud and slides around. She said that she was finding dirt in places she didn’t know she had for weeks and wasn’t too thrilled, but the Koreans she was with thought it was a blast!

  3. Well written Alison! I have only read a handful of your blogs and I’m impressed. Your a natural story teller, enjoy your time over there 🙂

  4. I studied at Kyunghee through TRU back in 2011! My advice is to say yes to everything and don’t worry too much abut classes (it’s pass or fail). Check out a jimjilbang, Dragonhill is a good first experience for foreigners. Go hike mountains, Korean hiking culture is hilarious. A good first start is Achasan which is right in the city and an easy hike which gives you 360 degree views of Seoul. I too came right at the peak of the nasty muggy season in August so try to do indoor activities until the weather gets nicer at the end of September. Co-Ex is a fun mall to check out and karaoke at any time is amazing. If you have questions feel free to email me! I just finished teaching in Seoul the past two years so 🙂

    • Wow! Thanks for sharing your experience. I went to Dragonhill a couple days ago – a bit strange being buck naked with friends and strangers, but the hot pools were amazing! I can’t wait for some hikes and karaoke. It’s a good sign you stuck around to teach for two years 😉

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