Adventures in Korea – Week 1

Alright, let’s do this. This is a series on my year as an exchange student in Korea. I’m mostly writing this for two audiences:

  • My family, to let them know how I’m doing and sparing myself from actually talking to / interacting with them in any way.
  • Future Epitech students, and by extension, any student intending to spend a semester/year to Keimyung university.

Both of these audiences are French, but I’m going to write it all in English for no reason anyway. Learn to read English, Marc!

My background

I’m a French 21 years old student from Paris. I am starting my 4th and second-last year of Computer Science in Epitech.

As part of the standard Epitech cursus, I am to spend said 4th year in a partner school in a foreign country. I applied to Keimyung, a multi-discipline school in Daegu, Korea, and was accepted. I don’t speak a word of Korean.

Again, for anyone lost: Epitech is my home school. Keimyung is the school I’m currently studying at. Daegu is the city I’m in; it’s the fourth biggest city of South Korea; way South of Seoul, the capital city.

Still following? Well then, let me begin my tale. It’s starts a bit over a week ago, in Paris…

The big day

Today is Wednesday, August 30; my flight starts at 1:00pm GMT+2, and arrives at Thursday, August 31, 7:00am GMT+9, a 11 hour flight. And yes, that is a lot of jetlag. More on that later.

I’m fairly excited when I arrive. I’m in Korea! The airplane pilot tells us, “Welcome to Seoul”, and I think I’m nearly there. It’s awesome!

Except… I’m not quite there, and the announce is a bit of a lie. We’re actually in Incheon. Just like Paris, Seoul doesn’t actually have airports (that I’m aware of); we actually landed something like 30km away from Seoul. And the thing is, this seems obvious in retrospect, but when you’re there, everything around you is new, you can’t read half the signs, and there’s nobody to tell you “By the way, you’re not actually in Seoul yet, you’re in Incheon, you need to fix that before you go looking for the Seoul train station”… well, it took me some time to catch up. After a small hour of stumbling around the airport, picking up my luggage, and staring at exasperated station agents who keep telling me to go somewhere else for info… I finally understand that I need to take the Seoul-Incheon express AREX train, which can get me to the Seoul train station in roughly an hour.

I buy a ticket for the next express, which is scheduled 9:20am, and settle in for some waiting. The express itself is a very nice train, with lot of room, seats, and TVs broadcasting news and cultural documentaries (think intercity train, not subway). The first documentary I see is about Dodko, a South Korean island colonized by Japan in the early 20th century. The documentary lists several documents that prove the island is a legitimate Korean territory, then talks about how the Allies made Japan surrender it (and other stolen/colonized territory) after World War II. I’m… not quite sure what to make of that? Japan imperialism isn’t something you think about very often in France, but I guess it’s more of a sore subject for Koreans.

Moving on, I arrive to the train station. After roughly half an hour of fumbling around, I manage to issue my ticket for Daegu without making too much of an ass of myself, and find a nice spot in the station to… well, wait. It is 10:30am, I have everything I need, and the train I reserved online leaves at 2:00pm. I had intentionally intended the 3h gap as a buffer, and time to do tourism in Seoul, and while I really don’t regret giving myself the margin for error (I didn’t need that much time, but I could have), it was silly of me to imagine I’d be doing any tourism.

By that point, it is 3:30am in France. I haven’t slept much in the plane. I’m dragging four full suitcases and bags around. I am in no state to do any tourism. I spend the time in a zombie-like state of almost sleeping, then falling off to the side or hearing a loud noise and immediately waking up. It’s kind of hellish.

Oooh, you're one of those tricky guys who look for alt-text in images, aren't you? Well then.

I didn’t take any photo in the train station, so here’s one from Google Image.

Also, for some reason, I’m seeing a lot of people in military uniforms. Not patrolling, just taking the train. Not sure if this is normal, or it means the army is mobilizing because of the North Korea crisis; but it’s kind of funny to see people in camo fatigues sitting around with their luggage.

Anyway, the train arrives, I’m anxious for a few minutes because the signs are confusing and I’m not sure it’s the right train; then I get in the train, and every so often I’m anxious that I’m going to miss the Daegu station because I can’t always read the Korean station names… By the way, I’m being pretty unkind to the Korean transport infrastructure here. While things were pretty hard to navigate for me as a foreigner, the signs were all labeled both in Korean and in English. I’d expect a Korean to have a much harder time navigating around in France that I had navigating in Korea.

Adventures in Daegu

At 5:36pm, I arrive in Daegu. Awesome! I’m nearly there!

Well, not quite. I still have to get to Keimyung university. It takes around half an hour to my sleep-deprived brain to navigate the train station, and find the subway access. Keep in mind, the further from the airport we go, the less English-friendly our surroundings get; although there still a surprising amount of English everywhere; even some of the ads are translated.

Once I get to the subway, I meet the first real puzzle level in my adventure: how do I buy a ticket? It turns out to be a bit harder and convoluted than you might think. Although, note that I could have bypassed the entire level by just using the subway without paying, but (1) I don’t want to get arrested or fined before I’ve even spent a night in Korea, (2) it’s unethical and I’m kind of a pussy.

This level has several obstacles:

  • I don’t understand what the different price ranges of the vending machines represent
  • Up until now I’ve paid everything with my international credit card. The machines ask for Korean cash, which I don’t have.
  • The ATM machines won’t accept my card for some reason. (I’m later told that Korean ATM machines like Mastercard and hate Visa; still not sure how to deal with that)
  • Nobody speaks English worth a damn; good luck asking for help. (I’m being unfair, one guy did help me understand the ticket system)

Anyway, the solution turned out to be: ask a subway employee to take me to the closest currency exchange bureau; trade some of the European cash I wisely took with me before the flight for Korean wons; buy the cheapest ticket at a vending machine (don’t worry, it’ll last you until Keimyung); then navigate the subway (pretty easy, you only need one line change) until you get there.

So, there I am, at the Keimyung station. Awesome! I’m basically there! Well… not quite. I’m actually at the perimeter of the Keimyung campus, but I don’t know it yet. The campus is huge, and only has three entrances, so it takes a bit of walking (and some help from a nearby student) for me to get there. I still need another student’s help to get to the dormitory (seriously, the campus is huge), then I meet an Epitech teammate, who basically speeds me through the remaining process of getting to the right place, getting my room’s keys, finding my room, etc.

I’m there! At last! I collapse on my bed and fall asleep.

I can't find online map of the campus, sadly.

The dormitory village of the campus. The small house at the bottom is where is got my keys after walking for 10 minutes. The furthest building in the background is where I sleep.

Orientation day

Today is Friday, September 1, and it’s Orientation Day! I actually missed the Epitech-specific Orientation Day, where they tell us punks about how this is a different kind of school, there are rules, you can’t just decide you don’t want to go to the classes or do whatever you want whenever, etc. I also missed the first round of course selection, which means one of the courses I intended to take is now full and I can’t register to it. More on that later.

Anyway, Orientation Day goes about like you’d expect. We get the “Keimyung is awesome and brings happiness and progress and puppies to the world” video, the “Don’t make me fetch you kids at the police station again like last year” speech, some administrative deadlines, info about campus activities we’d might want to join, etc. We’re also introduced to the International Lounge.

The Lounge is where I’m expecting to spend most of my time this year (work and arcades aside). It’s a hub for international students from all over the world to meet, socialize, eat, and take parts in cool activities like going to school and talking to kids about your culture. According to numbers I gathered (which are at least roughly accurate), half of the foreign students are French, and half the French students are from Epitech. We’re all in mostly the same building. Most Koreans I’ve met are really bad at English (including my official Buddy). Basically, if I want to meet someone who isn’t French during my year there, it’s going to be in the Lounge. (or maybe in class)

I spend most of the day setting up in my dormitory and getting my internet fix. I should be doing more paperwork, but by that point I’m way too jetlagged to force myself. Honestly, the next few days after I arrived in Korea were pretty awful. I’m kind of lost and uprooted, I’m tired but I can’t sleep, I’m hungry but I don’t like the food, etc.

Yeah, I don’t like the food. I was never a big fan of any Asian food, and this has not changed so far. Honestly, if it’s not a brand of American junk food (Snickers, Coca-Cola), all bets are off. Some of the sodas have little gelatin cubes in them. Some meals are tasteless, some are way too spicy I can’t bring myself to finish them. The ice-tea they gave us is so sweet that after a while you start wondering whether you prefer to die of dehydratation or diabete. I was told during my research that the dormitory refectory was awful; it is. You wouldn’t want to go there even if it were free.

Anyway, at 6:00pm the Welcoming Party starts at the International Lounge. As a standard nerdy guy who had to overcome social awkwardness through brutal trial and error, and still hates to actively socialize… yeah, it’s pretty boring at first. There’s pizza though, and it’s the least awful thing I’ve eaten since I came here! Eventually I meet a nice Korean girl named Ming who speaks English well enough for actual conversation (also, French insults, somehow). We spend the night talking about computer science and Korean architecture.

By that point, I should probably mention my Buddy. Keimyung matches you with a buddy a few months before you flight; who is supposed to answer your questions, and help you get set up. Mine helped me before my flight, sent me documents I needed to get my visa, and answered some questions for me. But his English is broken, and I haven’t heard from him since I arrived. Normally your Buddy is supposed to pick you up at the station, but it didn’t happen. Since I do need help setting up, I ask Ming for advice and stuff.

Did you order some more fucking jetlag?

On Saturday, I sleep until 1:00pm. I hate my life and stuff. Anyway, my first week-end is mostly boring. I fill out some paperwork, walk around the campus a few times to get an idea of where things are, and I sleep some more (nope, doesn’t work, still tired).

Let’s talk about the paperwork first. I kind of feel cheated by the administration here. We were told to come on August 31. Then we’re given a bunch of deadlines, most of which are “Absolutely fill this by September 5/6 or it’s too late”. And of course the administration is closed on week-ends, which means that you can’t ask any questions/precisions you might have, which means if you were still recovering from jetlag Friday, you only have one or two days to submit all the paperwork they dump on you, while juggling with classes.

And normally, the answer would be “Fine, I just have to make the important decisions long in advance”. Except there are still surprises. For instance, when I asked around on Discord, I was discouraged from renting a flat outside of Keimyung. But nobody told me that:

  • The Keimyung dormitories don’t provide bedsheets, covers, or coat-hangers, which means you have to go buy them yourself (even though you’re obviously not going to bring them back to France). I mean, sheets, I could understand for hygiene reasons, but coat-hangers? You couldn’t provide coat-hangers? Meanwhile, I’m told there’s a bunch of apartments that are fully furnished right around the corner. Which leads me to:
  • The dormitories are a small mountain (or a big hill) away from the Engineering building where most of our courses will take place. The people who rent apartments around Keimyung are closer to the important parts of the campus than we are. (well, the important parts for an Epitech student anyway)
  • Hot water may not be available in the middle of the day. To be fair, this hasn’t been a problem yet.
  • The dormitories has a draconian curfew. Now to be fair, I already knew that, but my perspective on that changed a bit since I arrived. The academy hates fun, because fun is dangerous and someone might get hurt and they might get sued. You can’t go back to your room after 11:30pm, unless it’s a week-end/vacation day and you asked for permission two days beforehand. The doors are locked at 11:30pm, so permission or not, you’ll be locked out. For your safety. Also, don’t even think about drugs, alcohol, gambling, or bringing a girl to your room, or you’re thrown out. Mixed-gender poker night with beer bottles in sight? You’re, like, triple thrown out or something.
The appartment itself is okay.

I know it’s petty, but I’m still annoyed that they didn’t give us anything with our beds. I mean, they know we don’t speak Korean, that we’re going to be disoriented and new to the city, and they’re still expecting us to go find this stuff by ourselves. Kind of a dick move.

I'm like a gas: I expand to fill whatever space is available to me.

The desk is really nice. Lots of little crannies and drawers.

Anyway, renting a flat is sounding better by the day. But I have to find one fast, because the deadline for cancelling my dormitory subscription is tomorrow. Everyone I asked told me that the way to get an apartment is ask my Buddy to negotiate on my behalf with an agency. My Buddy has been pretty unresponsive since I arrived, so I’m going to have to find someone else.

Another inconvenient deadline is choosing a list of courses; they asked us to make preliminary choices months ago, but the only one that actually mattered took place over a window of 12h, during which I wasn’t available. So, yeah, I’m kind of screwed, especially since most of the remaining choices are simply not an option for me. Stiiiill working on that.

Sightseeing

First off, I already said it, I’ll say it again: the campus is seriously big. Maybe not, like, Harvard big, but bigger than any school I’d been to so far. Which tells you that I’ve never been accepted to Harvard. Sniff.

Anyway, I walked around. There’s a presbyterian church at the top of hill that separates the dormitories from the engineering buildings. I took a few photos of the church, and the surroundings. The view is pretty neat.

I also went into the market near East Gate (one of Keimyung’s entrances). I’ll write about it in length in a later post, but the gist is, it was all pretty new to me. I scouted for a few things I’d need to buy on Monday, and I finally completed by life-long dream of getting smashed at Tekken 6 by a 12 years old boy in a Korean arcade. Yeah me!

Not pictured: the huge-ass hill this church is built on.

The Keimyung Church

As the most attentive among you might have noticed, I'm kind of a shitty photographer.

Panorama of the surroundings. I took this photo from next to the church.

Conclusion

The main takeaway so far is that I’m pretty miserable. There’s a lot of little details that add up. I can’t sleep. I don’t have bedsheets. I’m hungry, but I’m skipping meals because I don’t like the restaurants. I have paperwork to submit, but I can’t ask questions. It will all probably be better by next week, when most of the important problems are taken care off, my sleep schedule adjusts, and I start finding restaurants I like.

And overall, this is an awesome experience and I’m super excited to be doing this. I’m meeting new people from completely different culture (an American guy, a girl from Nepal). I went to a Korean arcade! But for this week? Fuck my life.

Advice for future students

This series will have an “Advice” chapter every entry, to sum up what I wish I’d done differently. By the end of the year, I’ll compile it all into a list easily readable by new Epitech students who might go to Keimyung. I’ll probably do a retrospective and stuff. For the record, the current Epitech dossier on Keimyung has some fairly comprehensive, pretty helpful outside data (cost of life, different dormitory offers, etc), but the student blog it links to is basically empty. I intend for this series to replace it.

Advice for all students visiting any foreign country:

  • Do NOT do what I did and schedule your internship to end two weeks before your flight. This will not be enough time for you to prepare everything, especially if you intend to spend time relaxing with your family.
  • Seriously, don’t. Worst mistake I made this year.
  • Remember to take some international plan for your credit card with your bank. You can pay everything by card in Korea. You could also open a Korean bank account once you’re there, but honestly, an international payment plan is just simpler to set up.
  • Prepare some amount of cash. This one saved my life, when I realized the ATM machines wouldn’t accept my Visa card.
  • When scheduling your train and plane tickets, give yourself some wiggle room. You may not need much, but when navigating a novel, confusing environment with nobody speaking your language is much less taxing on your nerves if you know you have plenty of time left. The downside is, you’ll be spending a lot of time in a jetlag-induced zombie state, waiting for your train.
  • Remember to take one or two books you’ve told yourself you should read for years. You won’t actually read them at any point (especially not in your jetlag-induced zombie state), but you’ll feel adequately prepared.
  • When you arrive in the airport, get some local cash as soon as you’re retrieved your luggage. You may find currency exchange offices after you leave the airport, but it’ll obviously be harder that way.
  • Make sure to have sleeping accommodations ready before your flight. You do NOT want to look for a hotel at night, in an unfamiliar environment, where nobody speaks English, while sleep-deprived, while dragging a ton of luggage behind, etc.

Advice for students traveling to Keimyung:

  • Try to arrive one week before the date the university gives you. They’re not giving you any wiggle room. Arriving early means you’re acclimated, and familiar with the environment by the time Keimyung starts raining deadlines on you.
  • On the other hand. Keimyung may not accept you in the dormitories if you arrive a week early. Make sure to have a hotel room or a flat set up. You will need help from your Buddy to handle that stuff. If your Buddy is unresponsive, find someone else who speaks Korean to help you. Ask the school for another Buddy, ask an Epitech teammate’s Buddy for help, etc.
  • If you intend to stay at the dormitories, you will need to bring or buy your own sheets, covers, etc, as well as coat hangers (plus toilet stuff, a toothbrush, shampoo, etc).
  • Go to the International Lounge. The school should organize some sort of event for international students to mingle; go there, meet new people, and have fun.

That’s it for my first few days. Stay tuned for my next post, which will be about settling in and learning to navigate a new environment!

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