Semester Abroad, Global Correspondents Hello Stranger
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January 7, 2020
Rebecca Zaynidinova, CAS '21
Rebecca Zaynidinova is one of the Semester Abroad Global Correspondents, writing and sharing her experience abroad during the Fall 2019 semester. Follow along with the group of correspondents on our blog and check out their student takeovers on the @pennabroad Instagram.
This semester was at once the easiest and most difficult semesters of my life. Away from the busyness and bustle of Penn life, I had more free time than I’ve had since middle school. Away - thousands of miles away - from every person I love and every person who loves me, I experienced homesickness for the first time in my life. Away from my familiar life routines, I thought thoughts I never knew I would think and felt things I never thought I would feel.
The first month of my life in Korea was rough, to say the least. I lived in a tiny box-like room with a bed, a desk, and a three-square-foot shower room. Outside of school, I could go for days without seeing anyone in the hallways of the residence hall. This was a jarring transition after coming from China where I lived and worked with my roommate twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week, for seven weeks. Besides the occasional shuffling in another tiny room next door, I heard nothing and saw no one. I was more alone than I’ve ever been in my life - cut off from people next to me by walls and people dear to me by the ocean. It was here that I experienced homesickness for the first time in my life; even each Skype call left me feeling more empty and alone. Daily, I stalled in cafes, meandered the streets, stayed in the library - anything to delay my return to my little prison-like room where I was surrounded by no one but loneliness. And when I came home at midnight hours, I could not sleep, and not because of the heat. Many doubtful thoughts crossed my mind as I lay, both exhausted and wide-awake, in my tiny bed and stared up at the haphazardly patched-up ceiling. Years of dreaming, years of planning, years of rejection, years of language study, numerous attempts to go to Korea. Now I am here and I don’t know what for. Why am I here? These thoughts haunted me for weeks. But the story does not end in a tiny box-room, nor does it end with thoughts of despair and confusion.
On September 24th, I became a free woman - officially free from my housing contract, that is. Within an hour and a half of waking, I single-handedly moved myself out of a box to a guesthouse dorm room with three bunk beds - a welcome change to four weeks of isolation. Though blistered and exhausted, I knew that this was the beginning of a new chapter in my study abroad experience. Just as I stepped out of the building, I bumped into a tall girl with blonde hair and three orange suitcases - my new roommate, Amanda, a freelance model from North Carolina. Later that evening, I met the original resident of the room, Mattia, an Italian high school graduate who was traveling and learning Korean before returning home to start college. This most unlikely trio of an exchange student, a model, and a freshman stayed up chatting and gossiping until 4 am on their very first night together… and on almost every night after. It’s no wonder that they received a noise complaint from every single guesthouse resident at some point.
Whatever it was - shopping, exploring, going to cafes - we did it all together until we had to part ways again. I remember our night strolls in Hapjeong, a hip neighborhood filled with indie fashion brand stores, cozy restaurants, and alternative cafes. One of those nights we stopped at a cafe called Hello Stranger - Mattia with his homework, Amanda with her journal, and I with my sketchbook. We sat in the cafe until it closed, each absorbed in our own activity, occasionally breaking into chatter. There was a happy irony in the whole situation - three new friends, all of different ages, from different countries sitting in a cafe called Hello Stranger. Indeed they were strangers just a few weeks ago, but not anymore.
I remember our trip to Ttukseom Park with its panoramic view of the Seoul skyline - we had taken an hour-long subway trip to the park together just to watch the sunset. I remember our trip to Hongdae, a neighborhood bustling with both local students and tourists, to listen to a street performance. Our hands were freezing, but something in the singer’s voice kept us there, listening to the same songs for an hour and a half. I remember the nights in - the face masks, candy, ice cream, and deep conversations about our families, our anxieties, and our hopes.
Every day was an adventure until Mattia went back home to Italy, and then Amanda found a job and moved out. Although we only had one month together, and we have already been apart for over a month, this was a time that colored and changed my entire study abroad experience for the better. During my first few weeks, each night left me full of confusion: why had I come to Korea? I did not know it at the time, but I know now that I came to Korea so I could meet people like my roommates. I came to Korea to form the most unexpected of friendships. Although my time with my roommates was short, it is a time that I will remember for the rest of my life. I had a feeling that September 24th started a new chapter in my study abroad experience, and now I know that I was not wrong.
The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.