Gilman Scholarship winner goes to Korea

Gina Williams–Guest Writer

Seoul, South Korea – A beautiful city that has it all: city landscape intertwined with gorgeous mountains, delicious food, fashion and cultural passion. And thanks to the Gilman Scholarship, I got to experience it. There’s never a dull moment in Seoul. And in this homogenous society, the chances of enhancing your “Seoulful experience” become greater when you’re a foreigner. Sometimes that’s a good thing, other times it’s a hindrance. But it truly depends on the situation and which dimension of yourself is being targeted. Having four different dimensions (foreigner, African American, female and student), my experience in Korea got interesting really fast!

After experiencing what it’s like to be an international student, the respect that I already had for international students at Cornell grew a phenomenal amount, realizing what it’s like to be in their shoes. There are so many things that I could mention in this article about it from language barriers and injuries to administrative confrontation. But for this topic, I thought I’d share with you the “curfew” story–something American college students take for granted. The wonderful mentors we were given at Sookmyung Women’s University thought we, the internationals, should experience Korean nightlife. Oh boy were we excited! After indulging ourselves in passionate dancing on the floor for a couple of hours, I became exhausted around 1 a.m. I asked one of the mentors if it was okay if I headed back to campus. She blatantly said, “No! No you can’t!” With a dumbfounded look on my face, I asked why. Her reason was that our dorms had a curfew, meaning that the door locks at midnight and stays locked until the guard opens it at five a.m. In my state of disbelief and irritation, I left the club. A few friends followed me, so that if I got lost, at least I wouldn’t be alone. After waiting 30 minutes for a taxi in the cold, pouring rain, we finally made it back to campus. We checked our dorm doors, and to our dismay, they were locked. Checking the 24-hour library on campus, we finally found shelter, or so we thought. One of the three friends with me was male. And at a women’s university, men in the library after midnight is a no-go. Being selfless women, we went back outside into the cold rain with him and stood under an awning for the next three hours or so. During that time, all four of us being Americans, we became so patriotic and homesick. It was only the first week! I remember how we sadly and angrily sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” as shady characters passed us on the street, giving us odd looks. Finally at 5 a.m., we walked back up the wet mountain and to our dorms, embracing our warm, cozy beds–no longer homeless.

When traveling to another country, it’s smart to know a bit of the culture and customs before you go. One of the important parts of culture in Korea is fashion. Practically everyone dresses like a model.  And when doing Korean fashion, women must remember three things: (1) show as much leg as you want, (2) conform to the norm and (3) try not to show any cleavage! Being a foreign woman, I forgot number three. Luckily, I don’t regret it too much.

I wore this brown dress that had a serious neck plunge. And as soon as I walked out of the door, men and women were staring me down! Women gave me these disgusting looks and complained to their boyfriends while their boyfriends still attempted to get a second look. That night, I went to experience nightlife with some friends, and from the train to the sidewalk to the dance floor, that dress got me an overabundance of attention. Women hated it, men loved it. Oh the shame! There were other times where I felt ostracized too. Wearing my taekwondo attire in public, groups of girls would pass me while laughing and pointing. Strangely, men seemed pleased by the outfit and tried to cheer me on.

Also, being a person with different skin color, hair texture and even body size, can make you the center of attention depending on where you are. I loved the questions they had too! Little did I know I had become a representative of African Americans wherever I went. People were mostly curious about my hair, asking if my hair naturally grew into braids. And yes, there were times when I felt discriminated against. One day I treated myself to an exquisite meal–Gangnam style. Afterwards, I decided to take a taxi home (which is super cheap by the way). Looking very classy, as one should when in the upscale part of Seoul, Gangnam, I expected to get a taxi as quick as I could say “takshi!” (Korean word for taxi). But alas, I had a few taxis with the “unoccupied” light on spot me, turn their light off, then drive down the street to pick up a Korean girl. After standing on the street, trying not to become the “angry Black woman” and maintain my classy composure, a taxi finally stopped for me. The driver was sweet enough to attempt Korean small-talk. Though I hardly understood anything he said, he made my day. I tipped him nicely–which was really strange for him since tipping isn’t customary in Korea.


No matter the gender, ethnicity or occupation, if you’re a foreigner in Korea, you will stand out in some way. And sometimes, you may be excluded from things because you are different. Some might try to assume that Koreans are racist or prejudiced because of how they sometimes treat foreigners. But before we jump to conclusions about Koreans, we must know their history first. For centuries, Korea has been known for being occupied by other countries–mainly Japan and China. That last occupation was by Japan in WWII. The whole country was slowly taken over by Japan, where they eventually made Koreans become second-class citizens in their own country. After receiving some help from the U.S., Japan withdrew from Korea in the late 1940s. South Korea began intensively focusing on its own development, leading to rapid economic growth and strong nationalism and, as a result, cautiousness of foreigners. By the 1980s, Korea merged itself into the global market and received global attention. In 1988, they had the honor of hosting the Olympic Games. After the Seoul Olympics, Korea became open to the idea of hosting tourists in the country, as well as exploring outside of Korea, according to the “Korea Times Newspaper”. South Korea just started warming up to outsiders a few decades ago and are still adjusting. It may take a few more decades for Koreans to adjust to being open to global society, but hopefully not too long thanks to technology, internet and travel. I plan to return to Korea soon after graduation to teach English, receive a Master’s degree or both. I haven’t decided yet. However, my main goal for returning is to assist Koreans in becoming more global citizen-minded while maintaining their Korean pride. There are many Koreans thirsty for knowledge over there. Honestly, I can’t wait to get started!

Released in print March 27, 2013.