One of the things I was most concerned about before coming to Korea was finding housing. Unlike many Light Fellowship-approved study abroad programs in Japan, Korean programs (generally) do not provide housing for their students; you’re expected to find your own. This can be nigh impossible (and not recommended) to do before you arrive in Seoul, see the place with your own eyes and work out details with the building manager. Even then, you’d have to have enough Korean skill to correctly navigate the exchange. The most highly recommended option was to get a hotel for the first few days in Seoul and then search for housing yourself.
I hate leaving things up in the air, especially a matter that could render me homeless if I hit a stroke of bad luck. I talked to my Korean TA about this (who is sparkly and all sorts of wonderful) and she agreed to help me find housing ahead of time. What I didn’t expect was for her to contact me roughly two weeks later about her mother’s friend, who had an extra room in their apartment and was willing to let me stay. It’s really rare to do this, I hear. Almost all the previous Light Fellows I’d spoken with stayed in a 고시원 or 하숙집, so no one could really give me any insight on what living with a Korean family was like. But my fear of the unknown was completely overshadowed by the pros: my room would be larger than a matchbox, there might be air conditioning, someone would help me navigate the city. I figured I could deal with anything else as it came. I need air conditioning.
Definitely the best decision I’ve made in months. When I arrived at their apartment in 정릉 in the northeastern part of Seoul, though it was a little past midnight, I was welcomed warmly by my small host family of three. They gave me a tour around the apartment in very simple Korean and offered me food (which I had to refuse because jet-lag screws with my stomach like ugh). The parents couldn’t speak any English, and the daughter was under the impression that I understood more Korean than I actually do, so a lot of stuff flew over my head, but hospitality comes across well in any language.
The family member that took to me the fastest was my host aunt, who’d decided to come spend some time at the house with her sister. My first conversation with her was more like an interview than a conversation: Where are you from? What other countries have you been to? Are you dating someone? Why not? How many hours a day do you study? Are you Christian? Do you go to church? Some of the first words I learned upon arriving to Korea was 하나님 (God) and 기도하다 (to pray) because she used them so much.
Her two daughters are 16 and 19 (in Korean age); though they were very wary of me at first, once they realized we have some common interest in music, they stopped giving me side eye at the dinner table and started addressing questions to me rather than talking around me. While this made the evening meal a little more tasking, as I had to spend more time fielding questions in very limited and broken Korean rather than stuffing my face with food (my host mom can throw down in the kitchen like woah) I felt more like part of the family rather than an outsider. To be honest, that’s not even something I experience at home. Sisters sending jabs at each other, sharing secret glances when someone mentions “boyfriend”; my host sister and her aunt doing face masks together. It was like they’d all lived in the same house from the start. The aunt and her daughters weren’t treated at all how I would expect guests to be treated.
An aunt just randomly deciding to bring her two daughters to her sister’s house and stay for a week, especially when you have your own house in the same city? No. No way. Not gonna fly. I could barely stand it when one of my aunts from out of state would come stay at our house once every other year or so. I gave her a good dose of side eye every morning just for being in my space. I actively found ways not to spend time with her, and after a few crude remarks about some of my sibling’s lifestyle choices, they found ways to stay out of the house too. My mother just quietly suffered. The past few years, we’ve been either “busy with some family event” or “out of town” when relatives want to stop by for “a few days.”
Family seems to be really important in Korea, and my host family was quick to bring me into the fold: the cousins call me 언니 since I’m older than them. I know this is standard, and not a term of endearment necessarily, but even in English they call me “sister” and that gets to me every time. The aunt insists I call her 이모 (auntie). The warmth I feel when they call me 보아야* is unreal. It’s impossible to feel like an outsider when they call me that.
*My Korean name is 보아 (BoA….as in feather boa. or the singer BoA 🙂