5. 2023, The Wild Wild West

Gutter disappointment

SNU, Seoul National University, is lauded as the top university in Korea. For those outside of East Asia, it’s hard to convey the intensity of competition here. Students spend their entire lives trying to get into SNU, and if not, Korea University or Yonsei. With the name of a SKY university behind them, they can earn a spot at one of the huge conglomerates with a guaranteed high salary or they can even become president.

The perceived gap between SKY and other universities is so large, however, that many employers won’t even look at a resume if it’s not from SKY. Going to a fifth-ranked school is about the same as going to a 50th ranked school. Hierarchy is baked into Korea in almost every facet.

SKY opens doors, SKY puts you in first class on a private jet. SNU of SKY is Harvard but with double the prestige and triple the connections. In Korea, at least.

(On a global scale, SNU is ranked below several U.S. state schools. My own U.S. state school is ranked higher than Yonsei. This bubble exists only inside Korea.)

Most presidents, prosecutors, and parliament members graduated from SNU. The best doctors come from SNU. Students study 16+ hours every day for years just to ace the college entrance exam. Students commit suicide when they don’t get accepted to SNU.

SNU is the top one percent of the one percent.

So with all this in mind, imagine this:

You take a bus to SNU campus, excited to start Korean language school at the most prestigious university in Korea. Coworkers, tutors, and teachers have all encouraged you to move to Seoul and attend SNU for the opportunities.

You trudge through the outer edges because the language school building is on the farthest reaches. You don’t realize it now but that’s intentional to keep you away from the “real” SNU students.

Later, you and the other language school students will lose your right to the student lunch discount because the school will reclassify you as non-students. You will look at the students in the cafeteria, all of them bespectacled and so so young, and realize that your dreams of campus romance or community are laughable. They will play games on their phones and avoid eye contact. They are not interested in socializing.

You will realize that 18 years of studying lead to impaired social and emotional development. You will wonder, not for the first time, what’s so great about this place.

You arrived early so you head to class. There’s no elevator in the building. Strange, but not uncommon for Korea.

You ascend the stairs and exit on floor 3. The walls are dingy white and there are scuff marks on the baseboards.

The illusion starts to crack. “This is the top school?”

You power onwards and stop by the bathroom.

One of the toilets is overflowing. The entire left side of the bathroom is covered with water. It takes a day to get fixed.

“This is the top school? Their toilets don’t even work.”

The illusion cracks further.

You go to class. The desks are old. The teachers are older, and not necessarily wiser. Your classmates for the majority are quiet and withdrawn. The extracurriculars listed on the school website are no longer offered. There are no student clubs or language exchanges or graduation ceremonies. There is no job support. The curriculum is horrifically outdated and you realize all at once that you have made a terrible, irreversible mistake.

That was my first day at SNU language school. I had planned to not renew my work contract and go study the advanced levels for one year. After that I had hoped to pursue professional opportunities that advanced Korean knowledge would provide.

However, on that first day I suddenly felt the weight of everything I had given up to attend this school– my job, my friends, my province, and later, perhaps most upsettingly, my car.

I had already signed a lease in Seoul for the cheapest 150 square foot apartment I could find and changed to a student visa. My school had already hired another teacher, and moreso, six months later the city would cut the native program teacher entirely. There was nothing to go back to.

To say that I felt trapped was an understatement. In all my life I have never felt such utter, crushing disappointment. I watched as everything I had hoped for swirled into the gutter. I learned a hard lesson: keep your expectations realistic.

I felt a deep sense of shame that I committed so fully to what would be such a terrible mistake. The regret was a physical weight, so heavy that I spent most afternoons asleep on the floor– when I wasn’t memorizing our daily list of 70 vocabulary words. I had so excitedly abandoned my previous life for this opportunity, only to be slapped in the face.

What’s worse is that I had originally planned to study in Busan. I could have at least been crying by the beach instead of a shoebox apartment on the edge of the city.

From the people to the gym to the apartment to the air quality. Everything was worse. When you’re tied to the strings of fate of a visa, no mistake is small.

Since I had planned to study Korean at the language school for a year, I had made all the arrangements to do so. Except now I was one day into the program debating on simply leaving the country.

There was no choice but to power through; I wasn’t permitted to change language schools on my student visa. And if I stopped attending class, my visa would be cancelled and I would have two weeks to exit the country.

The chasm between “the best of Korea” and my experience was so huge that I started to dislike Korea itself. All the opportunities I had been promised moving to Seoul and attending SNU never appeared. I wondered what was wrong with me– everyone else seemed to be loving their life in the megacity.

Instead, I was crying into bowls of microwaved mac and cheese trying to review texts about UFOs and human cloning. I once sobbed/studied so long that I pulled my neck and couldn’t exercise for three days.

I spent so much time staring at a laptop to memorize vocabulary that I scarred my corneas and now use medicated eye drops four times a day.

When I told my teacher I was having a hard time, she told me to just “study harder”. When my classmates and I came to class haunted and broken, we were commended for our hard work. Working yourself close to death is the Korean way. And for what? Became the refrain in my head.

That awful level five nearly broke me and while I managed to pass thanks to my ragtag team of friends all going to the cafe to buy grilled cheese during break, I saw the underbelly of Korean culture. I experienced just a small sliver of Korean education and barely survived.

In order to keep my student visa and prevent deportation, a kind teacher recommended that I drop down and coast at level 4 rather than soldiering on to level 6. Level 4 was worlds away and I enjoyed my time, even befriending one of the instructors who is now my weekly lunch buddy. But whenever my classmates asked nervously about my experience in level 5, I started with a sarcastic “Sorry to say this but…” thrown at the level 4 teacher and then absolutely blasted the rubbish that is “advanced”.

As a licensed language teacher myself, I could go into great lengths why the curriculum and teaching style for the upper levels is ineffective. The teachers all learned English the Korean way, why would they bother using trusted language acquisition methods for the reverse?


While I’ve since recovered from the shock, the disappointment burned me so badly that I ultimately became convinced to leave Korea.

What a wild thing to say, but it’s true.

When explaining my situation now, I liken to it to a long term relationship on the outs. Korea and I had a good run. We made good memories. We had fights and rough patches. But sometime towards the end, we both realized that this wasn’t as good as it could be. Should we settle? Should we break up?

There’s this implicit understanding in the ex-pat community that if you leave, you have given up. Does this mean I’m a failure?

Leaving a relationship is hard. Leaving a country is hard. How do I know that this is the right decision? What if I’m simply not trying hard enough?

I can’t answer that question right now. All I know is that I should go before we start to resent each other.

There was a silver lining or two to all of this.

I found an American coach and fixed my diet problems.

I started Taekwondo.

I appreciate my old province much more and venture out of the city as often as my wallet allows.

And I decided to repatriate, so that I can be cradled by my own culture. I can be weird, I can have small talk, I can get fairly-priced cheese, I can flirt without someone looking at me as if I just started performing Coyote Ugly on a dinner table.

Repatriation will be its own challenge. I’ve lived more than four years in a place culturally opposite of my home. I cannot be unchanged after all that time. The landing will be a tough one; my bones will be jarred by the impact.

I can only hope that they don’t break.

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