Banking on Resilience

My roommate and I laugh that our third roommate is the Korean bank where I opened my bank account through my exchange university because I talk about my struggles with my bank account so often. If my roommate comes back from the day and finds me in an especially sour mood she always opens with a knowing, “the bank?” And most of the time, unfortunately, she’s spot on. 

I know it might sound a bit silly to say that the biggest challenge I have faced abroad has been fighting with my bank. And while at the end of the day my issues are not that deep, I feel that my continued problems with using my bank account represent a microcosm for the difficulties of living in South Korea as a foreigner and the potential challenges that another exchange student to Korea may face. 

I have enjoyed my time in Korea immensely. I’ve met great people, had many opportunities to stretch my comfort zone and have significant introspection about the nature of my values and identity. I’ve eaten a lot of really great Korean food.

But living in Korea is difficult. 

South Korea is a country that rapidly developed after the Korean War to become the tenth largest economy in the world within half a century. Besides economic development, the Korean Wave and Korea’s pop culture exports have increased the attention and interest of people from all over the world on Korea, Korean, and Korean culture. I, of course, am one of those people. But there is still a lot of growing pains happening in Korea to this day, and here is where my bank saga comes in. The main issues I have with my bank account are related to me being a foreigner: even though I have a resident registration number and everything is in order, there was some mistake made with my personal information when my account was opened by my university and now it is very difficult to issue the proper documents to use my bank account for much more than a charge account with my debit card. In a place where online purchases, food delivery, and apps for essential services is king, this has posed significant barriers to my everyday life. And despite me showing up in person to the bank regularly with my first grade level Korean skills, Papago, and tears in my eyes, there has been no resolution. It’s incredibly frustrating. It makes me feel like an outsider. It makes me feel like the barriers to participate in everyday life in Korea are very high. It makes me feel helpless. 

At the top of Bukhansan — studying abroad in Korea often feels like climbing a very difficult mountain

And this is not the only time I experience these feelings. As someone who is not ethnically Korean, my everyday life is riddled with reminders that I am an outsider. Some days this presents a very unique opportunity to engage in cross-cultural discussions and share my culture, identity, and point of view with new friends and friendly strangers. Some days this presents hostility and aggression. 

So my bank saga is annoying, but I think representative of how difficult it can be to access essential services and the growing pains of a homogenous society becoming more diverse. 

I am really thankful for this experience, however. I actually would consider the challenges of living everyday life in Korea as one of the most rewarding parts of my study abroad experience. I’ve never experienced what it feels like to be a visible outlier, to be someone who needs help and accommodation for completing basic tasks, and discrimination that can bar me from essential services. It’s eye-opening. Somedays it feels impossible. But it has made me more patient, empathetic, introspective, and has motivated me to return home with a fresh understanding of the challenges that our new neighbors face as they enter the United States for the first time and do something to help these communities. 

My advice to students about to embark on their time abroad in Korea is to not feel disheartened or frightened by my experience. Understand that every moment of your abroad experience is not going to be easy, and that life will inevitably work differently than what you are used to. Embrace these challenges and understand that weathering these storms is the purpose of going abroad and increasing your cultural competencies. You will be surprised by the kindness of strangers and how much you are capable of. 

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