The Motherland: Homesickness, plastic straw pillows and cults

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Two weeks ago, I left my aunt and uncle’s apartment in Yongin, South Korea to start off my spring semester an hour and a half away in Sinchon. As a direct continuation of my last column, I did end up writing this from my dorm. 

The school I chose to attend this spring is Yonsei University, one of South Korea’s leading institutions located in the capital of Seoul. Yonsei is prestigious enough to have amassed a handful of notable alumni, such as acclaimed film director Bong Joon-ho and K-pop record producer Park Jin-young. Within its current undergraduate pool is Maddox Jolie-Pitt, a third-year biochemistry major who also happens to be the eldest child of Hollywood moguls Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt — and whom I have yet to cross paths with on campus. 

I expected settling into Yonsei to be difficult, but experiencing the difficulty firsthand was nonetheless discouraging. In Yongin, I had the company of family members who I could rely on for help when it came to navigating life in Korea. Here, despite being surrounded by other exchange students my age, I realized I’m just as lost as them. 

Being alone most of the time didn’t help either, nor did swiping through social media showcasing moments from UConn that I was missing out on. The homesickness kicked in hard, and I was disappointed in myself for not having the courage to explore places on my own. Looking back now, it seems silly to have made a big deal out of feeling isolated when it was just part of the acclimation process. However, I couldn’t help holding a certain standard of how I expected my abroad experience to pan out, especially when almost every testimony I’ve heard from other students has described their time abroad as “life-changing.” 

Adversities aside, there have been some unusual developments worth mentioning — essentially a few “culture shock” moments courtesy of being in a foreign environment that, in the moment, left me feeling confused but I now consider to be borderline comical. 

Unlike having to buy two sets of twin extra-long sheets for my stay at UConn, Yonsei graciously provides its students with bedding on move-in day. When I got to my dorm, all of it was neatly packed in a large laundry bag placed on top of the bed frame. I pulled out two sheets, a quilted blanket and a netted pouch filled with what looked like cut up plastic straws. It took me five seconds to realize it was my pillow. 

I spent the following night getting woken up by the rustling of plastic under my head. On the bright side, I received a pillow case, so I was able to avoid getting constantly poked. While it’s definitely not as soft as feathers, stuffing or memory foam — and it’s certainly smaller than the standard pillow size — like many things, I was eventually able to get used to it. 

In addition, walks around campus quickly became routine. During these times I was usually left unbothered, with the exception of three occasions. 

I was on the way to meet a friend when I was approached by a girl who asked me if “I had time to talk about the Lord.” I politely declined, saying I had an appointment and she let me go. Assuming it was for some sort of religious club — Yonsei is a Christian-affiliated school — I left unfazed. 

That same week, I was on a daily walk when two people came up to me holding a load of flyers. We engaged in normal conversation — they asked me my name and my major and complimented me on my Korean despite being an exchange student. Then they handed me a little bag filled with candy and a slip of paper printed with a QR code. 

“Is this a church thing?” I asked. They said no. 

A couple days later, I checked the QR code. It was a church thing. 

The day after that encounter, I was exiting the dorm building when I was approached by two women. They were more straightforward with their questions, asking me if I was a believer, whether I was confident that I would make it to heaven and whether I think everything in the Bible is true. At this point, I was feeling a bit spooked and was finally considering the possibility that maybe these interactions aren’t so normal after all. 

I video-called my mom to let her know what happened. She casually told me that cult recruiters are quite common in Korea and that I should try to avoid them whenever I can. I wasn’t very eager to go on walks after that. 

Much to those people’s dismay, religious trauma is not on my study abroad bucket list. Lots of other things are though, and I’d be happy to take part in them instead — like experiencing a Korean movie theater for the first time (not only because “The Batman” just came out, but also because I’ve heard good things about the variety of concessions they offer). Now that classes are in full swing, I don’t know how much time I’ll have to take a trip to the cinema. I just hope I don’t join a cult on the way there. 

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