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‘Get a Ticket’: Daria Lebakova on Her Exchange Studies in South Korea

Daria Lebakova is a fourth-year student of the Bachelor's programme 'Asian and African Studies'. She spent her whole autumn semester in Seoul—studying at Chung Ang University under the academic mobility programme. Read on to find out what Daria thinks about studying Japanese in Korean, habits, and regular festivals.

‘Get a Ticket’: Daria Lebakova on Her Exchange Studies in South Korea

Photo courtesy of Daria Lebakova

How I Chose the University

I love Korea and Japan a lot. When I was first applying to HSE University, I was planning to focus on Korean studies. But that year, they closed this subject, so I enrolled in the Department of Japanese Studies and chose Japanese as the main foreign language and Korean as an additional one. However, my interest in Korea had not gone away, and I thought that going on an exchange to Seoul was an amazing way to get a closer look at master's degrees in the country. 

Another reason why I chose Korea in particular is the language. Now, I'm quite fluent in Japanese, so I decided that in Seoul, it would be great to improve my knowledge of Korean.

HSE University-St Petersburg has partner programmes with several universities in Seoul. However, I opted for Chung Ang University because they offered an opportunity to come not for one semester but for two. That is why I will go to Seoul in March again and study there until June.

How the Educational Process Changed

At Chung Ang University, I am studying at the Department of Japanese Language and Literature and still learning Japanese and Korean. It is an important condition of exchange trips for Asian studies specialists to keep learning your main language. So in my case, I happened to study two languages simultaneously. My classes are mostly in Japanese or I study Japanese in Korean. When I arrived in Korea in September, it blew my mind a little, as I could speak five languages in one day. But in about a month and a half, I got used to it.

In the autumn semester, I had six courses. Among them, only two are taught in English: the course 'Global Citizenship', where we discuss the formation of civic consciousness, and the course 'Current Issues in International Politics', where we talk a lot about trade relations between China and America, financial crises and other phenomena. These courses are a true salvation for me, because studying in English is much easier than in Korean or Japanese.

All other courses are by the Department of Japanese Studies. For example, we study spoken Japanese and often take vocabulary dictations during which they dictate words in Korean. So I have to learn the translation of a word in Russian, Korean and Japanese at the same time. Another course in Korean is 'Japanese Comprehension', where we write various texts: discuss how to write letters and recipes, retail a film, and so on. Sometimes lectures are delivered both in Japanese and Korean. This was the case with the course about Japanese poetry. Our professor is sometimes hard to listen to, as he can start a sentence in Korean but finish it in Japanese.

As for the educational process in general, in Korea, I clearly see the difference in students' activity during a class. When you study at HSE University-St Petersburg, you get used to working actively in seminars because sometimes, it influences your grade and sometimes, discussions themselves can be very active. In Korea, it is different—it is not common to participate in a discussion. HSE professors assess your activity during a discussion, but at universities in Korea, professors value the accuracy of your answer. I think that is the biggest difference. Korean universities scrupulously monitor your attendance. If you skip four or so classes, you automatically get a non-passing grade and you will have to take the course again next year.

In Korea, there is a very interesting and cute tradition: during exams, professors can buy coffee for the whole student group or treat them to sweets. This is what they do to cheer their students up.

What I Like about University in Korea

Most of all, I like that our campus has a lot of events and entertainment for students. The best ones are organised by the dormitory! For instance, there is the 'Cultural Exchange' programme—we gather in a group of three foreigners and five Koreans, the dormitory grants us some money, and we organise a trip to get to know Korean culture. Moreover, we can choose the entertainment ourselves, and once, we decided to try Korean cuisine. In addition to that, we went to a Korean traditional village and on an excursion to a small local brew house. The dormitory also has 'roommate programmes' to improve relations between neighbours. All these programmes and tips are free of charge, but you have to keep track of announcements and sign up in time.

On our campus, there is the Global Community Centre—its members also hold various fun events and meetings. Once, together with them, we organised a fair where representatives of foreign partner universities talked about their countries and cultures. Together with my roommate (who is also from HSE University), we talked about our university and came up with activities related to Russia. For example, we created a quiz about our country, spoke about Russian literature, and prepared small predictions from books. Specially for this fair, we went to the Russian quarter in Seoul to treat everyone to dried biscuits and Russian sweets.

In fact, Koreans love festivals a lot, so Chung Ang University regularly holds various events. From time to time, there are one-day markets for which they put up lots of stalls with different goods. Koreans absolutely adore them.

In autumn and spring, there are annual festivals—the autumn ones are mostly devoted to studies, and during them, the university holds an exhibition of faculties. But the spring festivals welcome musicians, and you can go to a concert for free. The most difficult thing is managing to have a look at everything.

I truly value such activities, especially when students are involved in the event organisation. At HSE University, I am a member of SHSGNIDUV, and we used to come up with new ideas together all the time. So I really miss our extracurricular life, which helped me unwind after studies and communicate with people. But once in a while, the Global Community Centre and Korea Club come up with events where students themselves can become organisers—for example, this is what happened with the Global Fair. While preparing for this fair, I thought that I felt the same amazing emotions as at HSE University.

Moreover, at Chung Ang University, people love the merchandise. All students have branded bomber jackets, and you can find lots of other souvenirs in the local souvenir shop: cardholders, key chains, toys and so on. The university has its symbol—Puan, a blue dragon mascot. Everyone is on the lookout for toys with this symbol—the university usually raffles them off at different events.

To be honest, there are so many things happening on campus that sometimes I think: 'I could stay here for weeks without leaving!' Even before I came to Korea, my friends told me that they had had the same feeling. I was very surprised back then—how is it possible? You are in Seoul! Now, I understand them!

How My Daily Life Is Organised

I am living in a student dormitory. It is located on campus, so I can get to classes in five minutes. The dormitory has two buildings; boys and girls live separately. We have a curfew which lasts from 1 am to 5 am—in that time, you cannot enter the dormitory. If you don't come to your room for the night, you get penalty points. But if you know in advance that you are not going to sleep in the dormitory, you can apply for 'an overnight stay'. Then, there will be no fine. You don't have to apply on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, as these are days off. During the exam period, the curfew is completely cancelled; the dormitory and library work around the clock.

In each dormitory building, there are laundry rooms with dryers, 24-hour grocery self-service stores, and sports halls where you can sign up for various programmes. For instance, I do pilates. In addition, the campus has a coffee shop and canteens where you can buy a wonderful hearty breakfast for 1000 wons (about 70 roubles).

The rooms are quite simple—usually, there are two or four people. My roommate and I were lucky because our room overlooks Namsan Mountain and the Hangang River. It's extremely beautiful! 

You are not allowed to have your household appliances in your room—kettles, microwaves and fridges are prohibited due to fire safety rules. The maximum is a blow dryer. There are no kitchens in the dormitory either, only rooms with fridges and dining tables on the floors. So you won't be able to cook for yourself. However, that is not a problem, as Korea has a very well-developed food delivery system.

Three Things that Surprised Me in Korea

Drinking cold coffee

Koreans like drinking iced Americano a lot. When it was 30 degrees outside in Korea, this local tradition was to my liking. But when it got cold, I was really surprised. Usually, people try to drink something warm—for example, cappuccino. But even in cold weather, Koreans keep drinking iced Americano.

Not having breakfast

There are two types of people: those who like having breakfast, and those who can't eat in the morning. I have always been the former. But in Korea, my habits changed, and now I hardly ever eat in the morning. Mostly because in Seoul, it is hard to find places which serve a traditional European breakfast. When I found a place next to the university where they serve avocado toast, I was very happy. But it is still inconvenient to go there every day.

Tomatoes are fruits!

Another interesting fact is that Koreans consider tomatoes to be fruits. They differ from Russian tomatoes in taste: Korean tomatoes are very sweet. And very expensive. So it is better not to buy them in supermarkets, but go to a market and buy from local old ladies and men.

Three Must-Do Things during a Trip

To have a one-day hiking trip to the mountains

Koreans adore hiking trips to the mountains. So if you want to get a feel for Korean culture and traditions, go hiking. It is better to do it in warm weather—the season finishes somewhere in September while the temperature can still rise to 30 degrees.

Go to a fashion district

If you are interested in modern Korean culture, fashion and brands, I really recommend going to Seongsu district. I have been there seven times. In Seongsu, they constantly put up one-day fairs and shopping pavilions, and there are also permanent exhibitions. Everything is free, so you can come and have a look.

Go to the Hangang River

Our university is located ten minutes away from the Hangang River, and sometimes in the evening, I go to the embankment and have a long walk to get my head straight. You can also ride a bike and eat tasty chicken from the local stalls.

What I Got from the Exchange Programme

The experience of the international exchange helped me to level up my coping skills and learn to react and switch quickly. I have improved my social skills as well. In some situations, this was vital—when you are in a group of international students and know several languages, you become a mediator and you have to comprehend everything quickly.

I also learnt how to find approaches to different people. The quality of communication with a person depends on their culture and language a lot, so you have to adjust. But it brings communication with people to a new level.

When I first came to Korea, I followed the principle of doing as much as possible—going to different places and communicating with different people. While studying at HSE University, I have formed a strong feeling of a community, and when you find yourself in a new environment, you have to make an effort to create a new community from scratch. Now, for me, Korea is not about sights, but mostly about people. I still go everywhere and meet everyone in order to immerse myself in the culture further and make everything as comfortable as it was at HSE University.

Photo courtesy of Daria Lebakova

What I'm Dreaming of Now

At the moment, my main ambition is to enrol in a master's degree in Japan or South Korea. I still have time to choose the country and prepare all the necessary documents. At the same time, I would like to maintain a balance that lets me study and have opportunities to travel, meet people from different countries, and recharge my batteries. I would also like to try to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.