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What I Have Done In My Gap Year

by Em16

I have to write an essay to explain to my college what I have been doing in my gap year and this is it.

My first night in Seoul, South Korea, I was absolutely exhausted. I collapsed on the hard mattress of my hotel bed, feeling a little loopy from sleep deprivation, my entire body aching and tired. When I woke up the next morning, my body no longer felt exhausted, but my mind was racing with a million questions. For the first time, the magnitude of what I had committed to was setting in; living in a foreign country for nine months, away from friends and family, in a place where I didn’t speak the language. What if I got lost on the subway? What if I couldn’t find any vegetarian food? What if I was unimaginably lonely and busy and completely burnt out?

Over the past three months I have been here, I have found answers to most of the questions I had the first night in Seoul. I have learned how to use the subway, learned where to buy vegetarian food, and through trial and error, have figured out how to live in Seoul. But as I adjusted to living in Seoul, I found myself learning so much more about Korean culture and society, and about myself.

The first week after arriving in Seoul, I went to my university to take my Korean placement test. I ended up in the beginner level, with four of the other Americans in the program. The first class was on a Wednesday, less than a week after my plane landed in Seoul, and I was still a nervous wreck. We were learning Hangul, the Korean alphabet, which is arguably one the best alphabets in the world. Unlike English, words are pronounced identical, or pretty close to identical, to the way they are spelled. Everyone else in my class had no trouble learning Hangul; they picked it up easily, the syllables rolling off their tongue. But for me, I stumbled and stuttered, and took two minutes to say two words.

I felt insecure and self conscious. I couldn’t understand why this was easy for my classmates but not for me. This insecurity continued, as I felt daunted by the fast pace of the classes, struggling to keep up with the endless amounts of vocabulary. I got the words for dictionary and picture mixed up, and I could never seem to remember the word for map. My classmates still seemed to be doing much better than me.

I tried numerous study methods, but nothing worked. I tried Duolingo, Quizlet, and Youtube Korean videos, but nothing could make the vocabulary stick in my head. Until one day, when I was bored in class, and I started writing vocabulary over and over again on the back of a worksheet. And surprisingly, the words stuck in my head. After that, I went to Daiso (a dollar store that’s popular in Korea) and bought a stack of yellow legal pads and a fountain pen and set to work. I wrote until my wrists hurt and my fingers were callused, but my proficiency in Korean increased greatly.

Now, when the teacher asks what a word means, I am often the first to answer. I have mastered Hangul, and I speak confidently in class. I no longer feel insecure or self conscious, and I know that I have all the skills I need to master Korean.

As well as studying the Korean language, I have also spent a lot of time studying Korean culture, by going to many museums in Seoul. I’ve been to the War Memorial of Korea, the National Museum of Korea, Seodaemun Prison Hall, the Seoul Olympic Museum of Art, and the Museum of the Korean Provisional Government, to name a few. At first, it was nerve wracking. I was confused by the subway system, and surprised to see that Google Maps doesn’t give you directions for walking when you’re in Korea. I didn’t know where to buy vegetarian food when I was hungry, and I explored largely by myself, since I still didn’t have many friends.

At the Seodaemun Prison Hall, I was saddened to see the extents of Japanese brutality towards Koreans. Seodaemun Prison was used during the Japanese occupation to house Koreans who organized protests against the Japanese. The prisoners were storied in cramped conditions, forced to work in factories, and given meager portions of food. But what horrified me the most were the torture rooms. I was sickened and disgusted to see both the ingenuity and the absolute inhumanity of the torture methods, and wondered what could drive someone to spend so much time and energy causing suffering in their fellow man.

This was a part of history that I didn’t learn about in my American high school, so I was happy to have a chance to learn about it. I also got to learn about the Korean War at the War Memorial of Korea, another topic that I did not know much about. I learned that the war wasn’t just between Koreans, but also involved people from far off countries like Turkey, Canada, Ethiopia, and Colombia, who sent soldiers in response to the UN declaration. I also got to see exhibits on all the UN task forces Korean soldiers had participated in, such as the Hanbit unit, which served in South Sudan, or the Evergreen unit, which served in Somalia. I found it inspiring to see the way the international community worked together to protect South Korea, and the way South Korea has contributed to helping other countries. It reminded me of the importance of international cooperation to make the world a better place.

I also visited the National Museum of Korea, an enormous museum housing various artifacts from Korean history. I got to see jewelry and pots owned by elite government officials from the Goguryeo kingdom, and the giant golden crown worn by royals in the Silla dynasty. I saw a sad lament written by King Yeonjo after executing his insane son, Prince Sado, by locking him in a rice chest. I got to see two numerous drawings and sculptures of Buddha, as well as bodhisattvas. It was fascinating to me because it seemed so familiar and yet strange all at once. I’ve seen royal crowns, at history museums in Paris and London, but the Korean royal crowns had a very different structure, as did their jewelry. The royal families still seemed obsessed with wealth and power, but they had different ways of showing it. Instead of building a cathedral or a castle, they would build temples and steles to mark their good deeds. Even though Korean society is different from the society I come from, I can still recognize its complexity and distinct logic.

But the most important thing I have learned after living in Seoul has nothing to do with museums or Korean or navigating the subway. It has to do with me. When I came to Korea, I was nervous, hesitant, and afraid of everything. Now, I feel more confident in myself and my abilities. I have managed to handle every difficulty that was thrown my way, whether that was a jam packed train during rush hour, a difficult Korean assignment, or getting lost in the Lotte Department store. Seeing how I have overcome these difficulties has made me believe I can overcome future difficulties, whether that difficulty is a difficult college paper, a frustrating job interview, or a friendship break up. I know that not everything will be easy or smooth, and when I’m in the middle of it, it might feel impossible, but now I know whatever happens, it will be ok in the end. 

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173 Reviews

Points: 11035
Reviews: 173

Sun Dec 18, 2022 4:51 am
DreamyAlice wrote a review...

Hey Em16! Alice here to give a review!


This was a solid piece of writing explaining the hardship a person who moves to a completely new place with completely new ways of life. The fact you included how living in a new place lets you know more about your abilities and insecurities and how the survival mode is important for us to learn a new thing out of our comfort zone is really great. I could not relate better about the insecurities you mentioned, the situation where everyone seems so fast paced and better than you, its a really saddening situation everyone of us must have faced.


Overall I liked this piece of writing and I am interested in Korean culture so I know how hard it must have been for you to adjust but you did it!!! I tried really hard to find some grammatical errors for you to correct but there is absolutely none, great job! It was a pretty solid essay which showed us the emotional of settling but also gave lots of practical information and stuff.


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33 Reviews

Points: 0
Reviews: 33

Sun Dec 18, 2022 1:54 am
Lovestrike wrote a review...

Hi Em16!

It's cool to see an essay! That's new!

I think you did great describing the emotional side of things! Gap years are really interesting to hear about, and it widely depends on the person. They can be beneficial, but they can also negatively impact someone! It's hard to be away from home for a short period of time, so I couldn't even imagine this! It's really impressive.

You also did well explaining the technical things! I'm not the most educated on gap years, but you gave a pretty good run down! It's always good to restate the purpose of the essay, which would be the gap year. You're covered on that aspect!

Why South Korea though? What were the steps going into the gap year? Like I said, I'm not the most educated on these things. I don't think any reader going into this would have much knowledge either. It would've been nice to have a little more information about the process you went through! I assume you can't just go randomly. It's probably related to grades?

This is pretty concrete though! It's informational, yet casual. =D

— Solstice

She conquered her demons and wore her scars like wings.
— Atticus