When people describe Australia, it is often referred to as a relatively new country, a huge island but small in population and a nation almost isolated from the rest of the world. Yet, I never took these statements literally or seriously until I travelled to Asia. I grew up in a small community in the hinterland of the Gold Coast region in Queensland. Public transport didn’t exist; cars or bicycles were the only option to travel from place to place. The train to Brisbane was such an exciting experience and I loved the city environment. On the occasion we travelled to Sydney or Melbourne, I found the public transport system nerve racking and the volume of people slightly overwhelming.
I do not think my childhood was sheltered but that Australians as a whole are not exposed to the lifestyle and cultures of the rest of the world, as we really are the land down under. Before I reached university, my travel had consisted of American and European cities, both of which lead a very similar lifestyle to our own. I had never considered travelling to Asia, even though they are our neighbouring nations, probably because I knew so little about the culture and countries.
The opportunity arose for me to travel to Busan in South Korea for a cultural exchange program in January 2013. Advertised at my university’s international office, the three week program was funded by the South Korean government and included flights, accommodation and food. Six students from my university were selected and initially, I was thrilled to find out I was one of them. However, as the weeks came closer I was so nervous about going to a foreign country and I had never spent more than a week away from home.
As the six of us flew into Busan International airport, we were greeted by our Korean buddies who we would share a room and socialise with us for the entire period. My buddy was gorgeous but I was so surprised at how strong the language barrier was between us. Maybe it was my Australian accent or how quickly I spoke, but it was a struggle to communicate. We were based at Pukong National University where the cultural exchange program hosted 40 international students, each with their own Korean buddy. Cultural classes were run everyday from 9am to 4pm and the afternoons and weekends were free to explore the city. We learnt how to play Korean instruments, were introduced to the language, learnt how to make the local foods, were taught taekwondo and even went to a tea ceremony dressed in traditional clothes.
Initially, the culture and lifestyle was a whole different experience to what I was used to in Australia. Busan was a huge city, with a large public transport system and heavily populated. Traffic was chaotic with less rules to follow and more people travelling. I was nervous to catch the subway at peak hour and catch the local bus. Our dormitory accommodation provided three meals a day but waking up the first day and finding rice and Kimchi for breakfast was terrifying. Apart from these obvious social differences, Korean showers are more of a hose than a shower, the beds are hard and the living space is tiny. However, after a few days of adaptation, I couldn’t believe how much I loved and appreciated the South Korean lifestyle.
Busan, reminded me slightly of the Gold Coast, as it is situated on the coastline and is renowned for some of Asia’s most wonderful beaches. No, I too didn’t believe that Australia’s famous beaches had competition but from firsthand experience, these were picture perfect. Busan also had had an incredible atmosphere I had never felt in Australia. Our Korean buddies gave us the true Busan experience and we went to local bars, Korean BBQ and Karaoke almost every night. The shopping, markets, nightlife, street food and even travelling on the subway were activities I began to absolutely enjoy. One weekend, a few of our Korean buddies and us took a trip to Seoul on the bullet train where we were able to experience more of the South Korean lifestyle. Being able to travel all over the country without using a car made me realise how dependent we are on private vehicles and I was, and still am envious of their extensive public transport network. While my Korean language may have only developed to knowing a few important phrases, my buddy’s English drastically improved and we were able to effectively communicate by the end of the program. She developed an interest in Australian culture, just like I had about South Korea and decided to do a year abroad based in Brisbane. She is currently still in Australia and we have been able to maintain a strong friendship.
The cultural exchange program forced me to step outside my comfort zone and indulge in a society completely different to Australia. Even in the short three week period, the fear I once felt about catching the subway squished as sardines and trying the exotic foods of lotus roots, spicy cabbage and radish, passed, as I began to realise how important it is to experience other lifestyles. Since this program, I have been inspired to travel to other Asian countries and have done a volunteering program in Vietnam and holidayed in Hong Kong and Japan. Each culture has been different but all so welcoming, as they are just as interested in my background as I am about theirs.
In Australia, we really are isolated and unable to experience a different language, culture or lifestyle without travelling abroad. I have learnt that if you are ready to leave your own personal comforts behind and embrace any opportunity with no expectations, each experience will only be positive and educational. Currently, I am in Beijing completing a semester of study abroad and will return to Busan in June to participate in a two month internship with a Civil Engineering company. The one three week program opened my eyes to the opportunity of living and working outside Australia. There are always things I find difficult living in Asia but there are certain aspects I would never replace.
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- Lucy Nitschinsk’s life changing experience in Busan - May 2, 2014