Religions of Korea

Jonathan Thomas is a Second Year student, currently enrolled in the UVA Exchange: Seoul National University Program in Seoul, South Korea.

Seoul National University is nestled into a contour on the side of one of Seoul’s largest mountains, Gwankak mountain. The mountain is located to the south of the city, and like most of Korea, is particularly picturesque during the fall months when the trees covering the mountains turn from green to autumnal colors. Getting off at Gwacheon station puts you at the base of the mountain path that begins the ascent to the top of Gwanak mountain.  The path winds its way up, following a clear stream which makes it way down the mountain in the opposite direction.

Just before the peak of the mountain, there are a series of buildings, where you’ll find an ornate and active Buddhist temple, with its members still operating and maintaining the temple. However, this isn’t out of the ordinary. Walking up to the top and finding a temple is quite common in Korea, with many of them located on or around mountains. This doesn’t mean that Buddhists or Buddhist monks are in anyway secluded. Often times you’ll see monks with their heads shaved dressed in gray robes riding the subway. Additionally, if you take the bus from Seoul National University to the closest subway station on the east side of the school, you will be thrust into the busy area of Nakseongdae station. The busy streets are home to coffee shops, restaurants, stores, and churches. The churches are highlighted by the spires jutting up from them, but apart from this they look like any other building on the street.

What is remarkable about this is the coexistence of both of these religions in harmony. Many times, religions butt heads, clash in their ideology and generally don’t get along. While there have been rises and falls in popularity of both religions in Korea over the centuries, Korea has had a history of religious acceptance, especially of foreign religions, and the divide between Christianity and Buddhism is about fifty-fifty. This has created a dynamic that has continued into the present. The religious order of Korea isn’t something of tension, but rather a virtue, where the religion you hold is your belief and the religion another person holds is their own belief. This has created a society where Buddhist temples and Christian churches sit virtually side-by-side without the slightest hint of animosity.

While this may seem trivial, to me it’s a refreshing reassurance. Currently, there are quite a lot religious conflicts spread across the world, and these conflicts are some of the most difficult to resolve. Therefore, to see a country and culture like Korea where two religions can coexist, sans conflict, gives me hope that those conflicts have some sort of resolution, and makes me appreciated Korea for its unique cultural aspects like this one.

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Can You Really Cross Cultural Boundaries?

Lauren Bredar is a 3rd Year student studying Global Studies and English. She attended UVA in Morocco this summer.
On Monday of my final week of my internships at Fondation Orient-Occident, an NGO that helps immigrants and refugees, I met a man name Abubakar. Abubakar is a refugee in his late twenties from Central African Republic. He’s tall, broad-shouldered, with deep brown skin, and a soft voice. He wore a white and black baseball cap with a Nike swoosh, and a form-fitting white t-shirt when I first met him. He speaks English with a thick accent, but enjoys talking to people in either French or English more than anything.
On Wednesday of this same week, I met a man named Oumar. Oumar is my same age, 21, and a refugee from Cameroon. He is average height, with high cheek bones and a wide, constant smile. He wore a bright blue t-shirt and spoke only a few words of English.
At first glance, Abubakar and Oumar seem to be similar people —at least more similar to each other than either one of them could be to me: they’re both refugees from sub-Saharan Africa; they both came to Morocco; they’re both in their twenties; and they both hope to one day immigrate to the US.
But my interactions with each man could not have been more different.
Once Abubakar started talking, he couldn’t stop. Each of the three conversations I had with him lasted more than an hour, and ended with me excusing myself to finish my work. I could tell he thinks deeply and often about life and what it means and his own personal philosophies. But when he spoke, I grasped little more than a very general, superficial understanding of the subject we were discussing (“discussing” is probably not the right word to use here, as our conversations resembled extemporaneous speeches far more than a two-sided discussion.) I attribute this utter lack of clarity partly to his broken English, partly to his soft voice, and perhaps mostly to the fact that we have very different ways of organizing our thoughts. Coherent for him is not coherent for me.
I would leave these periods of listening to him talk with confusion and an acceptance that I would simply not be able to see his ideas the way he saw them. I accepted that there are some cultural boundaries that can’t be crossed. I accepted that we’re different, and try as we might to connect despite the differences, maybe a genuine connection isn’t possible. We will never be able to see each other the way we see ourselves or wish to be seen. I don’t see this as a problem—just worthy of recognition.
But my single conversation with Oumar left me with a feeling that completely contradicted how I felt after speaking with Abubakar. Oumar and I had a two-sided conversation. Despite our speaking in French, I understood what he had to say and he understood me. He made jokes and I laughed, because his humor made sense. I could follow his train of thought, I could read his facial expressions. I like to think that we saw each other how we intended to be seen. Just after coming to the conclusion in my mind that some cultural differences make understanding impossible, I met someone with a background that couldn’t be more different from my own, and yet understanding was natural and easy.
These conversations taught me that sometimes cultural differences give way to connection. Other times, they interfere with understanding. Either is okay. As long as you try hard enough to know which.

Unhinged in Jordan

Dominick Giovanniello spent the entire 2016-17 year studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, participating in CET’s intensive Arabic language program. He shares an experience navigating social norms.

In an effort to compensate for all of the carbs I’ve been eating and the hookah I’ve been smoking, I decided to get a gym membership a couple of months ago and to my surprise, I’ve found that I actually really enjoy it. The gym I go to is called Troy 24/7 even though it doesn’t open until 5PM on Fridays and Saturdays. It sits on the main street, right on top of a hookah store and a barbershop staffed entirely by Syrians. The gym itself can politely be described as worn…for example, all of the pads on the machines are ripped and several pieces just seem to be held on by black electrical tape. It’s not the cleanest gym in the world, and the owner’s attempts to spruce it up, like painting blue triangles on the wall, only serve to emphasize that fact. Nevertheless, the staff are super nice and helpful, and the gym members – a weird assortment of foreigners, mostly Koreans; out-of-shape older men, and tattooed gym rats – have become a familiar community for me.

The other day when I went to the gym; however, I had a weird experience that left me a little wiser. And although I generally tend to hate blog posts where X-encounter taught me Y-valuable lesson about myself/culture/life in general, I really want to talk about it since it helps me simply articulate a concept that I’ve been struggling with.

Usually when I go to the gym, I bring a bottle of water; however, this time I forgot and so I went to the front desk, paid for a bottle of water, and watched as the owner used his fingers to unscrew the hinges on the door of the broken refrigerator where the water bottles are stored. No big deal. The next time, I also forgot to bring a bottle of water, so I put some money on the counter, went to the fridge and started to unscrew the hinges. The employee on duty, Abu Noor, an Egyptian working in Jordan because the economy is better (which tells you all you need to know about how awful the situation is in Egypt), saw me as he was walking past and cried out, “Stop! What are you doing? You can’t do that!”

He marched up to me and I started to explain myself, but he cut me off, “No you can’t do that. It’s not your place. When you go to the store and there’s something you want but can’t reach, you don’t climb the shelves, do you? You ask whoever’s working there.” Abu Noor kept getting more and more agitated as he tried to explain this concept to me. “You weren’t doing anything wrong. But it’s not your fridge, just because Muhammed (the owner) did it doesn’t mean you can!”

At this point, I was extremely confused and could not figure out what he was getting so worked up about. I’d apologized, it was an innocent mistake, and not even a big deal to begin with! Realizing this, Abu Noor grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “I know you’re a respectable guy, studying Arabic, and that you want to learn as much as you can. But you need to know that when you study a language, you’re actually studying three different things: language, culture, and behavior.” It then dawned on me that he wasn’t actually mad at me, rather he was offended by the way I had just assumed that I could go about something, which in his mind wasn’t my place to do.

Although those words aren’t innocent, particularly “behavior” in a patriarchal society, I think that they’re really insightful. Learning a language, especially when you’re overseas, isn’t just about grammar and vocabulary. The ultimate goal of language learning is to be able to use that language to communicate with and connect with other people. Additionally, every word, phrase and interaction is shaped by an enormous amount of implicit cultural, historical and social knowledge. We take it for granted, but every time we interact with someone else from our own culture, we’re drawing on an entire lifetime’s worth of interactions and operating within a very firm, defined set of social norms. It’s a reminder that you need to get out of the classroom to gain a full understanding, and it doesn’t just apply to language learning, but to every field of academic learning.

A bit of home comes to me

Christopher Hoffa is currently studying abroad in London at the City University of London. Check out his blog below!

Hey everyone!

I am checking in with my 8th blog post while being abroad! I am actually currently on a train back into London after a trip to Ireland. The trip was wonderful and Ireland was absolutely beautiful. It was actually my first trip by myself, so it felt much different than anything else I had done before. Though it is different, I did enjoy it a lot. Everything that you want to do is completely in your control and that was something that I definitely enjoyed. With all of this being said, I will move into my main topic of this post, and that will be post-exam life here in London. My flight from London back to the United States is not until June 2nd, giving me over a month of time here without any school.

 

I will talk about the last two weeks, starting with the first week when my brother and mother came to visit. It was there first time out of the United States, which made things very interesting. I enjoyed watching them attempt to learn the culture here in London. During the entirety of the trip, I couldn’t help but think if how they acted was how I acted when I first entered the United Kingdom.  They were amazed by the smallest things and clearly did not understand the norms of the society. This made sense though, as they had no idea what it would be like going into the trip. However, by the end of the week, they seemed to understand a lot about London and were beginning to fit in. They understood how to use the Tube, or Metro System, here quite easily. My favorite part watching them learn the very British words and finally understanding some of the locals, who they were very confused by at the beginning of their trip.

 

After they left London, I went on my first trip alone to Ireland. During my trip, I visited Dublin and Galway. The cities surprisingly different quite a bit from one another. Dublin was a much more modern city and the capital of the country. In terms of architecture, surprisingly did not remind me of any of the cities that I had been to before the trips. In terms of culture, it did remind me a bit of London, which makes a lot of sense given its history. From there, I went to Galway for a day, which was completely different from Dublin. I expected them to be fairly similar, but Galway really felt like it was a small town. It was filled with very cultural life, with music being played everywhere. There were a lot of great food shops and not too many tourists. It really felt like a true, small Irish town. I would say that Dublin felt much more like a tourist city, much different than Galway.

 

To wrap up this post, I’d like to say that I really enjoyed my semester abroad. Even though I am still here, it feels much different without having to go to class. It gives me a lot of time to think about what is going on in my life and giving me much more time to appreciate my surroundings. With a little over a month left, I will definitely be focusing on enjoying my remaining time outside of the United States.

 

Until next time,

Chris Hoffa

2 months in London

Hey everyone!

Today is March 15th and I am here to update you all again with my 5th blog post. It has been exactly 2 months since I left the United States. I cannot believe how fast the time has flown by, especially since I have started to travel more recently. In this post, I want to talk a little about how I’m feeling in London and about some of my recent travel.

First, I’ll talk about London. To put it briefly, I believe I have adapted quite well to life in London. I know my surroundings extremely well and have found a nice group of friends. Additionally, I have become acclimated with all of the classes here. The part I was most worried about, living in a city, has surprisingly been something that I have come to truly love. There is always something to do and getting from place to place is very simple. In terms of cultural differences, I think that I have adapted fairly well to them. There are still some small things that bother me, but as a whole I have gotten used to them. One, for example, is that people tend to show up late to class. When I say late, I don’t mean a minute or two. Almost every class there are students that arrive anywhere from 1 minute after class starts to an hour after class starts. To me, that is something that I don’t see very much in the US, but is something that I have definitely gotten used to here in the UK. I would say that this is something that initially shocked me, but is something that I am now somewhat comfortable with.

Another cultural difference that I have noticed is that students will talk during a lot of the lectures. In the US, this is something that is extremely frowned upon and the professor will call the students out for. Here in the UK, there is a lot more talking and the professors do not seem to care a lot of the time. This is something that I have definitely not gotten used to, and I don’t think that I will. I sort of see it as a sign of disrespect, while it has been normalized in the UK. To each their own, however, right?

Now that I’ve talked a little bit about life in the UK, I’ll now talk about my most recent trip to Berlin. The travel during the trip was extremely rough, as a workers’ strike at the Berlin Airport had us rerouted to Hamburg, where we then had to take a train to Berlin. To make the travel portion even worse, my group purchased the wrong subway tickets and German train enforcement checked them and asked us to get off the train. From there, we all received fines even though we had not purposely used the train system incorrectly. This was definitely an experience that will be a life lesson, especially in regards to communicating with law enforcement within a country that the primary language is not English. Other than that, Berlin was an awesome experience. Berlin is filled with history and is definitely a place that I wish I would have had more time in. As a whole, I have genuinely enjoyed traveling to countries where the main language is not English, as it puts me out of my comfort zone and I feel as if it helps me to grow as a person.

All in all, the two week since my last update have been great. I can not believe that I leave in 2.5 months, something that is quite sad to me. I will definitely look to make the most of my remaining time in the UK though.

Pictured: Here I am with a professional League of Legends player (Jankos) that I met at a match in Berlin. It was quite a great experience seeing a professional E-Sports match.

Until next time,

Christopher Hoffa

 

UVA in Shanghai: Chinese Language

Matthew Slomka is a 4th year Physics and Computer Science major. He studied on the UVA in Shanghai: Chinese Language program this summer. Below are some of his photos.

On our program trip to Hangzhou, we were exposed to the true beauty and serenity of a more traditional setting.  People taking boat rides over a lazy lake, greenery as far as the eye can see, its no wonder people describe it as heaven!

On our program trip to Hangzhou, we were exposed to the true beauty and serenity of a more traditional setting. People taking boat rides over a lazy lake, greenery as far as the eye can see, its no wonder people describe it as heaven!

Leaving what you know behind to see in a different light

Yangyou Fang is a 2nd year Spanish and Computer Science Double Major studying abroad on the Jefferson Global Seminars summer program at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Below is her first arrival reflection and pictures from a 2011 experience in Hong Kong.

June 10, 2014

“Yet for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different  light, and from a crooked angle.”
– Pico Iyer

I arrived at Hong Kong international airport, with my baggage and a prepared heart.  The hot and the humid welcomed me, as always during in the summer, as it was three  years ago. I was here three years ago to take the SAT exam (Hong Kong was the closest  place that the Chinese students can take SAT), also in June, in the same weather. I remembered reviewing vocabulary in MTR, walking down the street, rushing to the test center, worrying and nervous about my future, about whether I could get into a college in the United States.

Now, three years later, I am here again, as an exchange student from UVA, ready to explore the same city with different perspective, and with different state of mind. The city of Hong Kong never fails to fascinate people – those who live here, travelers, and workers, etc.- with its unique beauty: the ocean, the harbor, the history, the food, the opportunities and the unknown. Although Hong Kong is officially a part of China (called a Special Administrative District), it remained almost unchanged as when it was a British colony. As a student from Mainland China, going to Hong Kong may not seem like a big challenge. However, during my several trips to Hong Kong before, I found it necessary to embrace the cultural shocks I might encounter in Hong Kong, “seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light”.

I hope that-

  • I would be able to experience and get used to a Hong Kong University.
  • I would be able to learn some Cantonese.
  • I would be able to make new friends.
  • I would be able to appreciate the cultural differences and the excitement this experience will bring.

Now, with all my expectations and preparations, I am ready, to start the adventure.

Avenue of the Stars HK.png

Avenue of the Stars (2011)

Victoria Harbour2011

Victoria Harbour (2011)