What does it mean to be an American in South Korea? A UWT perspective

South Korea is an accommodating country with a deep culture.

There’s 18 of us on the study abroad trip to South Korea. An American diaspora abroad in the west. We are Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Colombian, Korean, Japanese, Black, White, Mexican, Jewish, Muslim, the list goes on. We are a microcosm of our home country; we take this with us wherever we go. We are all American, whether we like it or not. Never before has our nationality and positionality been so apparent.


I saw the sprawling city from Mount Namsan. It’s a jaw dropping view from Seoul Tower. A colorful array of massive Buddhist temples and restored historic palaces sandwiched between towering shining skyscrapers.

It seems like the city goes on for miles until the mountains meet the horizon. There’s a deep and proud history here of a culture and country persevering for hundreds of years, despite the world’s biggest powers surrounding them on all sides. Seoul is proud of Korean culture. To see so many smiling faces wearing Hanboks and strolling through the beautiful Gyeongbokgung palace is like stepping through a time machine.

When the autumn leaves block the surrounding metropolitan area, rows upon rows of brick walls and painted red and green roofs are all you can see. The city quiets for a moment and erupts into a celebration of color and architecture.

Seoul is very accommodating. English is on all the subway systems and most locals speak or understand English, especially the younger generation.

The Changdeokgung Palace, located in Seoul, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of five palaces in South Korea. | Photo by Benjamin Fredell

Pusan National University 

I was sweating bullets preparing to meet the Pusan National University students. Luckily, they were even nicer than I anticipated. We split off into groups and got coffee and fried chicken on campus. 

In my group of six, made of four PNU students and another UWT student, we talked about everything: school, nightlife, family, our pets, spots to check out and foods to try.  

I wanted to know what they thought of the Flower Boy aesthetic, a growing trend in South Korea where men wear makeup and go for a pretty boy look. They were overwhelmingly accepting of other people and, though they weren’t personally invested in the style, they could understand and respect it. 

For the first time in my entire life, I felt a connection to my generation. Through the language barrier and hundreds of miles between our homes, we could agree on this. The older generation are the ones falling behind. The future is bright and accepting because we are the ones that choose for it to be so. 


Busan was quite different. Glares were not uncommon in Seoul, but Busan was something else entirely. 

Gwangalli Beach was incredible, especially at night. The whole beach is lined with towering skyscrapers and a bridge across the water. We got stuck in traffic on Gwangandaegyo bridge, and even that was beautiful, to watch the sun set on the water and light the glass in gold. There were hundreds of chairs set up on Gwangalli beach as preparations began for the 18th annual Busan fireworks festival.

“Korean only” they said. “No foreigner.”

“Busan is ready” was plastered across the entire city. The city is a candidate for the World Expo for 2030. They’re in competition with Italy and Saudi Arabia. The World Expo has been held every five years since 1851, and Busan is pushing really hard to host this event. You can’t go on any public transportation without seeing that same slogan printed on bus exteriors or inside a subway car. 

There’s a ferocity and a permanence to these signs that symbolize to me something more than just a technology expo. Busan wants to be globalized. 

There’s a disconnect here though, between what the streets are saying and what our group experienced while traveling around Busan. 

A group of us went out one night. We were recommended this spot near Haeundae by our waiter at the restaurant where we ate. We were then denied entrance from the next five bars we tried. 

“Korean only” they said. “No foreigner.” 

On the subway back to the hotel in Busan, one member of our group was groped multiple times by different men. She had to move and stand by the others in the group just to be safe. Later that same night, a man kicked a bottle at one of our group members and hit her in the leg. It was a lousy night that only got worse. It doesn’t appear that Busan is ready, and it might be quite some time before it truly is. 

We reflected on it as a group during class, what it must feel like for your home to become a vacation hotspot. We can understand the frustration and exhaustion that comes from foreigners entering another country. We are strangers and guests here and we were prepared and expected to be treated as such.  It sucks, because it feels good to be welcomed, but in the same light we can understand where some of this aggression is coming from. 

It’s a beautiful place with amazing vistas, and I feel so lucky and grateful that I’m able to see it for myself, but as foreigners, we were not welcome there.  

I’m pretty happy to be back in Seoul. It finally rained here, and the streets reflect the flickering billboards in the most fantastical way. The city comes alive at night with neon signs through puddles of water. 

I am just one of the 18. My experience has been different from every single other person on this trip because we all have different cultures and ethnicities that we carry with us. It also varies by gender and sexual orientation. I am just one perspective of the many we have with us, and it’s been so interesting to talk with everyone and see how it’s been different. For now, this has been my experience and I’m so grateful that the reception has been mostly warm and inviting. It has been genuinely life changing.