Following Torero Travelers around the globe not only brightens our day, but also sheds light on what our fellow Toreros are doing internationally. USD has a large and impactful presence in the international education community, hosting students from an expansive range of foreign nations and offering programs for the university’s students in 44 countries. In this episode, we follow the journey of USD graduate student during studies in Korea and China through the Ahlers Center for International Business.
Going Global: An Asian Excursion
Written by Steven Cummings (MSGL student)
In the ides of October, I joined a happy company of MSGL students (M.S. in Global Leadership pursuants) to embark on a mission to the Far East, seeking ken of the currents of commerce and as well as the rich cultural vestiges of an ancient past. Our host nations included the Republic of Korea and the Peoples’ Republic of China, lands long familiar with a flux of foreigners visiting their shores and cities.
As one descends onto the streets of Seoul, the first destination on our voyage, the mildly opaque air is not immediately refreshing…but well-structured city blocks and clean streets sweep away any impression of Korea’s history as a developing nation. Full of bright cultural traditions, a colorful palette of Korean cuisine, impressive displays of advanced technology & infrastructure, and a calm yet bustling crowd, Seoul is characterized by a distinct blend of the East and West.
Possessed of a rather conspicuous “Californian” look, I did not blend in particularly well in Asia. Drawing stares on the streets proved an easy feat, even those lost in their smartphones could generally be shaken from their Confucian decorum by a long blonde mane on a tall striding male. Public courtesy oft prevented more than a few seconds’ glance, but experiments with sunglasses revealed many wide-eyed gawkers at this alien creature crossing in their path. While Korea has a strong international presence, its society is relatively homogenous in comparison with our melting pot nation: 96% of the population comes from the Korean ethnic group.
By day our group would walk among the markets, sometimes of the less formal variety with a myriad of unidentifiable fruits, fish, rice-based creations, a hundred kinds of kimchi, sometimes the highly modernistic malls that inhabit the upper floors of the city streets as well as the interlocking subterranean levels below. The food ranged from spicy to really spicy, with highlights including the famous Korean barbeque, the signature dish “bibimbap,” and an inexhaustible assortment of side dishes that were constantly refilled and often mysterious. Street food presented further opportunities for mystery and bewilderment – one especially succulent dainty came in the form of a still live & wriggling squid tentacle that would suction desperately to the cheeks and throat on its way down.
The people of Seoul dressed smartly but in plainer styles, as if they all shopped at the same department stores. Exceedingly polite and often decently versed in English, interactions by day felt slightly reserved – but by night, especially if soju had seeped into their veins, the Koreans let fly a very vibrant nightlife social scene. Introduced to Korea centuries ago by invading Mongolian hordes, soju retains its spark of chaos and reigns supreme as the alcoholic drink of choice for the nation – capturing 97% of spirits sales. It’s also an excellent weapon in one’s arsenal to reign supreme in the karaoke den…
The nightlife scene subsided substantially as our group transitioned to Beijing, the municipal and cultural capital of China. While Shanghai may steal the show with regard to afterdark pomp & circumstance, Beijing contains not only many of China’s most important historic monuments but a strong sense of where the country stands today. Its newly upgraded metro system is fast and efficient, unusually-shaped skyscrapers decorate its skyline, the air breathes much easier than the pre-Olympic days, and a veritable shopper’s paradise greets the residents and tourists of the commercially booming city. Yet it also holds space for a more traditional generation, as well as the envelope-pushing avant-garde – artists, students, and champions of free thought have found the most expedient channels of growth and change on the streets of the capital. With a population of 23 million and growing, Beijing has a bit of everything.
As a group my fellow students and I took in as many of the city’s hallmarks as we could, touring by walk or run the large grounds of the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, Behai Park, and also material attractions like the Silk Market and Wangfujing. While the immensity of the Forbidden City was impressive, my personal favorite of the city sights remains the “Nine Dragon Screen” of Behai Park – a spirit screen depicting nine dragons in relief that served to protect the ancient princes of state. Of course, no trip to Beijing could be complete without a trek to the Great Wall, so together (or rather, in a long string) we climbed to a lookout tower of a section of the Wall bordering a garrison.
My individual journey in Beijing took me to some of the more underground parts of Chinese culture, sects previously unknown to me. A rendezvous with a longtime friend from my days as a European expatriate deposited me squarely in the midst of the “Chinese Punk” scene, where again my long hair won me attention and allies. Later we went for refreshments with her companions to a nearby vintage shop, the owner of which (another friend) being an organizer of “vintage festivals” all over China. The shop sat nestled in an old hutong of Beijing, essentially a neighborhood of narrow alleyways and buildings constructed long ago in traditional courtyard style. We met again the following night to prepare dinner together, where we set about concocting five customary dishes for a first time houseguest. As “garlic peeler,” my task left the husky remains of no less than thirty bulbs of garlic at my feet by the time my mound of ingredients was deemed satisfactory.
Once the graduate studies had concluded in China, I couldn’t bear to leave the country having seen Beijing alone. Luckily, the nation’s expanding network of bullet trains place many of the distant destinations within reach. A six hour ride at 300kmph brought a fellow student and me to Xi’an, the first capital of China and principal city of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Renowned for unifying the host of warlords occupying the lands that would become China, the emperor is also made famous by the remains of his Terracotta Army that accompanied him into the afterlife – over 8,000 unique figures representing his warriors, chariots, and horses, as well as non-military personages such as officials, musicians, and acrobats. Its discovery in 1974 put Xi’an on the map as a tourist destination, although its ornate palaces, pristine city walls, peculiar Muslim Quarter, and salubrious hot springs also make it an attractive site. Unfortunately, time constraints did not allow me to climb Mount Huashan, one of the five sacred mountains of China, and thus I suspect this visit to Xi’an will not be my last.
Nor to China. International travel, especially over the course of one’s studies in higher education, serves to provide some of the most edifying experiences of a person’s life. The intangible lessons gained through journeys abroad have certainly been a boon to the formation of my character as a global citizen, and I would wish that those faced with the opportunity to travel abroad pursue it with zeal and intention. This excursion to Korea and China has furthered my knowledge of how the world and its people interact, how they exchange information, ideas, memories, and hopeful prospects, and how we are all so universally similar and dissimilar. In the unending quest to leave no stone unturned, I look forward to a future of skipping across the water.
To read more student experiences, visit our Study Abroad blog page.
More information regarding study abroad opportunities can be found on our website.