Last year, I read an interesting article about Sofie Brodersen, the Danish woman who had learned Korean to teach her husband. Her husband is a Korean adoptee, who doesn’t speak the language fluently. She says this is the initial reason she started learning Korean. However, her “love affair” with Korea has developed day by day. She even won a speech contest organised by the South Korean Embassy in Denmark in 2015. Moreover, she opened her blog to share tips about studing Korean: sofietokorea.com. Of course, she blogs about her travel to Korea too. It may not be an exaggeration that she is becoming a bridge between Denmark and Korea (maybe between the world and Korea). I believed she is the right person to do the next “Road To” interview with. Let’s read about her journey to the heart of Korea. Hope you enjoy.
Ever since I met my husband nine years ago, I have been curious about Korea. My husband, Stig Brodersen, was born in Busan, and when he was only six months he was adopted to Denmark, where we first met while in college. Meeting him and learning about his background made me naturally curious, but I also sensed that his Korean heritage was of no major importance to him at that time. I guess when you’re young, more than anything, you want to fit in and not stand out from the crowd. This had caused him to just completely ignore his Korean roots.
The years passed, and at age 26 we were married in 2010. We became very busy with our studies, eventually graduating and finding jobs, and for a long time I didn’t think much about Korea. After a year in the corporate world working as an energy trader, I was fed up and applied for my university’s PhD program. I was lucky enough to be accepted, and I earned my PhD degree in Economics in February 2015. The summer before graduating from the PhD program, my husband and I both turned 30. Instead of throwing a party, we had talked about going on a trip together, and all of a sudden, Korea was back on the table. Why didn’t we go to Seoul and experience my husband’s birth country? We were both super excited, and I, being the ever curious geek, committed myself to studying the language before going to Korea for the first time. Initially I wanted to just learn the basics, so that we would be able to get by in Seoul. I just never stopped there. I kept going and continued learning Korean on my own (I never took any formal classes), and I met some great Korean friends in the process. Now, a good two years later I consider myself fairly fluent.
During our first time in Korea, my husband and I fell completely in love with the country, the people, and the culture. We vowed to each other to come back within a year. During the year that passed between the first and second visit, I had the opportunity to arrange a one year research/teaching stay abroad as part of my new position as an assistant professor of economics. There was no doubt that this one year should be spent in Korea, so in the fall of 2015 I was invited to come to Sogang University, and when we then visited in December, the details of the stay were settled. We moved to Seoul in the end of July this year, and we’re loving every minute of it. I’m now teaching introductory economics at Sogang, and my husband is running a podcast (www.theinvestorspodcast.com), so as long as he has internet access, he can work from anywhere. Being here together as a couple is a tremendous gift, and we find that the change of environment was just what we needed.
Since I never took any Korean classes, I needed to be part of a Korean learning community. I felt that blogging was an excellent way of doing so. I love to write and having a blog is a great way of sharing experiences and interacting with other Korean learners. I started writing the blog in January 2015, right after returning from my first trip to Korea. To be honest, the blog has also initially served as a way of dealing with the grief of losing my beloved grandmother only 48 hours before flying to Korea for the first time. She was my rock and my mentor, and my world will never be the same without her. Following her own example from whenever something was weighing on her mind, I wanted to keep busy during that darkest time. You see, a busy mind has no time for worries and sadness. Whenever I forced myself to focus on Korean, I could for at least just a short while step out of my state of mourning. It may sound strange, but having my Korean studies to focus on and pour my limited energy into at that difficult time helped me get through what without comparison has been the hardest time of my life. Managing the blog reinforced my commitment to myself, and I’m just so happy that I started writing at sofietokorea.com.
One and only in Korea
It never ceases to amaze me how much Koreans focus on education and learning. Everywhere I go there are hakwons (학원: a.k.a. private instruction institutes) for learning just about anything, and all over the country, bookstores are bursting with books on how to cram for any kind of standardized test. Being a huge fan of education myself, this would seem like a good thing. The problem is that the Koreans are not only studying because they are interested in a certain subject, or because they enjoy learning new things. While this may certainly be true, they are also studying to keep up with one of the most competitive environments in the world. Don’t for a second think that graduating from a good school with straight A’s will land you your dream job. You’ll face strong competition from many with the same “spec”s, and in many cases you’ll have to take even more tests and certifications to ever even get considered for a job at the large national corporations. Seeing my friends and my students worry and stress about their future in this quite unhealthy manner is heartbreaking. It’s my deepest and sincerest wish that young Koreans may experience more free time without worrying that lack of studying will cause them to fall behind in the never ending rat race.
There are so many things to do in Korea, and I’m never bored in Seoul. When I’m off work I like to hike (lots of great mountains to hike in and around Seoul), eat delicious Korean food, go to a noraebang (노래방), or do language exchanges. If you want to learn a language, I cannot recommend language exchanges strongly enough. Having conversation partners is without a doubt the most effective way to learn naturally spoken Korean. This is also how I was learning Korean in Denmark, where I met up with Korean exchange students as often as possible.
Here in Seoul I’ve found a great tutor, who’s also eager to learn English. We meet a couple of times per week and practice conversation. Aside from that, I often visit the Playground Rooftop café in Hongdae. This awesome place arranges language exchange meetings every evening and international parties on weekends. It’s a great opportunity for foreigners to meet Korean friends. I’m a big fan of learning Korean with resources like www.talktomeinkorean.com, through textbooks (highly recommend the Sogang Korean series), and of course through K-pop and dramas. The problem is that if you’re learning on your own, these methods will not have you speaking Korean, and that’s why having a good language partner is crucial.
Aside from learning Korean here, I’m dating a lot. My husband, that is. Even though, my husband and I have been married for six years, there are just so many lovely cafés and places where we enjoy going on romantic dates in Seoul. We usually go out on these small dates several times per week, and it sometimes seems like we’re not only falling deeper in love with Seoul, but also with each other.
Oh, so many. The most striking difference is how crowded the streets of Seoul can be, compared to Denmark. Also, in Denmark I’d almost never go out for dinner. Here in Seoul, it’s rare that we stay in and cook. You can have everything delivered right to your doorstep, and in general, the level of service in Korea is light years above Denmark. I also have to get used to strangers commenting on my appearance when passing me on the street or walking past me in a crowded restaurant. I realize that with natural curls and green eyes, I am a rare sight and usually it’s older Korean women paying me a compliment, but nonetheless it feels strange.
There’s no doubt that I often feel more at home here than I did in Denmark, and I love it when people call me my Korean name, (소희) or any other Korean appellation like 교수님 or 누나. We’re definitely open to any opportunity that could prolong our stay here, but it’s still too early to tell. So far, my Korean language skills and culture knowledge has landed me a freelance job as a consultant for the Denmark-based consulting company Connecting Cultures. I often joke with my husband that even though I’m 32 and hold a PhD, I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. Luckily, the growing up part is yet to happen and frankly, I actually like that I for once don’t have a clear idea about where I’ll be in a year.
Aside from being an avid language learner, I truly love anything beauty-related. Living in Korea means endless opportunities for shopping the latest in skin care and makeup, and the sweet sales girls are always very generous with their free gifts and samples. It may seem materialistic, but I just love this side of Korea as well.