Walker Smith has always had an inkling to travel abroad for a long time, especially Asia. He had been looking for the right opportunity for two years, so when it presented itself, he quickly jumped at the chance to spend two weeks in Seoul, South Korea, as part of an independent study program.
Walker was drawn to Asia from his involvement with Taekwondo, a modern Korean martial art similar to karate, while having conversations with his instructor, who was Korean. This trip would become the best of both worlds for Smith: a chance to learn a new language and earn college credits while getting exposure to the Korean culture.
Walker, a 2017 Picayune Memorial High School graduate, is in his junior year at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM). He was all set to go the previous summer (2018), but the class was cancelled. This year, everything fell into place for him to make this amazing trip.
“I wanted to do something different than going somewhere where everyone else was going. I saw where this particular university (Konkuk University) did a summer program that tied a history class to a Korean language class. As a public relations major, I’m required to have one foreign language class,” he explained.
Walker added that he was one of three students from the U.S.A. in the class and the only one from USM.
Walker, the son of Sandy Kane and Cathy Smith of Picayune, said he had dabbled with apps, like those one can download to a smart phone, but once he got into the class, he realized there was a lot missing from that method of learning to speak the Korean language.
“The history class was a lot about the Korean culture and history, and it also introduced me to how the language came about, which by having everything together, made it easier to learn, “ Walker explained.
Walker said part of the class was to learn Korean Braille which is the alphabet of the Korean language.
Walker stands at the entrance to Olympic Village in Seoul
The schedule was regimented daily with the history class in the morning starting at 8:00 a.m., a break during the middle of the day to run next door to a mall for lunch and a break, and then back to the Korean language class in the afternoon. Walker said this format was most important in the learning process.
“The language was actually easy to learn. The emperor who created the language wanted to make it where it was easier to write. Prior to this, they used Chinese letters. All the letters of the Korean language are the shape of your mouth when you make the sound. While it makes it easier to read, it’s very hard to write it,” Walker stated.
“Koreans don’t know English very well, so you have to learn to speak their language to communicate as you go around their country, especially if you are by yourself.”
Walker's culture instructor was actually American and he explained Korean culture from the view of a visitor to South Korean.
Konkuk University (pictured above) is located in the Gwangjin District of Seoul, which Smith said was a very nice area. The city of Gwangju is the sixth largest city in South Korea and is located on the north bank of the Han River, to the eastern end of Seoul and was created from neighboring Seongdong District in 1995.
Konkuk University has an enrollment of 2,500 international students and is part of the Korean government’s push to continue to make education a large part of the economy of South Korea. A falling birth rate and a projected shortfall in domestic applicants, along with a desire to foster strong international ties, are driving forces behind the local government’s efforts.
Walker was especially thankful for the International Summer Program (ISP) students who volunteered to take him and other visiting students on short adventures that made it possible for him to see the many different aspects of Korean life.
Walker said there exists two distinct views of the United States among the people of South Korea.
“The older generation loves the U.S.A while the younger generation has a different opinion, which is mainly driven by the situation with North Korean government. For the most part, they love Americans. It’s a weird dynamic,” he shared.
“From what I observed, the older generation wants a united Korea because of the division of families that has occurred with the split of north and south, while the younger generation believe that in the end, they will be the ones who will have to pay for the restoration of the North Korean economy which is currently trashed,” Walker stated.
Walker said there are very few American made products and about everything is either a product of South Korea or China.
He enjoyed seeing different aspects of the current way of life in South Korea and a trip to an ancient palace that was restored stands out.
“We went to the palace (Gyeongbokgung) that was part of the Goryeo Dynasty and we all dressed up in Hanbok. The colors were so different, and with the architecture and the history, it was fascinating, “ he said.
Walker said the Korean cuisine was amazing, especially the barbecue and fried chicken.
“Coming from Mississippi, I never would have thought someone would rival our food, but the Koreans might give us a run for our money with a dish they call 'Honey Butter Chicken' that is probably the best chicken I’ve ever had,” Walker said with a big smile. “The Koreans love spicy food, especially cabbage.”
The skyline of Busan in the southern end of South Korea.
He was so impressed with how the Koreans treat each other, especially in public situations.
“It’s very safe. They approached everyone, even visitors, like it is part of a brotherhood. I observed a situation where a young lady appeared to be drunk on the subway and people who didn’t know her were making sure she was okay and they were making telephone calls to find some of her friends to find out where she needed to go. It was that way all the time. No matter what time of day, I never felt uncomfortable or in danger,” Walker elaborated.
Walker said he observed a lot of traditional street markets in the shopping districts that sold a lot of Korean items at wholesale prices.
He also noted that Karaoke is very popular in Seoul. Walker said there are locations where you can go with others and rent a room and enjoy karaoke with your group.
There are also a lot of coffee shops and food places, especially around the Han River that runs through the middle of Seoul.
One of the biggest surprises Walker experienced while in Seoul was the absence of bath tubs.
“It’s quite different. All of the water just runs out on the floor. It’s right there by the sink and the toilet, and it all just runs out of the same spot. So when you take a shower, the water is just running all over the floor.”
Walker hopes to make a return trip in the future to take a deeper dive into the culture.
“It’s a great experience. The way they treat Americans is amazing. I never once encountered anyone being rude. Everyone took the time to help you. The people there don’t see individuals, they see everyone working together. It’s really neat in that everyone helps each other,” Walker stated.