"You're going where?" This was what most people said when I told them that I was going to go to Costa Rica for a year. For those who don't know where Costa Rica is, it's situated in Central America. I like to say that it's the skinniest part of the American Continent. It's pretty much as far from Korea as you can get.
The first reason I went to Costa Rica was because I needed to learn another language. As an international studies student, I need to obtain at least a B+ in a foreign language class and since I didn't speak any more languages, it seemed logical. The second reason was that I needed more stimulation in my life. I was starting to get bored of the whole "go to school, study, and take exams" routine. I wanted to expose myself to situations and cultures that I'd never experienced before. I had always been interested in learning both Spanish and Chinese but China seemed too close to Korea and I wanted an experience that was as distant from Korea as possible, so I chose Costa Rica. I now realize I learned much more than just the Spanish language.
The first thing I noticed when I got to Costa Rica was that individual boundaries were a lot smaller than those of Koreans. For example, when latin people talk to each other, they stand so that their faces are only around 10 cm. apart. They also greet each other by hugging and "air kissing" each other on the cheek regardless of whether they know the person or not. A lot of Koreans find this custom very hard to get used to but once you get used to it, it seems the most natural thing to do in the world. I had a hard time when I came back to Korea because I kept wanting to kiss all my friends! Another significant difference was their attitude towards life. I have never met people who could care less about time. Everyone does everything slowly and at their own pace. For example, if someone says that they are throwing a birthday party and says it starts at 6 p.m., this usually means that the guests will start getting ready for the party at 6 p.m. If the cable guy says he'll come in the afternoon, it might mean an afternoon sometime next week. No one is ever busy and people don't like to be rushed. This is all because of their "let's not worry too much about the future and enjoy the present" attitude towards life. Some Koreans may find this a little frustrating because they are so used to the "work hard, succeed quickly" culture, but as a person who was tired of the intense competition of Ewha and a constantly busy life, this kind of attitude towards life was like a breath of fresh air.
There are so many other differences between Korean culture and that of Latin America that it would take at least five more of these columns to describe them all. But each one of these differences has helped broaden my perspective and I've come to know what it really means to live in a culture that you're not accustomed to. It has also helped me to respect each culture for its own and to appreciate the Korean culture even more. After all, when a Korean cable guy says he'll come in the afternoon, at least I know he'll come by 7 p.m.
Choi Chan-mi (International Studies, 3) studied Spanish at the Instituto de Lengua Espanol in Sna Jose, Costa Rica.