Isabel is a student in Law at UCH CEU. She was keen on an international programme, but her experience at the Spanish Embassy at Seoul exceeded her expectations. So, she plans to apply for another destination.
Hello, Isabel! You participated in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation internship programme which, in your case, has been at the Spanish Embassy in Seoul. We would like you to tell us about your experience there.
What have you gained from this experience, both professionally and personally?
It really had a big impact on me in terms of being in a working environment, because I´d never had a job before. So, with it having been my first time, and so rewarding, it has been absolutely fantastic!
And it affected me on a personal level too, because going to the other side of the world, by myself and without knowing what to expect, it was a little like an adventure…and it has been a great experience. I´m really happy because it has all been incredible.
Why did you decide to go to the Spanish Embassy in Seoul? What attracted you to this destination?
Well, a lot of things. I wanted to go far away. I have a Korean friend who told me a little about the culture there too (that it´s a real mix with the West) and that really attracted me. So, seeing it as a potential destination, I wanted to go there.
On the other hand, I wanted an embassy because I knew that the work was broader than in a consulate.
What tasks did you carry out?
The truth is that when I left, I thought that they would have me making photocopies and little else. However, that wasn´t the case; from the very first day, I was like another member of staff. I was given responsibilities like anybody else.
At first I was doing work that was more related to the Consulate field, and since it was summer time, I had to do a lot of processing, like approving students, tourists etc.
Later on I assisted at official events too, cultural events (because all embassies are involved in these types of things), EU meetings, etc.
I did a bit of everything in many aspects: economic, cultural, political…
You started the internship on 1st July and you finished on 26th September. Then, you continue studying your Degree in Law. When you finished your placement, were you sad to leave?
Yes, on one hand I wanted to go back to Spain because of the cultural differences and I was so far away…but I was really sad too, because I´d had such a great time. As a matter of fact, they organised a farewell lunch for me; the ambassador and everyone had a wonderful time…
What struck you most; the Korean mentality or customs?
The truth is that it´s completely different! You can´t even compare it to anything, because I don´t think we have anything in common. Everything is so different, despite the fact that they are very much influenced by the EU, and that they love everything Western, the technology, the latest fashions, etc.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of Asian influence and they are quite sexist. For example, over there a woman will finish work and she has to prepare dinner for her husband. And not an easy meal either, because since they eat lots of little things, they have to make a mountain of different dishes. Unlike the women, the men drink quite a lot once they finish work. Young girls (almost all of them) always have to be pretty, wearing make-up, with their hair done and keeping up to date with the latest trends. Over there, this is fundamental. They live in a fantasy world (especially the young people); everyone has to be very good looking, pretentious.
Another thing that struck me was that they aren´t very affectionate at all (at least, they aren´t used to public displays of affection). For example, parents won´t kiss their children, even if they haven´t seen them in some time. And they are very respectful, above all towards their elders (although there might only be one year of a difference).
Would you say that they are hospitable to people of other nationalities?
They´re very patriotic…when you´re Korean it´s the greatest thing in the world; they consider themselves the smartest and best nation. They are quite pig-headed…they looked at me because there aren´t many people from other countries there and being a young girl, on your own, they stare at you. But I never for a moment felt snubbed by them. As a matter of fact, they love it when you deliver every word in Korean. They really appreciate it! They aren´t the most conciliatory people in the world either, because they look at you a bit suspiciously, but oh well.
As you know, right now the applications are open for these kinds of internships, and lots of students are interested, but they need a little more information, because they aren´t sure what to do when it comes to planning their journey: finding accommodation, for example. Tell us how you managed it.
I started by looking at apartments and rooms while I was still in Spain, but living in Seoul is really expensive. I was even asked for €600 per month for a room without windows! Luckily, I asked the Embassy for help, and since they have a lot of contacts, they found me accommodation which I really liked.
If you had to highlight the personal qualities that grew the most during this placement, what would they be?
Being more open to everything! Here in Spain, you live in a little bubble. You go from your house to university, then back home again, you go out with your friends but you know everything…but over there you arrive and can´t even understand street signs! If you´re in a Western country, at least you understand the writing, but over there you can´t at all. So you have to make a living or do nothing at all. And you have to be more open to other things…ultimately, open the mind.
I´ve gone from thinking “it´s impossible to do this or to do that”, to knowing that I can do it. For example, with food: I would hardly eat anything here. But when you get there and don´t know what you´re eating, you can either eat it or starve!
You also have to connect with a lot of people…for example, you wouldn´t know who lived there and who had a visa. However, later, at the meetings, everything was really formal. It was really varied, that´s what I mean.
In your everyday life, and on the street, I imagine the common language was English…did you have any problems managing?
Not at all. Over there, almost everyone knows English. The truth is that I was surprised, because some of them even spoke better than I did. Maybe sometimes it wasn´t fluent English, but they understand you all the same. On the contrary, here in Spain, you go into a shop and this isn´t the case. It could be due to EU influence, but over there, the Americans have been there a while and it shows.
What opinion would you give about a professional country like Korea, Seoul in particular? Do you think there are opportunities to be included in their world of work?
I got a real surprise with Seoul, because I didn´t really know what I to expect, and it´s a really modern, cosmopolitan city – it has as much to offer as New York. The city is amazing! And work…there´s everything you could want and more. There are so many opportunities.
The thing is that over there, they´re really competitive. The people at university are set on getting the best grades. As a matter of fact, they have a really high suicide rate, because the societal pressure of being the best is so great.
On the other hand, they´re really branching out. I knew some guys from Latin America (lawyers) and they were working out there, because they´re carrying out a lot of deals in Latin America and they need people who speak Spanish. During my internship a Spanish conference took place – Korea as the triangle between Latin America and Europe. What´s more, they love Spanish culture, the food, flamenco…they´re really attracted to Spain! For example, they hear you speaking Spanish and they immediately pay attention.
I assume that, as is the case in other countries, you need a visa to work. Are they very strict about this in Korea?
If it´s a work contract; no. But you have to come with a business sponsorship.
From what you´ve seen, which jobs are most in demand in Korea?
They´re really into electronics over there, and they need all different types of engineers (because theirs are more in technology). They´re also very entrepreneurial and are involved in a lot of deals. These are the jobs most in demand.
What perception do they have of Spanish people?
A very positive one, although they see our economic situation very negatively. But Spanish culture, our way of life, the sun, fiesta…they love that! There are a lot of students learning Spanish. I remember that 10 Koreans came to Valencia this summer…on the other hand, who´s going to Korea? No Spanish students. The Koreans really love to travel.
Regarding what you said before about competitiveness, do you think that Koreans push themselves more professionally than Spaniards?
Much more! And from a young age, too.
I would leave for work at the Embassy at 8.30am and I would see kids in their uniform going to school. When I left, between 6pm and 7pm, the kids were only leaving school too…and those were the ones who left early! Many of them, if they stopped at 5pm, would stay on studying until 9pm, in particular classes or learning loads of languages.
How many languages do they speak?
Definitely Korean and English. At school, as well, they have to learn a little Chinese (which is like another branch of Korean), and then later…well, the more you know the better.
There are a lot of Spanish language schools and people study French too.
Would you advise students, graduates, and candidates of this internship programme in general to think about going abroad?
Absolutely! Here in Spain, the idea of going abroad isn´t very common, it just doesn´t occur to us (especially now, because of the economic crisis) but at most we go to London, Paris…Europe. But the world is huge; there are so many opportunities to work, and so many things to do. I´ve always loved travelling, but since summer, I´ve loved it that little bit more!
Living in Seoul, I made friends from Angola, Argentina…so many different places, and now I want to meet even more people!
What would you like to say to students who are thinking about applying to go abroad, but aren´t sure? Something that you would have liked to know before you left, and that you´d like to pass on.
That it´s an incredible opportunity! I know you don´t get paid and it can be complicated. But you´re far away, and at the same time surrounded by Spanish people in the Embassy who miss their county too…it´s beautiful. I loved it.
Did it exceed your expectations?
Yes, and more! I was motivated, because before going I already wanted to pursue a diplomatic career, but my impression of the experience has been much better than I thought.
It has been perfect, I´ve learned so much and I was treated as an equal. I wasn´t an intern who was only there for three months, I was another staff member.
It was an amazing experience, but it´s important to be mentally prepared and to know what to expect. In the case of an embassy, which is no longer an official institution where you´re represented in Spain…you have to be strict. You have to know where you are and you have to be prepared, because everything you do has a consequence.
You said that before you left, you wanted to pursue a diplomatic career. Do you still have the same ambitions?
Yes, the internship confirmed it for me.
As a matter of fact, when I first arrived, I met the Ambassador and I told him about my ambitions. He told me: “My goal is that when you leave you´ll still want this career; not that you run away after seeing what it really is and what it entails!” And in my case, everything is clearer now, because how are you supposed to know if you like something or not if you don´t do it.
Could you give us a phrase in Korean to round off the interview?
It means “everything´s fine”. It´s used a lot in Korea, to say that everything is going well, there aren´t any problems – it´s used on a daily basis.