The following blog post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow Sarah Duncan. She is volunteer with Justice for North Korea in Seoul, South Korea during the first half of her gap year.

3 connecting flights and 7,106 miles later, I finally arrived at my first gap year destination: Seoul, South Korea! Korea is not on the typical backpacking route in Asia but I was determined to stay here for a number of reasons. My main objectives for coming to Korea were to connect with my mom’s heritage, improve my Korean, and work with an NGO whose mission I knew would align with my values. I wasn’t really sure if I would successfully reach all of these goals but I knew that it would be worth a shot. All in all, I didn’t expect too much before boarding my first flight. It wasn’t until I landed in Incheon Airport and hopped onto a bus that reality hit me hard.

As the bus began it’s way into Seoul, I couldn’t help but tear up at the sight before me. I was overwhelmed by the fact that this was my first time visiting my mom’s home country, and it was at this moment when I truly empathized with my mom’s love for Seoul. Up until that point, Seoul was merely a place with a name to me. I didn’t know what exactly to expect as I only knew what the city looked like from what I would see in K-dramas. Moving towards the inner city, I took a moment to admire the rolling mountains and overcast sky. Cars and buses whizzed past large residential and commercial buildings labeled in Korean. Progressing further into Seoul, I caught a glimpse of Bangwha Bridge which meant the bus was nearing Han River. Crossing the bridge felt unreal as I stared in awe at the vast amount of water and magnificent skyscrapers. I may have gone a little overboard on the description of the scenery, but it is certainly a view I could never forget.

Choosing South Korea as my first destination has brought along bittersweet feelings. On one hand, I am finally visiting a country that I have long awaited to see for many reasons. In some ways, I viewed coming to Seoul as a singular puzzle piece that connected to the whole of my identity. On the other hand, this is a moment I would have loved to share with my mom who has wanted to go with me for so long. Although we couldn’t both travel to Seoul at the same time, I have high hopes that we will be able to experience South Korea together in the near future.

I was met with the liveliness of the city as I hopped off the airport bus at Gangnam district (yes Gangnam like ‘Gangnam Style’ by PSY). So many questions ran through my head as I wondered what things would be like for me from here on out. Little did I know how much I would learn and experience in the weeks to come.