It’s 7 a.m. and Gerald Murphy is waking up for a breakfast of noodles before his 15-minute walk through mountains to teach his collegiate English class.
Murphy hasn’t completed his bachelor’s degree, in fact, he’s not even pursuing a teaching degree, and yet, he’s more than 6,500 miles from his Michigan home teaching English in South Korea.
It was a natural decision for Murphy, a senior at Ferris studying sociology. He was in South Korea last summer as part of Ferris’ study abroad program. As compensation for teaching, Murphy was offered free airfare and lodging during his three-month stay. While in South Korea he spent a month teaching and two months attending classes.
The differences between the United States and South Korea are vast, but one change was especially interesting for Murphy.
More than 99% of South Korean citizens are of Korean descent, according to World Population Review, making Murphy one of few black persons in a country of more than 50 million people. He claims the attention he received made him feel “like a superstar.”
“It was amazing,” Murphy said. “You command so much attention, whether it was good or bad or just curiosity. It just felt good to have all eyes on you when you walk in the room.”
Aside from the annoyance of people constantly wanting to touch his hair, Murphy said being black didn’t have any negative impact on his trip. Though he received a lot of attention, he didn’t experience any discrimination.
“I was in the airport one day getting my hair braided and there was a huge crowd of Asian people staring at us, taking videos and pictures,” Murphy said. “It was a bit uncomfortable because I was really tired … but people would be walking by and take out their phones for pictures and videos and I was like ‘oh my god, I feel like a celebrity.’ I loved it. I love the attention, but after a while it did get irritating.”
In some ways, the culture fit right in with Murphy’s lifestyle. Murphy, who is gay and wears makeup, said that men wearing makeup is far more common in South Korea than it is in the United States.
“They’re very conservative in South Korea but the social norms are very different,” Murphy said. “You see men in makeup, and femininity is more common than [in the United States]. I didn’t face any discrimination, and I was shocked by it, but it’s very common to see guys holding hands and in makeup tutorials and hair commercials. It’s very common and you see it everywhere. I think that was also a huge contributor to why I didn’t face [discrimination].”
In addition to the near celebrity status he gained, Murphy said that he also met great friends who he keeps in touch with regularly, and after the coronavirus recedes he plans to move back to South Korea for at least a few years.
As for the educational aspect of the trip, Murphy said that adjusting to a more disciplined style of learning was an interesting transition.
“The Korean education system is more strict. They really want you to understand the material and grasp the concepts and they want you to apply it a lot. When we were in Korean class [the teacher] would teach vocabulary and right after that we would apply it. Because we only studied for like a month, I would say we learned the alphabet in only two days,” Murphy said.
While some students on the study abroad trip knew no Korean, Murphy says he had a fairly decent grasp of the language before arriving and that many Koreans knew enough English for him to communicate that way as well.
Murphy learned many valuable lessons throughout his Korean experience, by learning the Korean language and culture, and navigating a foreign land essentially on his own. He cites Ferris’ study abroad program as the reason for such a great opportunity.
Murphy has advice for other students considering studying abroad.
“Have a clear destination of where you want to go and figure things out at least a year in advance,” Murphy said. “I would also say work on having the confidence of traveling alone and learning how to navigate these different countries. Learn how to be alone and figure out things and put yourself in uncomfortable situations because you learn more about yourself.”
He also recommends that interested students look into any available scholarships for students studying abroad, and he believes those scholarships helped him offset some of the costs.