Excuse us. Where’s the classroom for Korean 101?There’s one trait that the roughly 11,600 foreign students in Korea share: culture shock.
Many are stunned by the hangeul street signs, pepper-laden food (kimchi for breakfast?) and social customs regarding shoe removal when they first land in the former Hermit Kingdom.
Kate Nicholl was one of them. When she arrived as an exchange student in 2001 to study marketing at Yonsei University, the Melbourne native was taken aback by the hordes of people shoving their way onto Seoul's crowded subways and by the lack of privacy in Korean homes and dormitories.
“But I was instantly impressed by the warmth of the Korean people,” says Ms. Nicholl, 23, who continued her studies at Sogang University, and was so impressed that she remained in Korea and now is working for TNS Korea, an international research firm in Seoul.
She recalls walking on a street in the pouring rain, shortly after her arrival, when a car screeched to a halt by her side. The driver leapt out, ran to Ms. Nicholl and handed her an umbrella. He turned and dashed back to his car without saying a word.
Friendliness is the rule rather than the exception, she notes. She tells how a friend from Australia had hoped to pay for a meal at a restaurant with a traveler’s check, which are rarely accepted in Korea. He was standing at the cash register, dumfounded by the situation, when a stranger eating his dinner rushed up and handed him a 10,000 won ($8) note.
Foreigners sometimes say they’re surprised by the group mentality, which includes the class and office parties where attendance (and drinking) is practically mandatory, and the way best friends often dress the same. And some are surprised by the number of public protests.
Korean inquisitiveness often comes as a shock. Many cultures are more guarded about personal information, so foreigners are occasionally taken aback by the five questions that seem to follow most introductions:
1. Where are you from?
2. How old are you?
3. Are you married? (Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend?)
3a. If you are married or engaged: How long have you been married or going out?
3b. If you’re married: How many children do you have?
4. What do your parents do?
5. How much do you earn?
Vera Dian Damayanti, a 28-year-old Indonesian majoring in landscape architecture at Seoul National University, has weathered countless questions, beginning with her first name, which is Vera Dian Damayanti. (Indonesians very often don’t have last names.)
But most queries have concerned her religion. Vera (her nickname) is Muslim.
Korean students weren’t accustomed to seeing a classmate pray, and certainly not five times a day. Initially, Vera felt awkward and went back to her dorm room at least three times daily to pray.
As time went by, the students became more comfortable with the prayer ritual, and Vera found she could kneel on her prayer rug in her studio space without attracting undue attention.
Dealing with Korea’s drinking culture was another matter. “I was very surprised to see people drink so much and so often,” Vera recalls. Strict Muslims don’t drink at all.
Since drinking is part of Korean social culture, and Vera is very outgoing, it was only natural that her friends would ask her to go out to drink the local liquor, soju.
“It seems that Koreans go to a pub for a shot or two whenever they have the time,” she observes, noting that she had to repeatedly explain that her religion prohibits drinking. Now, her friends ask her to dinner; no one suggests that she share a drink.
Vera felt lonely when she arrived in Korea in August 2001. “I sometimes still get terribly homesick,” she admits, adding that she chats with her brother in Jakarta via the Internet and sometimes buys a phone card to call friends and family. She has only been home once, for research, and won’t return to Indonesia until she graduates late this summer.
Vera is the secretary of the Indonesian Society, which helps both Indonesian students and workers in Korea. It gives her the opportunity to interact with people from her country whom she wouldn’t otherwise meet. “It’s not easy to make deep friendships,” she says. “But I have a few good Korean friends who help me whenever I have academic problems, and some Indonesian friends with whom I can talk about more personal problems.”
Sometimes world events can make the foreign-exchange experience a bit unsettling. It hasn’t been an easy year for American students on Korean college campuses. There were anti-American protests in several cities last fall following the deaths of two Korean girls who were accidentally hit by a U.S. Army vehicle. And, more recently, there have been numerous anti-war and anti-U.S. protests leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Mishael Mario Romero, an exchange student from the University of California at Los Angeles, says some Korean classmates have told him, “I don’t like America, but I don’t dislike you.” He has heard the same sentiment expressed by Canadian exchange students.
Mr. Romero, 21, says he feels uncomfortable when classmates criticize Americans, but says he hasn’t experienced any discrimination and hasn’t been questioned about his nationality when he’s on campus. His says his friends perceive the difference between Americans and the U.S. government’s foreign policy.
Most students say that living in a foreign country changes you. Rose Holandez, an exchange student who came to Ewha Womans University for a semester last year, says she became “a more patient and hospitable person” after just five months here.
“I wouldn’t have survived without the warmth I received from my roommate, classmates, professors and all the other people who have been so kind to me,” says Ms. Holandez, a political science major, who’s completing her undergraduate studies at Saint Peter’s College in New Jersey.
She recalls how, shortly after she arrived, she had been toiling for hours in a computer lab and another woman ― a complete stranger ― sat beside her and offered to share a snack.
“People just come up to their friends or to strangers, who are busy working, and give them chocolate, bread or pieces of fruit. They simply want to show they care and offer encouragement,” Ms. Holandez observes. Now that she has returned to the U.S., she says she’s trying to be equally hospitable to the international students whom she meets.
Not every foreign student has good experiences here. May Huang, 23, is an ethnic Korean who was born and raised in mainland China. Despite her family living three generations in China, the Huangs have preserved their Korean culture, and Ms. Huang speaks fluent Korean as well as Mandarin and English.
Ms. Huang, who’s attending the Graduate School of Pan-Pacific International Studies at Kyunghee University, is married to a white Australian. She notes that while interracial marriage still is rare in China, a mixed couple generally doesn’t draw comments or attention.
“Koreans still hold prejudices against mixed marriages,” she says, and the comments she overhears when walking with her husband in Seoul sometimes make her uncomfortable.
When she was buying a flower pot with her spouse in Itaewon, the shopkeeper clicked her tongue disapprovingly and whispered in Korean, “Why do you throw yourself away?”
Ms. Huang feels that Koreans hold Asian women in lower regard if they’re married to foreigners, especially Westerners, almost as if they’ve sold their bodies. She also says that she’s treated differently on campus once she tells her classmates that she’s from China.
As a graduate student, Ms. Huang instantly commands respect. But as a young graduate student, she seems to get much less respect once students learn her age.
Korea’s tradition-bound Confucian society still places emphasis on hierarchical relationships. Ms. Huang notes that when students don’t know her age, they’re polite and talk to her in honorific terms. But once they realize she’s younger than they are, they speak to her casually, sometimes using crude language.
However, Rainer Groene, a former exchange student at Ewha Womans University, says cultural differences are to be expected ― and embraced.
“Having an open mind is the answer,” says Mr. Groene, a native of Germany, who experienced culture shock when he arrived in Korea ― being a male at an all-women’s university. Only foreign males are permitted to attend Ewha; Korean males are prohibited.
“I came to Korea to experience the differences between German and Korean culture,” says Mr. Groene, who is majoring in economics at the University of Paderborn in Germany.
Attending Ewha required Mr. Groene to do things he would never do at home, such as adhere to an 11 p.m. curfew. Coed colleges without curfews are the norm in his country.
“Sometimes I get angry with international students who complain about the different lifestyle here in Korea,” says Mr. Groene. “If they expected the same lifestyle, then why did they come to Korea in the first place?”
Organizations extend welcome to foreigners studying in Korea
With the number of international students in Korea growing each year, several universities are sponsoring organizations to help foreign and Korean students meet.
Yonsei University has the nation’s most ambitious program, housed in its Global Lounge, a facility that was completed last November. “The Global Lounge serves as an on-campus window to the world and the global community,” says its director Kim Tae-hwan.
The lounge is open to all students ― Korean and foreign ― to provide cultural, ethnic and academic exchanges. International movies are shown on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays and discussed afterwards. A monthly Global Forum allows students to debate current issues, such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq and sex at Korean universities.
The Global Lounge provides information on clubs so international students can join and interact with local students. It encourages the formation of new clubs, such as a Bible study group that meets regularly.
International students can also consult with the Global Lounge's staff to discuss the selection of classes and professors and ask about good places to visit and eat.
“Global Lounge is a meeting place for international students and Korean students,” says Mishael Mario Romero, an exchange student from the University of California at Los Angeles. He explains that before the lounge was opened, most international students lived, studied and congregated near Yonsei's east gate, while the Korean students met in the Student Center and areas by the school's main gate.
“In the past, I felt that I was segregated from Korean society,” says Mr. Romero, 21, who’s majoring in comparative literature. “Today, I feel that I’m a part of the school and Korean society.”
The International Student Association in Seoul (ISAS) is another group for international students. Established last September, it helps foreign students meet local and fellow international students attending other schools.
ISAS holds monthly activities, such as parties and tours of the area. “We try to show students around Seoul, but not the famous places where they'd go anyway,” says Park Ji-min, the president of ISAS. The group has a Web site at isas.kr21.net, and is using it to help prospective students learn more about studying in Korea.
by Park Sung-ha