Struggling to study in Korea – my thoughts

Let me start by saying that this post is entirely my own opinion and does not reflect the position of anyone else or any other institutions. Also, what I’ll be talking about is based on my own experience here in Yonsei UIC so I know that I can’t generalise for all universities across Korea. But I would just like to clarify that while there are many reports about Korea being “racist” or unaccepting of foreigners and so may affect some of your decisions to come here to pursue your studies, my experience here so far is a different story.

A few weeks ago, my friend posted this link on Twitter and so being an international student studying in Korea myself I was curious as to what other international students here thought about studying here.

The article here:

The author of this article is an Indonesian student in her freshman year at KAIST. She also happens to be a Muslim who wears a hijab (a headscarf). In the article, the main problems she mentioned include:

1. Language barrier

2.  “Koreans don’t seem to feel comfortable with questions, and are slow to criticize

3. Tendency to be unaccepting of other cultures

First, the language barrier. This is probably the biggest problem many international students face, and I myself have this problem as well.

Yonsei UIC provides all its classes in English so there’s no problem with that, but there is a Christianity course which is a required course, and it is non-UIC exclusive. While the class was conducted in English, when we had to break up into groups for discussion, most groups did the discussion in Korean even though the professor placed one international student in every group to ensure that the discussion would be in English, and that we can get to know more people from different colleges. In my group, they discussed in Korean and there was no way for me to participate in the discussion. They only gave me option A and option B, and told me to choose one of them. Many of my other friends faced the same problem too.

Yes, I did face this problem. However, I just wanted to say that it really depends on the people you’re with. Not all Koreans are like that. One of my friends had a member in her group who insisted on using English (despite not being too good at it). Also, while I was pretty angry and frustrated at that point in time, on hindsight, I could also understand that some Koreans who are not from UIC are also uncomfortable with English too. While it wasn’t right of them to just discuss entirely in Korean and not ask for my opinion, they later made up for it by translating for me and considering some of my ideas subsequently.

Also, if you think about it, everyone would be more comfortable in their native tongue. Coming to a different country made me realise this. Whenever I meet a Singaporean I would slip into Singlish (the full set of lahs and lors complete with the Singlish accent), and the same goes for my other friends from other countries. I think what’s most important is to know not to leave anyone out because of the difference in language. Of course, even my school isn’t all that perfect in that sense, but I do see many improvements after coming back for my second semester this year, and the professors are also making efforts to ensure that class work and discussions would be in English.

This also leads to some questions about international students being left out because they can’t speak Korean/they aren’t Koreans.

I myself hang out more with my friends from Asian countries. The Koreans tend to hang out with the Koreans. The people with Western backgrounds tend to hang out more together too.

This is the observation. However, what kind of conclusion do we draw from this? To an outsider, it may appear that we are all segregated into our own communities, and the international students are being left out.

Being in this situation, I can tell you that I don’t feel left out. I do have Korean friends. There are also some international students who feel comfortable hanging out more with Koreans.

Here comes the keyword: comfortable. I personally believe that it is in human nature to become closer to or hang out with people with whom you share similar interests in or have common topics to talk about. Think about the time you were back in high school, in your own country. Didn’t you hang out more with friends you had common topics to talk about to?

In my opinion, this is the same thing. I’m closer to my Asian friends because we share a more similar culture. The Koreans find it comfortable to hang out together because they share the culture and the language. It is the same for the Westerners.

And let me clarify that this does not mean that we don’t interact at all. We can do work together, we can go out with Korean friends, we can organise an event together, etc. I talk to many of my Korean friends and Western friends too. Some Koreans from other majors who may not speak English that well are really friendly to us and take the initiative to make friends with us too. It is just that when I have problems or when I’m looking for a really close friend to talk to, I would turn to my close friends who happen to be Asian.

Problem 2: “Koreans don’t seem to feel comfortable with questions, and are slow to criticize”

I personally feel that it is not just Korea that has this problem. I would think that generally Asian countries would have this sort of idea that you should accept what your teacher says, or what the institutions that are already in place says. Even in Singapore, I sometimes feel the same.

More importantly, I don’t get this feeling at all. Most of my classmates often raise many thought-provoking questions in class, and our student council has had some movements and campaigns to bring about certain changes. I don’t get the sense that they are afraid of criticizing or voicing out oppositions.

And lastly, the tendency to be unaccepting of other cultures. This problem is the one I have never thought about and in fact, have never faced before. It may be because UIC is so diverse, with many international students from all over the world and also Koreans who have been living overseas. However, the other Korean students not from my college are also really friendly and helpful too. They are mostly students who have lived in Korea all their lives. They help us translate, and also help us in our Korean homework while we help them in improving their English.

If you think that it is only because our culture don’t seem very much different from them, I would like to point out one thing. I have a close friend who is also Muslim and wears a hijab. The author of the article had felt that this was what made it really obvious that she was “different” and so faced difficulties in being accepted.

However, I can say that this friend of mine has many Korean friends. In fact, even the security guard and the cafeteria ahjummas know her! Instead of shying away from her (like you would assume if Koreans are really that unaccepting), they ask her many questions, such as whether it is hot to wear the hijab, where is she from, and the cafeteria ahjumma always reminds her if the food has meat in it (since she can only take halal meat which our cafeteria doesn’t provide). Other students are also friendly and interested in her culture, asking her many questions about Islam such as the meaning of halal meat, why does she need to wear a hijab, and things like that.

The issue that the author mentioned about alcohol was covered in one of my earlier posts here (one of my first posts upon arrival in Korea). I do agree that going socialising and drinking with the Koreans makes it easier for you to make more Korean friends and get closer with them, because it is their culture. It is recommended if you personally don’t mind drinking and things like that. However, it surely doesn’t mean that not going drinking = no Korean friends and can’t fit in.

Look at the example of my Muslim friend (Muslims can’t drink alcohol). She has many Korean friends despite not going drinking to socialise. Many of my friends who don’t go drinking have made many Korean friends from class too.

While I am shocked upon reading the comments made by the author’s friends – “Drinking could make you cool and you could be our friend.” – I can safely say that I have never had this problem before. I may not know how it is like in other universities in Korea, but I am surprised that her Korean friends would say that, given my own experience here and my friends’ experiences here. Even if drinking in Korea is important in socialising, I would never expect anyone to say that to someone who can’t drink because of his/her religion.

Perhaps it is that my school is the exception. Or perhaps it is just her friends.

Whatever it is, I just hope to clarify what she wrote in her article by adding on my own experience here. I could understand her problems for I faced some of them too to some extent, but I just wanted to reassure potential students that Korea (and also Korean universities) is not as xenophobic as sometimes articles make them out to be. There would always be some people like that, but there are also xenophobes in every country too.

I know that with recent cases such as the election of Jasmin Lee to the parliament (she’s a naturalized Korean who married a Korean), and also some xenophobic sentiments rising with the case of a Chinese man murdering a Korean student, many people may feel that Korea isn’t a welcoming and accepting place.

I know that I do not have enough evidence to generalise. All I can tell you are based on my own experiences and my friends’ experiences, which may not be that representative. However, I can say that in my almost 1 year spent here in Korea, I have not felt that I was discriminated against or left out to a large degree, whether in school or outside. The taxi drivers who always ask which countries we’re from (and one of them even told me to speak Korean with my Korean roommate so that I can improve my Korean quickly), sometimes random strangers (usually ahjummas/ahjussis) who come up to me and upon realising I wasn’t a Korean, exclaim how much I looked like one and asked all about my country, the friendly post office employee who would always speak to me in English (even though he may not be that good at it) ever since the first time I fumbled with my Korean when explaining postal details, these are the many kindness that I received from Koreans here, even those not obliged to offer help to foreigners.

There are indeed many improvements that Korea has to make to be more accepting of other cultures and to make foreigners more comfortable with life here. I know because I myself have faced many problems stemming from my amateur Korean and things like that. However, I hope that you would not be misled by some large cases in the media and think that all Koreans are mean to foreigners.

I hope that this loooooong post about what I have experienced have reassured some of you, and also help some of you understand the situation onsite better. I don’t mean to offend anyone, and I don’t mean to criticize the author of the article as well. I just didn’t want any misunderstandings about Korea to arise. And I really appreciate all of you who made it through the looong post till the end! I tend to be long-winded but I feel that this is necessary so…


14 thoughts on “Struggling to study in Korea – my thoughts

  1. ByukoLove says:

    Omg, you covered most of the topic i’ve been worried abt thank you! I already decided that i want to go to UIC (i’ll graduate this year) and i have been looking around for anyone that was studying there so cause i want to ask so many question . Do you mind if i ask u for your FB or twitter ?

  2. Muilin Watananun says:

    Hi, My name is Muilin and I’m from Thailand. I’m currently studying in Australia right now for my undergraduate program. I’ll be going to Yonsei (Shichon campus) for exchange next year from february and I find your blog really helpful. I’m studying korean as a major in my uni right now but really scared how i’m gonna survive when i get there coz my korean isnt that strong yet, honestly. Did you had much trouble surviving there?

    • studyinkorea says:

      Don’t worry about it!!! If your major is Korean I’m sure your Korean is the same, if not better than mine!! And I’m surviving well here haha xD As long as you can make basic conversations (buying things, ordering, telling taxi drivers directions, etc) you’ll be fine.. Moreover if you’re coming for exchange, the school will take care of you (there’s even prepaid phone service etc) and so you don’t have to worry too much ^^

  3. Patty Chen says:

    I still argue the Koreans have this overly strong sense of pride that keeps people that are different than them away. Most of them are so constrained in there own pride they forget everything else. In my opinion, it really isn’t a very diverse country.

    • studyinkorea says:

      Hmm I think it’s true that Koreans have this really strong “Korean pride” thing, but I see changes in the younger generation in being more accepting of people from different places (they don’t leave you out because you are not a Korean). The problem lies in the communication (if they can’t speak English), and probably also a general lack of consideration (ie they don’t really pay attention so they don’t realise that you actually don’t understand Korean). But with the younger generation being “forced” to learn more English, it might be possible that such barriers will become less prominent, and maybe it will become easier for foreigners to communicate with Koreans.

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