Korean Students Abroad

I became inspired to write this post after reading this post from Brian in Jeollanamdo, and some of the comments on it, about the behaviour of Korean students in particular when they study abroad.

I’ve been a foreign student in Korea, and also in southern Africa, and I live with a Korean student in the Uk. From my experience there are a few factors which most often come into play here. The first is where the foreign student is from. If they’re from an unknown country where they’re studying, it’s a lot harder because people only see them as someone from that country. A German student has a much easier time in the UK, for example, than a Korean, because the British students know enough of Germany and Germans that they can just speak to them as they would anyone else. When it comes to speaking to Koreans, they don’t know much about Korea, and they don’t have much of a sense of the place, culture or people – through no fault of their own – and so this becomes the focus for whatever relationship they have. Korean students invariably get asked “Are you from North or South Korea? Do you eat dog?” This puts a strain on the foreign student, because they just want to make normal friends.

Another one is language, because everything is made easier when the native students can communicate freely. People often list this as a problem that distresses the foreign students, which of course it does, but it also makes native students less likely to invest in a relationship where conversation isn’t easy. Of course, culture and cultural differences are perhaps the hardest obstacles to overcome. And there are different levels to it. At first, the foreign student must understand the culture of the place where they study, and how it differs from their own, but after that they must learn to accept, and perhaps even follow those differences, and that is most definitely easier said than done. I’ll give an example to illustrate. A group of students are sitting in a pub, having a drink and chatting. The Korean friend of one of the students goes to join them. When he arrives, he waits ’til he has their attention, bows, introduces himself, says where he’s from and what he does. Sits down. Waits for someone to talk to him… There’s nothing hugely wrong with this, it would just appear awkward to the non-Korean students. It makes him actually less approachable, whereas in Korea such a little introduction would have completely the opposite effect. But events like these can build up, and can leave a foreign student feeling very isolated from the majority population, and also not really sure why. Maybe they think it’s just because of their English, but of course it’s not. And even for those who do understand, if they haven’t been in the culture for a very long time, they may have to be mentally regulating their own behaviour constantly to fit in, which will get frustrating for them.

I know I certainly felt like that when I first studied in Korea, and when meeting other Korean students. I was generally younger, and this made it even harder for me because I met more than a few people who thought it would be quite fun to have a 외국 동생, although for me this often meant I was expected to behave in a way which felt unnatural or uncomfortable towards someone who in my native country would be a friend of equal standing with me. We mustn’t forget that Koreans will experience the same when they go to study abroad. Time certainly improves these things, but I think in terms of friendships, in countries like the UK, America, etc we have very few strict unspoken rules regarding friendships and behaviour amongst friends. We don’t place much of a hierarchy on ourselves, we don’t start many of our conversations with the same few almost ritualistic phrases. We think nothing of being friends with someone 10 years different in age. But as we all know Korea is different. I’m not saying it’s better or worse at all, but in the same way that we may feel uncomfortable when we are thrust into a place where there are some guidelines regarding behaviour and relationships that seem more binding than our own, we may feel restricted – claustrophobic in our relationships, perhaps. But the opposite would therefore be true for Koreans in our environment, with more “free-flowing” relationships, and they may feel completely lost and unaware of their place in things – “western” social networks may feel very chaotic to some Koreans.

Also, in Brian’s post, there was a quote which said;

“In Malay, they are Asian, but in here, there are Whites, Blacks…I am just shrinking. In small community, Asian is not many, so Americans watch me, which makes me feeling bad. I wonder why they are watching me. I am daunted of myself.”

This is an important point. Korea is a fairly homogenous country. The CIA World Factbook (not my favourite resource but a convenient one) lists South Korea as “homogenous (except for about 20,000 Chinese).” The above quote was taken from a woman studying in America, which the same resource lists as being 79.96% white, 12.85% black. Now, obviously there are people from other countries in Korea, although it’s a transient population at the best of times, but typically, the majority of Koreans in Korea see very few if any non-Korean faces – certainly non-Asian. In America, according to CIA statistics (You hope they’d know be accurate) the vast vast majority are white or black. This student is not criticising that, she’s simply noting that she’s gone from being in a place where everyone looked to be of the same ethnicity and culture as her, to a place where she’s in a true minority, but also where the majority is also not perhaps as numerous as she would have expected. It’s a shock to her and it shows in the quote – she doesn’t really know what to make of it, and this makes her very uneasy, very self-conscious.

And as for Koreans not interacting with the native students when they study abroad, I think the biggest problem is their education. Not just that which they receive in school, but from their parents and the media as well. Among some Koreans there is a sense that they have a unique culture (as true of Korea as it is of anywhere else) that can only be understood by other Koreans. Add to this that some Koreans also think that Korean food is superior, as is Korean humour, and just general lifestyle, and you can see why some would seek to replicate this wherever they go. Some Koreans just feel it is too un-Korean to not drink soju with a group of Koreans, to eat the majority of your meals in a non-Korean fashion, forgoing rice, jjigae and soju, and so they stick together, feeding off the comfort of familiarity that is provided by being around each other.

Moreover, I think all people are naturally inclined to mix with people they have things in common with, who come from similar places. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the expat community in Korea, or lack of it. But then think, if you are an expat in Korea, do you not count among your best friends a single person who is a native speaker of your language, and from the same country, or at least a western country? On top of that, there is also this recent movement for expats in Korea to unite, and build a stronger, wider-encompassing community. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for this. All I’m trying to do is to offer up our own actions as a partial explanation for understanding some of the actions of Koreans in a similar situation to our own.

2 Responses to “Korean Students Abroad”

  1. Brian Says:

    Thanks for the link. I just got back to Korea and will have to spend a bunch of time getting caught up on my reading. I’ll stop by with a fuller comment later. But I just wanted to say that comment from the dissertation struck me both when I first read it and now. Malaysia isn’t exactly homogenous. I don’t recall that student’s background—there was biographical information on each one—so I don’t know if she was studying in Malaysia or what, but maybe she was just passing through on vacation. Perhaps she felt pressure in the US because she was in a position of disadvantage, unlike in Malaysia where she’d be from a comparatively rich country.

    I had problems with that dissertation when I first read it in (I think) 2004, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more sloppy I find it.

  2. Matthew Says:

    “…you can see why some would seek to replicate this wherever they go…” I agree. This can be seen of peoples in all foreign countries. One could make the argument that I should be commenting on a Korean-language blog right now instead of an English one. But perhaps I’m overthinking.

    I study Korean at night here and I find that mingling with native Koreans is vital to understanding the language. However, I’m biased. I’m motivated to learn. If I were in Thailand, no offense Thailand, but I wouldn’t have much motivation to hang out with some Thai people and practice my Thai. It makes me wonder just how motivated some of the 유학생 really are.

    Anyways, I wrote two articles about a similar topic that you might find interesting: http://tiny.cc/m3ePb and http://tiny.cc/On4tE

    I just found your blog and I look forward to scouring the archives. Thanks for a well written post ^^


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