The recent influx of foreigners on campus is truly astounding. The sight of foreign grad school students dining in the cafeteria or boarding the school shuttle is no longer rare, and even foreign undergrads are spotted occasionally among this year’s fresh faces. These signs, if nothing else, attest to the four-fold increase in the number of international students during the past 10 years. SNU’s efforts at attracting international students seem to have been rewarded with welcome results.
Changes are being implemented to many aspects of SNU to accommodate them and ease the process of getting accustomed to the life in this foreigner un-friendly country. Classes conducted in English - check. Additional cafeteria menus to better suit international palates - check. Announcements made in English at all bus stops and all-around help provided at Global Information Center – check, check. Just name it, and the school has it all.
These kindly considerations should indeed be helpful to those placed on unfamiliar grounds, but they bear little or no relation to what makes up the greatest part of our daily lives – personal, trivial, but nevertheless important, interactions between people. Interactions between international students and native Korean students, in particular, seem somewhat strained. Effort seems to be expended on both sides, but they continue to remain in somewhat uncomfortable, dissatisfying situations.
The truth is that most Korean students have spent their lives thus far without being in a situation where the person standing across from them, who they now have to strike up a conversation with and befriend, did not share the same nationality. The strangeness of the situation is enough to make them nervous, even before other, more practical factors come into play. With an education that emphasizes the uniformity and superiority of the Korean culture over the values of harmonious integration, perhaps students cannot but greet foreigners with a small degree of alarm.
Then there is the notorious language barrier. It is generally accepted that few nations spend as much time and money on learning English as Korea does, and few speak it as badly. But perhaps the bigger problem lies not in the actual level of linguistic fluency, but in the fact that Koreans perceive themselves in this self-effacing way. Lack of experience tends to go hand-in-hand with lack of confidence; Korean students seem to virtually shrink in the presence of foreigners and otherwise well-constructed sentences emerge in inaudible mumbles.
“My roommate seems like a nice girl, but we don’t really know each other. She told me once that she would like to talk to me, but her English isn’t good, so she’s not sure how she’d do that,” said an international student about her new Korean roommate. While the primary function of language is to enable communication, Korean students have the tendency to become obsessed with perfecting their grammar, which is quite irrelevant when it comes to getting the point across. Perhaps such reluctance to plunge into conversations is a vestige of middle and high school education, which is centered on the grammatical, rather than the practical.
And while much attention is being paid to introducing Korean cultures to international students (think kimjang festivals and folk museum tours), not much effort is being made to introduce foreign cultures to Korean students. If an understanding of Korean culture helps foreign students better familiarize themselves with Korea, it should work the other way, too. Truth to be told, if such a project is to be undertaken, it would by no means be an easy job. Problem one: close to fifty different nationalities are represented on SNU campus. Problem two: how does one exactly achieve an understanding of a culture? The tasks seem too big to even attempt.
Admittedly, there are already some, though not abundant, opportunities for Korean students to meet foreign students and cultures such as the SNU Buddy program and the annual International Food Festival (IFF). Regretfully, the short-lived programs and festivals stop at being just a taste of the myriad cultures out there. Students are then practically left on their own to understand cultures they have no access to.
There’s a reason why just about every imaginable organization seems so enthusiastic about going global these days: globalization really is a great idea. Inviting international students to join us is bound to create a colorful, dynamic environment in SNU which can only be said to be beneficial for all parties involved. Now that the long-awaited waves of globalization are finally washing ashore, what SNU needs to do is, against the natural impulse to turn and run, to greet them with a smile.
written by: Helen Kim