Written by: Agnes Kim
One of the best parts of going to Yonsei was the experience of getting to meet new people from all over the world. Yonsei’s student exchange system is truly a world-class exchange program; more than 40 nations were represented by the diverse student nationalities. The opportunity to meet people of so many different backgrounds and cultures was very eye opening.
Often it can be difficult to truly grasp that out there is a world, a world in which all types of people can be found and that, just as often, these people can be radically different than yourself. Many people spend their whole lives surrounded by familiar experiences, people, and settings that never truly challenge their lives. It was truly an eye-opening lesson to find that your local and personal experiences and stories are not things that can simply be assumed to be true–the lives of others of others are so radically different from your own, even as they are taken for granted just as lightly from their point of view. And maybe it was because everyone’s story was different from each other’s but rather than having these differences separate everyone, it ironically ended up being a common thread that everyone could share and relate to. Especially in today’s globalized world, to be forced to learn first-hand that differences are gaps to be bridged rather than ignored at the expense of finding yourself friendless and a loner is a pretty humbling and valuable lesson.
At the same time, it was strange to see that this experience doesn’t exactly translate back at home either. Just as my own personal experiences or views were difficult for other people from around the world to grasp fully, I’ve found that now my experiences abroad aren’t easily understood by friends and family who stayed home, who haven’t seen what I did as well.
When meeting people abroad, they at the very least have the benefit of knowing that a lack of communication went both ways. Yet it’s strange and interesting to find that back home, people listen to your story and because of your familiarity, friendship, or kinship believe or pretend to understand when in truth they don’t. I was in that position before this trip and now know that I didn’t understand then. It’s an odd sensation to come home feeling you’ve grown and changed so much after having learned that there’s a world out there so big it could crush you, yet it seems everything is exactly as I left it since I left. I guess you call that growing up.
However, I also did notice that, particularly at Yonsei, studying abroad can be and is what you make of it. Although there are so many opportunities to see new things, it’s just as easy to stay insulated and see nothing new at all. This was a problem highlighted by the fact that the dormitories and even the associated lecture halls for foreign and exchange students are all gathered and stuck on one corner of the Yonsei campus away from everything else, being secluded and separated.
It can be very tempting to do nothing but take English courses taught by English professors in a class with English students while living in an English housing complex and only make English friends who you only go out in English districts and areas with. Although there’s nothing wrong with that since making new friends and networking is always a great thing. Plenty of the other exchange students, especially those from systems such as the EAP-UC programs that intentionally put you in that environment, did exactly just that. But I think if you’re bothering to go to another country and are surrounded by a global environment, it’s short-sighted to not take advantage of the experience to see a bit of the world and I’m glad to have put myself out there and did things out of my comfort zone and gained valuable experiences that are difficult to come by. I would strongly urge anyone considering studying abroad to do the same.
One of the most interesting cultural differences that I was able to observe in Korea was the drinking culture. Korea was recently mentioned in online research articles about worldwide drinking habits as the nation with the highest alcohol consumption rate per capita in the world and my experience at Yonsei definitely showed me that side of Korean culture; it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the capital of Seoul could easily steal the moniker of ‘the city that never sleeps’ from New York. The most fascinating thing about the drinking culture though was that it seemed to be so deeply tied to the social ladder and work environment. Alcohol serves not only as a rite of passage for newly graduated high school students (the legal age of consumption is 19) but as an engine of social cohesion and professional networking. Whether it is with groups of personal friends, student organizations, or work functions, there are nightly outings attached with the unspoken implication that your presence is required and alcohol must be consumed in order for you to be truly accepted into the fold.
This was both fascinating and baffling when in western culture alcohol is generally considered as simply being a social lubricant that isnt necessary for acceptance among your peers. Whether this is due to the Korean alcohol soju and rice wines being so inexpensive that they are unavoidable or because there is a separate underlying cultural reason I couldn’t tell. But I can attest to the culture shock that you can go through after witnessing a society that functions so normally despite having the level of nightly alcohol consumption and social outings.