Korean students in American colleges must wrestle with their identities and sense of belonging
By Cho Park
“I don’t know,” laughed Justin Wee, a freshman at Haverford, as he ran his fingers through his hair. “Does anyone ever belong anywhere?”
It’s a question echoed by many students from Korea who have chosen to study in the United States. With America renown as the land of opportunity, many Korean parents have seized the chance to send their children to colleges in the United States, hoping to provide them a better future. According to the Institute of International Education, South Korea, with a population of 50 million, ranks third in the number of students sent to America. China and India, with populations of over a billion, rank first and second respectively.
While living in the U.S., some Korean students have easily adopted American customs. Others have been hit with severe homesickness that has prevented them from enjoying college life. On one end of the spectrum is Samantha Rim, a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College who said that she had “adapted to the American lifestyle quite well.”
For Rim, coming to college in the States was nerve-wracking at first. Rim had attended the same international school in Korea from second grade through high school, and had grown up with the same group of friends for years.
“I didn’t know if I could make new friends, after having had the same friends for so long,” she said. “I’m so glad that I had no problems – I know some of my high school friends did when they also came to the States.”
Rim had never lived in America before college; her only experiences with the States stemmed from summer trips to her aunt who lived in California. Instead, she had called Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Singapore her home before settling down to live in Korea. With an international origin, Rim recalled her childhood with fondness.
“I think I’d probably like to settle down in Southeast Asia later… I have so many good memories from there, and it really gave me a multi-cultural experience in a way that the States hasn’t really done for me,” Rim said wistfully.
For someone who has lived in Korea for so long, Rim has decidedly American tastes. Her favorite television shows are American. Her clothes are exclusively American brands. When talking with her friends, her language of choice is English – her Korean comes out with a mild accent. Although she has a range of multi-ethnic friends, she she chooses to go Global Covenant Church, a church known for its predominantly Korean-American congregation.
“I really click with the people there, I guess because I went to a Korean-American church back home,” Rim said.
She enjoys college life with zest, dressing up during weekends and going out to party at nearby Haverford and Swarthmore. With her smooth, tan skin and an exotic face that is always carefully made up, Rim has many admirers from both schools.
To many, Rim may seem like a success case. She has effectively integrated herself into college life at Bryn Mawr, with a busy social life and an innumerable amount of friends keeping her occupied. Yet she still admitted that “I call my parents every day, and frequently talk to my ex-boyfriend from high school… he’s part of what I feel is home, which helps me deal with things in some ways.”
On the other end of the spectrum, then, is Jenny Oh, another sophomore at Bryn Mawr College who found the transition between Asia and America more difficult. Unlike Rim, Oh is more reticent when it comes to meeting new people, although she chatters endlessly with those she does become close with.
She watches predominantly Korean shows and listens to Korean music, while dressing up with small bows and ribbons that look decidedly Asian. Unlike Rim, Oh lived in the States before she entered college; she had attended middle school in Missouri before moving to Shanghai for high school. The move was a drastic change that Jenny embraced, as she loved every aspect of the fast-paced Asian culture.
“I love everything that has to do with a big city… the parties, the transportation, the food, the fact that everything is open all night,” Oh said. “In Shanghai, I also got to meet a lot of international people from different cultures… Shanghai was all excitement, where I could walk anywhere and get somewhere, without even having to plan anything.”
Coming back to the States was something she was unprepared for, especially as Bryn Mawr wasn’t her first choice of schools. The college is located 10 miles outside of the nearest big city, Philadelphia, in a classic American suburb. It had been strongly recommended by her father, who liked the idea of his daughter attending an all-women’s college. Oh thought differently.
“I felt like I was stuck in a rut when I first got here – there was no where to go and nothing to do. Everything was so blank and it felt like I was stuck in a prison… the first semester was hell,” Oh said.
Oh was surprised at the changes she made in her lifestyle as she became accustomed to American life. She found herself seeking out more Korean friends – something she had never done while living in Shanghai.
“I never had Korean friends in high school,” said Oh. “Korean kids within an international school have their own subculture that is hard to get into; as someone who had just moved from Missouri, it was more comfortable hanging out with European and American girls. Now, I tend to hang out more with Korean kids, though.”
Although still difficult, Oh admits that life has become much better now that she has met friends she can relate to. If given the chance, however, she would go back to Seoul or Shanghai, because that’s where she feels most at home.
“Sometimes when I’m feeling really sad, I watch sad movies and force myself to cry,”’ Oh said. “It helps relieve stress and makes me feel better about myself.”
Of course, the movies are Korean.
Rim and Oh have had vastly different experiences while adjusting to American life. Many students from Korea feel the same. Some can’t stop thinking of home while others can’t wait to get away from home. Some are neutral, saying that they enjoy some aspects of American culture, while disliking others.
“The American education system is really nice, especially the freedom you get in choosing your own courses and having two whole years before you have to choose your major,” said Justin Wee. “I love the atmosphere in the classes here… it’s not just the professors lecturing at you, but a mutual relationship where ideas are discussed and shared.”
In Korea, classes known to be strict and disciplinary action enforced, schools. Schools in the States are attractive for the freedom they offer students and the encouragement to ask questions. In addition, Korean colleges requires students to choose their majors before applying to colleges, meaning they are given no time to explore different fields.
The process of applying to Korean colleges is one of excruciating stress. With a limited option of elite colleges available, there is extreme competition to enter the top colleges available. For the number one choice for many students, Seoul National University or the “Harvard of Korea”, the acceptance rate is 0.5%. According to the Chosun Ilbo, for students who don’t get into these elite colleges, their options become severely limited – employment in white-collar jobs are virtually nonexistent.
To apply, students must take examinations twice a semester that are very much like the SATs, and must perform well to even receive a chance at getting into their school of choice. With the majority of students failing their first time around, they must repeat the process twice or more to ensure a better livelihood. With such harsh procedures, the suicide rate amongst students is high; “one of the leading cause of death for people in their 20’s and 30’s,” said the Ministry of Health and Welfare in South Korea.
“I came here because I didn’t want to deal with the competitive nature of Korean universities,” said Wee, who came to Haverford College this year. “I don’t think I can assimilate back into Korean culture after having experienced life here.”
While the Korean work force acknowledges the quality of American education by employing many students who have studied overseas, there are other problems these students face when they try to settle back in their homeland. The fact that these families are wealthy enough to send their children to the U.S. is seen as an example of elitism and luxury that most Koreans don’t have. When students who studied abroad try to acclimate into the regular Korean work force, they can be ostracized for their presumably higher status.
“What I’m worried about is the lack of connections I’m going to have when I go back to Korea, since everything there is about in-maek,” said Wee. “It’s a really big disadvantage, since the people who attended Korean colleges have connections from the alumni, while I’ve been studying in the States so I haven’t been able to get to know anybody in Korean corporations.”
“In-maek” refers to knowing the right people who could potentially “get you an in” at work places. It is not uncommon for people to get hired through the connections that they have, rather than solely merit.
These are cultivated largely in colleges and, among men, by mandatory military service, which creates a fraternity-like big brother and little brother relationship. Referred to as the “sunbae-hoobae” relationship, the elder brother, sunbae, is responsible in many cases for introducing his younger brother, hoobae, to people who could potentially help his career. This stems from the Confucian adage that calls for respect for elders, who are seen as wiser.
“I hate the nepotism that there is with the whole sunbae-hoobae thing,” said Kyu Hyun Chang, another freshman at Haverford College. “Korean-Americans and international students have a different view on things, especially since we’ve been exposed to different cultures, and I think it’s stupid to suck up to people who don’t necessarily deserve it just because they’re older. I don’t know if I could give up my American beliefs to adjust myself to Korean culture anymore.”
Chang has embraced the liberal nature of American culture full-heartedly, although it remains to be seen whether he has fully integrated himself into the social life. Chang says it doesn’t bother him if his work ethic stops him from having American friends.
“I came to study so my priorities are academics,” he said. “If my American friends want to play video games with me, I can’t say yes because I don’t have the time or luxury. I don’t usually get a lot of free time anyways, since studying takes up most of my time.”
This view was echoed by Justin Wee, who said he didn’t mind the lack of social life he had at Haverford.
“With my college friends, I talk mostly about crew, working out, studying, and parties,” Wee said. “It’s my high school friends in Korea that I turn to when I get lonely or if I need to talk about something really personal, and it’s fine that way. I’m usually too busy studying to hang out anyways.”
The nature of belonging neither here nor there has created what Jenny Oh calls, “a special breed of people.” As many struggle with the question of identity and belonging, they realize that the answer is not as clear-cut as they could have hoped. In an effort to establish a distinct identity, they sometimes go to extreme measures to cut themselves off from one culture.
“I purposefully avoided Koreans when I first came to the States,” said Solhee Yu, a senior at Bryn Mawr College. “I somehow got the idea that as an international student, I needed to have only white friends. Now, I realize that it’s what makes you comfortable that matters, and I know I’m the most comfortable when I’m with other Koreans – I can never click with other ethnicities the way I do with Koreans. I don’t even know why.”
Kyu Hyun Chang believed it came down to perception, whether you decided to take it negatively or positively.
“On one hand, you could say you don’t belong anywhere,” Chang said. “But on the other, you can say you have the advantage of being able to fit into both.”