SEOUL, South Korea – During lunchtime, my university cafeteria rings not only with loud exchanges in Korean, but also Chinese, Thai, Russian, Mongolian, French, English, Japanese and Malay. While there are many international students at Seoul National University, its diversity is not the result of a welcoming Multicultural Student Services Center or earnest overseas recruitment; it is the process of assimilation that draws these particular students here.
Every weekday morning from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., I join these other students at a college devoted entirely to instruction of the Korean language.
The stories behind each person’s choice to study the language are impossible to fully categorize here. Some study the language to learn the methods of traditional Korean music or to speak with their Korean spouses and teach their children or to reestablish the Korean part of their Korean-American heritage. And the list goes on.
The intense desire of many students to become fluent means that in some ways I have finally found the melting pot that remains a fantasy in much of America. Here, assimilation is not to be feared but embraced. Becoming just like any other Korean means access to university education and job opportunities lacking in many of the students’ home countries.
In Korea, far more so than in America, fluency in the language is needed to attain any sort of decent employment. As a result, language schools like mine offer entrée into Korean life itself. Nowhere is this more clear than among the spouses and girlfriends who are studying the language so that they may communicate better with their new families.
In a recent phenomenon, Korea has started to have many marriages between Korean men and foreign women. In a scene that would be hard to imagine in my GW classes, our teachers commiserate with women about having to raise children in this country and tolerating Korean mothers-in-law.
Aside from the composition of my classes, the concept of being a foreign student is also very different from GW.
While the cafeterias close to our college may contain groups speaking in Ukrainian, Turkish, and Arabic, there are also groups whose common language has become Korean.
I respect the students who come to Foggy Bottom from around the world, but I have never seen them come together and force themselves to leave behind their native language like students here. This assimilation is not just the result of fluency in a common language, but also of the larger induction into Korean life that comes with studying at this college.
Time and again I hear complaints from American students about the way they must learn here. To bolt a language completely opposed in structure and thought patterns onto our brains and our tongues, we have to memorize and rehearse in a way I have never done before in school. In a dozen different ways each day, it is made clear that there is one best way to learn this language and that is to struggle.
In addition to my courses at the language college in the morning, I also go to classes in the other departments of the university. The foreign students who attend the other colleges, who are normally younger and intend to stay in Korea for four months rather than years, remain very much removed from the larger student body.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that the world of an exchange student and that of the Korean students of Seoul National University can be so different from each other. I know I have yet to pass from one to the other and I can see that doing so requires more than an open mind, it requires a metamorphosis that is not easy or painless.
There is an obvious reason why foreign students at GW tend to stick with each other: constant immersion with strangers can be uncomfortable. In the back of my mind, I know I have a life and a career path waiting for me back in America, and so I do not have the same need to assimilate into Korea. But for a great majority of students at my language school – whose spouses and education require them to stay here indefinitely – they cannot afford to stay in a sphere of their own home country, they must conform to a new one.