The University of Iowa

Student Reflections on Race and Ethnicity: Cultural Difference in Korea

August 21st, 2013
Eunice Kim studying abroad in South Korea

Dear University of Iowa students,

I went to South Korea as an exchange student for 2013-spring semester. I am a Korean American and both of my parents are from Korea. However, my mom grew up in Iowa but my dad was raised in Korea. I share a lot of common experiences with my mom from growing up in the States, whereas sometimes my dad and I don’t see things eye to eye due to the cultural differences between us. That is why I decided to study in Korea to understand Korean culture and experience what it’s like to live in my dad’s motherland.

The advantage for me was that I am a bilingual and I could speak Korean fluently enough for me to take some classes that are taught in Korean as well as English taught classes which most of my fellow exchange student friends took. I was very fortunate that I was able to take some classes with natives and gave me more opportunity to mingle with the native Koreans. I was able to express myself more freely to Koreans, and in return, conceive more cultures and ideas easily. It took no time for me to adjust to the new setting. Having the same heritage and speaking the language definitely was an advantage for me because I felt like I fit in there even though I don’t live in Korea.  

Even with the advantages, there were some issues with studying in Korea. Even though I looked Korean and spoke the language, it was hard for me to make new Korean friends in classes. This was because they knew I was a foreigner and they were hesitant to speak to foreigners. Since they didn’t approach me first, it was harder for me to be truly one of them. Korean students make a small society within majors, so as for me, there were no place for me to fit in because I was just an exchange student. So it was a struggle for me to make new Korean friends at first. But as time passed people started to open up so I was able to be friends with them.

One other thing that you may need to be prepared for is the academic expectations. Koreans are very studious and smart in their own way. A lot of the materials are memory based. Korean students are well trained in this way so it might be hard to catch up with the class. You have to understand the system and cope with it. It is important to stay on top of the class otherwise there will be no meaning in studying abroad.

Another thing was the cultural difference. I needed some time to adjust to the new environment and culture of the university that I was attending. It was a lot different from America. Korea has a distinctive drinking culture that might be a shock to American students. There are a lot of drinking games and sometimes, you maybe forced to drink alcohol. It is considered rude to pass the drink from elders including your professors, and yes, it is common in Korea to hang out with professors and drink with them. As long as you understand the cultural difference, it will be a great experience for you.

Just remind yourselves that studying abroad can be fun if you accept and are willing to open up to the new culture. The experience can be life changing depending on your attitude. Always try new things, make new friends, and stay on top of the classes. With this mindset, I assure you will have a blast. 

Eunice Kim