If the Tables Turned
By Wednesday afternoon, my hands are stained red. I’ve been serving as a Korean class TA this semester, and it’s an endless stream of grading quizzes and workbooks. The students, some conducting graduate-level studies far beyond my capabilities in science and engineering, struggle with even elementary Korean. But it is not a sense of superiority but rather admiration for the students, with which I marvel at how difficult the language I’ve known all my life can be for a complete newcomer.
The recent controversy surrounding the newly required Korean Language Camp highlights the most frequently cited cause of the rift splitting the KAIST community: the language barrier. The current school administration certainly believes language education to be the panacea of all woes. While it may be a gross simplification of the complex issue, let’s, for the sake of the argument, take it at face value — if the language barrier could vanish, we would thrive in a harmonious jamboree of culture lifted straight from an idyllic university pamphlet (which, for KAIST, ironically does not even include international students — refer to the article below).
The truth is that Korean students have had formal English education since as early as their infancy. Setting the effectiveness of such an education aside, it is undeniable that Koreans arrive at KAIST with a certain level of English competence and exposure. Hence, in demanding the same level of Korean fluency from foreign students, it is easy to forget how unusual and rare Korean could be for many international students. And considering that many come from countries where English is not the first language, the difficulty and frustration of simply getting by is multiplied.
Yet, I have also encountered international students who do not take the initiative to venture outside of the confines of the Korean classroom. As much as KAIST is a global institution, it has an undeniable national identity and context. It may not be a requirement, but when studying at a foreign university, it is courtesy to explore the culture and the surroundings more proactively.
In all, it seems difficult for the two communities to do more than adjust or accommodate. By lumping the groups into them and us, we fail to see the individuals who are struggling to survive in the difficult environment. It is paramount that everyone considers the situation from the other perspective; if the tables were turned, you need to be realistic about the expectations and challenges that you would face, as the other group is facing right now.
We can name technicalities and “reasoning” in order to justify our inactions. If we could be more forgiving and understanding of the other side, if we could view each other less as labels but people who are incredibly different yet shockingly similar, then perhaps one day, there would be no such thing as the other side.
Conflicting Approaches to Resolving Conflicts
It is no secret that when people from different cultures come together as one community, conflicts stemming from cultural differences arise. However, one overlooked problem within such a community is the difference in each culture’s approach to solving conflicts.
At KAIST, KaDaeJeon is undoubtedly the most popular channel through which Korean students voice their complaints. One common type of post is peer criticism towards obnoxious student behaviors, whether perpetrated by Koreans or foreigners. These posts mostly do not solve the issue faced by the author; nonetheless, they increase awareness of publicly undesirable or displeasing behavior and help prevent further obnoxiousness in the long run.
However, when a critical post against foreign students surfaces on KaDaeJeon, it often escalates into a rant that manipulates readers to have a prejudice against foreign students, intentionally or not. The foreign status of the accused is not really necessary to the narrative, as violations of school rules or obnoxious acts are by no means unique to foreign students. This includes singing loudly in the dorm, littering in a common space, and disorderly conduct, among others. These rant-like posts come emotionally charged and loaded with strong words, occasionally even drifting towards xenophobia.
The major reason as to why Korean students resort to writing anonymous complaints on online communities such as KaDaeJeon is because, throughout East Asia, it is considered a virtue to mitigate a conflict via a third party. In this particular case, readers of KaDaeJeon work as mitigators; hence, peer pressure is applied upon the accused party. At the same time, the language barrier obviously makes verbal confrontation an ineffective means for Koreans to resolve their issues with international students. Both factors combined, direct, face-to-face confrontation remains the least appealing option for many Koreans.
Meanwhile, some foreign students consider anonymous posting to be ineffective and passive-aggressive. It is frowned upon in many cultures to talk behind someone’s back, and thus, the act of anonymous peer criticism is widely disliked. In addition, the fact that most of the posts about international students seem to go nowhere but towards fueling hatred does not help at all.
As a possible solution, KISA and the KAIST UA can start a joint channel where Koreans can ask for conflict mitigation. For a more fundamental change, the two organizations can initiate an education program on different approaches to resolving conflicts. Regardless, we need to acknowledge that different people find different ways to resolve conflict, but this in itself can worsen the issue.
Taking Down the Wall One Brick at a Time
A few weeks ago, lying in my bed after a tiring night in the library, I started my ritual endless scroll down my Instagram feed. While attempting to numb my brain, I came across a post that instead ignited a chain of thoughts in my head, a post that opened my eyes to things in KAIST that I always saw but never fully observed. The picture was posted by the official account of POSTECH, and depicted groups of international students cheering for their football team in a game during the KAIST-POSTECH Science War. It was a very normal photo, but it got me wondering how I hadn’t even heard about this game — let alone gone to support the KAIST team — when it happened on our own campus. Some of the friends I asked told me that there had been posters all over the campus, and that I must not have noticed since they were in Korean. It was a quick reminder that, along with quite a number of international students, I am frequently unaware of the events happening around us.
With this thought stuck in my head, the next thing I noticed was the absence of an international face in the backgrounds of the KLMS login page. I reloaded the page again and again, but in the more than 10 different backdrop pictures that I saw, I couldn’t find any internationals. Wondering if it was a culture shared by other schools, I visited the website of another Daejeon university, but their website did have pictures with international students in the crowd.
After my initial observation, I heard that this happens because all the models in the backdrop pictures are selected from a student club in KAIST that doesn’t accept international students. This partially gives an answer to why we don’t see international faces in the site but brings up further questions.
As has been discussed time and again, there is a huge wall between international and Korean students in KAIST, and the school — which claims to be trying to demolish it — should pay attention to these small details that require little effort to solve, especially since this is a school of such reputation. Instead of just lightly bumping into the wall hoping it will eventually break, KAIST should focus on actively taking it down one brick at a time.