ISSS plans to “enlarge and invigorate” the international community through its country-based community support — but all I see is encouraged segregation.
I was always going to stand out at KAIST. But the extent to which I am an oddity continues to baffle both myself and, apparently, everyone I meet: introductions inevitably involve a long-winded explanation of how and why I am in Korea. Being the only British undergraduate here has perks, not least claiming that very unique title. But it can also be lonely — while most other international students here find a natural group in fellow nationals, I get excited at the faintest hint of a British accent in strangers’ voices. Instead, I do have a wonderful group of friends from all over the world, with whom I become closer every passing semester. But for us singletons, national representatives, lone rangers, there is always the background thought that perhaps these friends are closer to other people, with whom they share a language and culture. We are sometimes inevitably excluded.
Country-based activity funding, along with events such as KAIST ONE and the recent International Food Festival, purports to support the integration of the many different cultures represented in the KAIST international community. Though the events may encourage some brief interaction via a primarily free-food-based system, the real connections are formed between those organizing the presentations or the booths — people from the same country. The ISSS financial support for social events, which ranged from 100 to 400 thousand KRW depending on group size, stipulated that “groups should be based on nationality or similar culture.” While the sentiment behind this scheme may be positive, in that it can promote celebration of national culture and identity, the main outcome is the reinforcement of students’ tendency to spend time only with their own nationality, and speak only in their mother tongue.
I’m constantly reminded that despite an apparent advantage in English, I’m distinctly less linguistically accomplished than nearly every other student at KAIST. Many other international students speak three languages even before beginning to learn Korean, and I remain ashamedly monolingual. The privacy and comfort of an uncommon foreign mother tongue is something that I will likely never find, given that English is the accepted international lingua franca. And yet, of course I don’t begrudge other international students for their native language. I can barely comprehend how difficult and exhausting it must be to spend your days studying in a language that is not your first, taught by professors who, for the most part, are also not fluent. For that to continue into free time is to ask too much. Instead, I appreciate wholeheartedly the translations of idioms and jokes my friends ponder over for me, and I try my best to answer their questions about English. But there is always a return to a conversation I can never be part of.
“Categorizing students by nationality is maintaining borders in a university that claims to be globalized”
We’re all well aware of the wide rift both culturally and administratively between the international community and Korean students. Now, as the intake of international students increases, particularly from a handful of highly-represented countries, we are fragmenting into further divisions. It is of course natural that foreign students become friends with those who share the same cultural outlook and language. But for this separation to be reinforced rather than combatted is, on the part of ISSS, simply lazy. Categorizing students by nationality while effectively ignoring minority groups just serves to maintain the insularity of national borders in a university that claims to be so set on globalization. We need more events for international students, but not ones based around country divisions. Instead, let’s celebrate the wonderful diversity of our community all together. At least start by giving funding to groups that include, not exclude, students from all over the world.