When moving into a different setting, there are always adjustments and adaptations that one must make, ones like those all international students have experienced since starting KAIST. Yet, among a wide range of things we struggle to get accustomed to, the language barrier has always been one of the hardest challenges, the highest hurdle that most of us never successfully surmount. As a positive person by nature and a KAISTian at heart, I still have to admit that the language issue has several times brought me extreme frustration and that recalling certain encounters still sends uneasy chills down my spine. Nevertheless, I have no intention of lamenting about these miserable experiences, because for all that matters, I still managed to make many good Korean friends. In fact, they are the ones that have inspired what you are about to read.
Korea’s long history of development has characterized its culture with emphasis on many unique aspects, one of which is the deep respect for their language. Korean people take pride in the invention of Hangul (the Korean alphabet) and also its variety of features that sets Korean apart from any other language in the world. Korean people are also well aware of its complexity and in fact, the majority agree that Korean might as well rank just after Chinese and Japanese in terms of difficulty for non-natives to learn. However, it is still crucial for Koreans to see their language being appreciated by foreign visitors, by making an effort to speak it, read it, or listen to it. In a sense, this is considered the basic manners a foreigner is expected to possess, one that can be placed in comparison perhaps with table etiquettes in the Western culture. Frankly speaking, from the perspective of our Korean friends, putting effort into studying their language is a must if we want to be in good terms with one another.
On the other hand, from the perspective where KAIST international students stand, it is hard to find this expectation reasonable. Most Korean students do not seem to realize that one of KAIST’s most attractive attributes to international applicants is its promise to provide 100% English classes and no requirements for Korean proficiency. We came believing that studying Korean was an option, one we can freely choose whenever, wherever, and however. We did not expect to feel so isolated and in vain during group discussions. We did not foresee the need to spend so much time and energy expressing our opinions to teacher assistants. And we certainly had no idea that we would be sitting for 45 minutes in Computer Science 101 lab sessions, gazing into thin air and indulging in (or enduring) an enthusiastic lecture in a language we barely find decipherable. It was not the Korean food, fashion, or even drinking culture that gave us the shock - it was the language experience that completely took us off-guard. It subconsciously nurtured a rebellious attitude within a lot of us, as we gradually lost interest in learning and rapidly grew familiar towards regarding Korean as merely a means of getting from campus to Homeplus or asking for the price of items we could not find in the school convenience store., It does not take a genius to recognize that the Koreans’ high expectations, combined with the disinterest of misinformed international students, and topped off with meager opportunities to mutually exchange beliefs, is the perfect recipe for intercultural conflict.
Nevertheless, until the school policies on admission requirements for international students are revised, I personally believe that there are always other ways to relieve this tension between Korean and foreign student without offending either side. One splendid idea I got from my time working at an all-Korean lab was to not eliminate but to embrace our differences and take advantage of the one thing we definitely had in common: a foreign language phobia. Next time, try asking your Korean classmates or lab mates to speak to you in English every once in a while during the day and in return, offer to answer in Korean. The conversation can start out simple, such as just excusing yourself to lunch, and can later evolve into more complex dialogues concerning your homework or experiments. It is important for both to feel free to make and fix each other’s mistakes without feeling embarrassed or afraid. I have been practicing this with my lab mentors for the last 4 months and it has proven to be totally engaging. My Korean has improved, though ever so slowly. However, what is more important is that our relationship has immensely improved and my previous cynical view of an international-unfriendly KAIST has shifted positively. I have come to believe that whole-hearted intentions and actions will always with time become appreciated here. After all, it is the thoughts that actually matter.