There is no denying it: college life abroad is tough! After all, we are moving to another country, entering a new culture and learning a completely foreign language. It can be particularly difficult for international students coming to countries with unique traditions and customs like Korea. With my two years of college experience at KAIST, I can confidently say that one of the greatest challenges (besides showing up for morning classes) has to be fitting in. It is one thing to study about the culture, but quite another to apply what you know into conducting a social campus life. Among the things I have learnt and discovered through constant self-effort to intermingle with my Korean peers and seniors, I have decided to narrow it down and share my experiences on two aspects I found most commonly applicable.
Drinking parties Simply cannot be ignored when it comes to Korean college life: yes indeed, it is their heavy drinking culture. And though for some Santa Clause may be a Saturday night's heaven, most international students feel hesitant when faced with a drinking invitation. The many reasons can be boiled down to: one - the bizarrely high alcohol tolerance of our Korean mates and two - the inevitable pressure to get drunk. Now, this is completely logical in Korean culture because the drinking table is, unfortunately, one of the few places where Korean boys and girls, seniors and juniors, bosses and their employees can loosen up and establish personal relationships. Thus, being absent on these occasions will also mean that you are missing out on one of their most important social life activities. However, unless you utterly detest even the smell of alcohol, there are still many ways for you to participate without waking up the next morning with a hangover. First of all, understand that as a foreigner, you are likely to be exempted from most rules. Second, once you have firmly declared your personal tolerance, you may feel free to have a beer if you're a weak drinker (like me) or simply order Cider if you wish to stay completely sober. Participate in drinking games, tag along for the second-round of karaoke and most importantly, use the opportunity to get to know your Korean friends. Remember, drunk or not, your presence will still be equally appreciated!
Seniority. A very essential aspect in Korean culture, rooted in their Confucian orthodoxy, seniority based on age (even by a single year) runs deep through Korean society and particularly in college student communities. This is why you are often expected to reveal your year of birth or year of school entry during your first encounter in Korea. It is not surprising, however, that many international students have hard time getting used to this system, considering how many languages have no equivalent forms of address. Well good news is that once again, as a foreigner, you can be excused from this complex system of hierarchy. If you are not accustomed to adding prefixes like "onni" (big sister) or "oppa" (big brother) before your older friends' name, there is no need to force yourself into doing so. However, it is extremely important to remember that while seniority among your Korean peers can be overlooked, the same cannot be said when considering people such as your teaching assistants, your professors or anyone about or above your parents' age. You are expected to treat them with respect, which according to Korean etiquettes mean a display of basic manners such as bowing, giving and receiving with both hands, waiting for them to start the meal first, etc. If you are to speak to them in Korean, use honorific structures (sentence ending with "yo"). Keep in mind that though Koreans will not expect you to be an expert on the nuances of their culture, they will always acknowledge a show of interest in matters that are important to them.
For me, the key to having a fulfilled social experience, not only in Korea but in any culture, is to always maintain and express a genuine interest in their tradition, language and core values. Keep up this positive attitude and your effort will not fail to be recognized.