Spending a semester abroad is considered to be a great experience. But the further away the destination lays, the bigger the cultural difference. At HUFS, this is especially noticeable since students from all over the world gather in one place, each of them having different ideas and perceptions of Korean culture. In order to overcome the cultural gap, it is useful for not only foreign students but also Korean students to know the most commonly believed stereotypes about this country.
Common stereotypes about Korea
“Schools and universities in South Korea are extremely tough and students need to be diligent and study all the time.” This appears to have been a very common perception amongst foreign students at HUFS before coming to Korea. Other well-known stereotypes are school uniforms, attentive students and long hours of studying after school until late at night. When asked how these perceptions emerged, most foreigners refer to Korean movies and K-dramas.
To the question as to what first comes to their mind when hearing South Korea, most people replied with “North Korea.” They imagine South Koreans being worried about the potential outbreak of a war and that they therefore do not like their northern neighbors.
What is mentioned second most frequently: technology and modernization. South Korea is seen as extremely advanced and modern with robots being used in daily life matters such as in the household or at work. Further mentions included a strong economy due to the country’s progressiveness in innovations.
Additionally, people are believed to dress very fashionably, but are thought to still be very traditional in terms of cultural aspects such as family structures and the social status of women.
Last but not least, it is a common belief that rice is the number one ingredient for survival in Korea. “I had the stereotype about Koreans that they like rice very much and that they literally make everything edible from it,” said an exchange student Aseel Ahbara from Libya.
Expectations versus reality
After spending only a few months in Seoul, exchange students are far from being considered experts on South Korea. Yet, they agree that some of the common stereotypes have already proved to be true to a great extent ─ rice is literally everywhere to be found.
As for other common perceptions, they turned out to be surprisingly different. April Ann Collare, an American exchange student at HUFS said “My family was afraid of me going to another country by myself. But I find that South Korea is safer than most places in the United States.”
This can be explained due to the low crime rate and the exceptional friendliness of Koreans towards foreigners who often help on their own accord. As a consequence, Koreans seem to give people the feeling of being some of the friendliest and most helpful people ever met. Of course, this cannot be generalized to every Korean, but it happened often enough to foreign students that it left an impression.
Regarding the Korean education system as it is being experienced at HUFS, it seems to meet general expectations of being very strict. European students in particular point out that the system is very different than what they are used to in their own country.
The differences in the systems are displayed in many ways: classroom facilities which resemble schoolrooms more than university lecture halls, and as German exchange student Lara Spallek said: “Mandatory attendance and roll calls make me feel like a teenager back in high school.” In English spoken courses it was observed that there appeared to be a lack of interest and participation among the students, as long as the professor did not enforce it.
Overall, the impression is that the content of the lessons is less complex and therefore less demanding, although the amount of assignments is no joke and exceeds the workload some foreign students are used to having at their home universities by far.
Another aspect of the Korean education system is the relative grading system. Fortunately for many exchange students, they have the privilege of being excluded from it. Therefore, they do not have to compete with regular students when it comes to grades. This does have the advantage, that it does not endanger friendship and serves as a positive foundation between foreign and Korean students.
In one case there was a professor who greeted the class in the first week of the semester: “Hello everyone, I would like to remind you that everyone in this classroom is going to be your opponent during exam time. Only a few of you will get top grades, so work hard.”
Competitive thinking to such an extent is often perceived critically by foreign students. Especially since there is a strong contrast between what they hear from other students: “You will get good grades anyways because you are an exchange students and no professor will let you fail his class.”
Of course it is widely accepted in the meantime as a cultural difference, and it reflects the stereotype of Korean universities being extremely tough. The pressure Korean students feel is noticeable even to foreigners.
How to narrow the cultural gap
Having stereotypes is not necessarily a bad thing as long as they do not turn into prejudices. Despite the internet being a useful platform to learn about other cultures, nothing brings people closer to each other than communicating their expectations, which are often based on stereotypes. Through this we become more acquainted to the foreign culture and can experience a reality free from prejudices. This will foster exchange between the cultures further, which leads to wider acceptance and narrows the cultural gap.
By Salome Dettwiler