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If you love someone, let them go (overseas to learn English) p.1 – 유학하다

유학하다. Studying Abroad.

(Part one of two)
Where to begin? It’s a detailed subject with more asterisks and mixed emotions than I care to write about. I leave it up to the professionals. What I am curious about is the sheer number of 유학생 and how the number is growing each year. And if you thought that this is a recent trend, think again.

As you can imagine, the culture shock that ensues is pretty much on par with any weapon of mass destruction. I can think of few other cultures more polar opposite than America and Korea.

When the students arrive in their new home, there’s a developmental term that comes to mind: goodness of fit. Think of it. If a student always dreamed of a life of independence, self-reliance, individualism, and not-giving-a-flying-**** about what people think, then America will welcome you will open arms. You’ll be right at home.

However, for others, the life abroad will be too trying – much like a second term of mandatory military service. The isolation, culture shock, confusion, frustration, and shattered expectations will be something that make one miss Mom’s 김치 like never before. Plus, add to the equation English must be spoken pretty much at all times. That’s enough to stress any non-native speaker out. And why aren’t Americans speaking like they do in the textbook??

But like all things, there are exceptions. Some initially find themselves lost and frustrated but eventually find America to be their new home. Others will never fully adjust and will ultimately find a way back to Korea at the soonest possible opportunity. It was just never a good fit for them. Like a bad breakup…It’s not you, it’s me. Sorry America, I’m just not that into you.

Others are torn between obligation and choice. Some students are so pressured to stay in America after studying that they soon find themselves caught between two choices: do the right thing for my career and parents or go back to my home and live the life that I want to live. Not exactly a clear-cut choice to make. Both have life-long ramifications.

After coming back to Korea for a period of time abroad, some find that their “Koreaness” (for lack of a better word) has changed. I guess that’s what five years abroad does to a person. Others dig in in their new home abroad and find that Korea makes for a great vacation spot.

Here’s one possible explanation: (forgive the lack of documentation – this is just based on my own observations)

Korea - America School Difficulty Difference
It’s no secret that young Korean students have a grueling academic schedule. Blame Confucius.

What does this crudely-made graph mean for us? Let’s consider two scenarios:

– – –
A – 현철 – “The Lucky Duck”

현철 was born in Korea and went to school in Korea until the end of fifth grade. Then, he and his family moved to America. He then attended junior and high school in the states and excelled academically. While studying in America, he maintained his Korean language and culture because of his family and local community. But, since he attended public school, he also developed relationships with people of different ethnicities. His Korean background made him rather unique to his friends. His impersonations of his mother are the stuff of comical legends. After high school, with his fluent English language skills, he moved back to Korea to attend a Korean university. He took a break to attend the Korean military and after completion, he finished his degree. He maintained his relationships in America and used them to further his own business, which he he now owns in a suburban city in America. Since he speaks colloquial English and Korean, his business caters to two very different demographics but with similar means of living and purchasing patterns. His business is doing just fine if you ask him.

현철 ended up avoiding the entire Korean 학원 system. He rejoined the Korean education system when things got a bit easier. Not to mention he caught the more relaxed side of each country’s education. But because he studied abroad and could speak English fluently, he was admitted to a decent university. Although his military assignment was a little taxing, he fully acculturated himself into both the American and Korean society. He is free to travel to and from Korea to maintain relationships in both countries.

He’s a lucky duck.

B – 은혜 – “Can’t catch a break”

은혜 was also born in Korea. She completed primary, middle, and high school in Korea. She then traveled to America by herself to attend an American university, but because of her poor English language skills, she had to first enroll in an English language school. After three and half years of formally studying English in America, she graduated from the language only to find out that her family wishes her to stay in America to complete her university degree. Although 은혜 had hoped to return to Korea, she decides to err on the side of prudence and pursues an American undergraduate degree. She spends the next five years hammering out a degree but because of the sometimes difficult academic English, she struggles to maintain respectable grades. She definitely works for her “C”. She graduates and discovers that the Korean economy is in worse shape than the one in America. Oh well. Might as well go for the master’s degree now and hope for things to improve in a few years. She can always get married later, right?

She spends ten years in a foreign country away from her friends, family and life as she knows it. Although she has developed a strong sense of independence that she did not have in Korea, she wonders if live in Korea will be like she even remembers. Not to mention that she attended the more difficult portions of Korean education only to find out that American universities are pretty competitive. Although her English is quite fluent, she lacks some of the more colloquial speech required to catch certain jokes and insults. Although this doesn’t alienate her completely, her accent doesn’t exactly make things easier for her to make American friends. Plus, even if she had time for boyfriends, American guys are kind of out there. Not exactly her type.

She can’t catch a break.

– – –

Granted these scenarios are just that – scenarios – but they’re not entirely far fetched. I would be lying if I said that these aren’t based on personal stories. Besides, the point is that all of their changes took place when they studied abroad.

But studying abroad, as common as it is, involves more than just the students. Regardless of age, these students have parents. And sometimes these parents don’t go abroad with their kids. So, what exactly can we expect their lives to be like?

Check back here next week for part two. Until then…