Studying abroad offers a glimpse at world affairs

Written by Muleskinner Staff

Story by LEAH WANKUM, for The Muleskinner—
2043When I got to Korea, I decided that I was going to stay as far away from North Korea as possible. And so I have.
In the five months that I’ve been here, I’ve crossed paths with only one North Korean, or at least only one who made that claim.
He was unkindly, to say the least, though I’m not sure why, since I met him at a fellowship meeting at Korea University Church.
Other than this chance meeting, the only time I came close to North Korea was in deep discussion with my South Korean friends.
Because I am a foreigner, my friends willingly discussed their opinions on the Korean War, the current conditions in North Korea, and foreign policy involving China, North Korea, the United States and South Korea.
However, sometimes discussion is not enough.
By avoiding North Korea, I am avoiding the problem, and we will always fear what we don’t even try to understand.
Therefore, I plan to travel to the de-militarized zone between North and South Korea after the weather warms up.
The de-militarized zone, also known as the DMZ, is the heavily armed border between North and South Korea.
I will get the opportunity to visit many historical sites, an observatory, and the Joint Security Area directly on the border where negotiations are held between the two countries.
Perhaps I will gain more understanding of North Korea at the DMZ.
Another expectation I had when I arrived in Korea was to get into the classes I want without too much hassle.
I was one of only a few students who managed to get into most of the classes I had originally wanted.
For unknown reasons, I had little to no difficulty registering for courses.
I came prepared with an Intended Subject Plan of eight different courses with no time conflicts; both UCM and GlobaLinks had required me to prepare the ISP before leaving the country.
I believe this simplified the process, but the majority of the international student body had days of complications.
Some courses had time conflicts with other courses, some required pre-approval from the professors, some were already filled even from the first day (most of these were in the Business School), and at least a third of the courses said to be taught in English were, in fact, not. “It’s all about ranking,” one professor who wishes to remain anonymous told me at the end of the semester.
Offering more classes in English increases ranking in Korean universities, which means more money from the government and more international students (thus, a more diverse student body); more “sophisticated” alumni get better jobs coming from the universities with higher rankings, even if they actually took the courses “offered in English” in Korean (a frequent occurrence).
My next expectation for Korea was that people would give me grief because I’m a Christian.
Christianity is now the major religion in Korea; around a third of Koreans claim to be Christian.
However, Buddhism still has an extraordinary presence in the greater part of the country.
In the end, I had more trouble with “liberal” and “tolerant” Europeans and other Americans than I had had with any Korean, or any Asian for that matter.
Many Westerners antagonized me and questioned me, a middle-class, Mid-Missourian, Christian, small-town farm girl who must be stubborn in her ways and quick to judge others without a thought.
At first, I took their criticism and often agreed, though inside I was seething.
Once I started speaking up, though, I became involved in heated discussions; in this way, I learned to respond rationally instead of radically, and I learned to keep my mind open and my heart closed.
In the end, I engaged in many intellectual conversations and always learned a lot about myself and others.
I even changed my mind a few times, not just about my beliefs and values, but about many other subjects as well, such as foreign policy, Buddhism and other heavy subjects.
Next week, I will share the concerns I had for the language barrier I would face while studying in Korea.