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Inside Korean College Life: 10 Survival Tips

Inside Korean College Life: 10 Survival Tips

By Elena J. (with insights from Angel R.)

Similar to the majority of 600,000 students that took the Korean College Entrance Exams last year, I held an image of college life that was a crude botch of images glued together by the media and tales from incumbent college students. College was a place where one could party, drink all night, throw up, and still look as glamorous as Jun Ji-Hyun did in “My Sassy Girl.” Girls would finally be able to wear heels, makeup, and get a perm, whereas guys would be able to dye their hair and drink to their heart’s content—indulgences prohibited for them until now. College also seemed like a place of absolution—once they had the acceptance letter in front of their eyes, most parents would relent to anything. ANYTHING—from fancy European tours to an expensive new wardrobe, because for Korean parents, having kids in college (and a “good” one in the capital city) contributes greatly to family honor, elevates the child’s social status later in life, and never fails to arouse envy among the ajummas at the local jjimjilbang.

However, during my first semester in college, I find college as grueling as, if not more, than high school. As a commuting student, on days in which I have classes at first period 9 A.M., I nearly suffocate on the subway (Line 2, aka “the Line of Death”) jam-packed with people on their way to work. Though the lights of Shinchon and upperclassmen often beckon us freshmen to come out and enjoy the night, our workload often forces us to head straight home or to the library. Still, the campus is filled with vivacity and freedom that high school had greatly lacked. The ten points below, based on my observations and experience, are part of a candid record and hopefully, to future students, a possible guide on surviving the first semester at a Korean university.

1. Dress to Kill

Dressing nicely is important for people anywhere, everywhere. However, Korean college students have redefined the meaning of “looking nice.” Clad with designer bags, high heels, and short skirts, many female Korean university students make university streets seem like catwalks. Plastic surgery is also very common among the female students, such as the “Ssankapul” or double eyelid surgery, along with excessive dieting, the latest fad for guys and girls alike. While working on my history paper at the library a few weeks before the midterms, I ran into one of my old high school friends that also attend Yonsei. I must have looked pretty haggard, as he looked at me with amusement and praised the “Americanness” of my appearance—for joking someone looks like an “American university student” is actually a subtle reference to one’s carelessness in appearance— in many Korean students’ minds, an “American student” most often wears faded jeans with a t-shirt, and always lugging an over-sized backpack. Though many Americans do not dress in this manner, many Koreans, especially young Koreans, think of American university life as the opposite to that of Korean universities, but more similar to their high school life, when many students are forced to remain rather indifferent to their appearance due to the long hours of study.

2. Eating alone = social suicide?

Though eating alone is common scene in many American university cafeterias, Korean students fear eating alone as it supposedly blatantly reveals of one’s antisocial tendencies. Sitting alone at a table is especially inadvisable for freshmen who should socialize with friends or ask their Sunbaes (upperclassmen) for a free lunch. Sometime in March, when I asked one of my friends if she had eaten lunch, she made the mistake of saying (a bit too loudly) that she had eaten alone. Friends nearby who overheard her reply instantly showed signs of shock and even graciously offered their sympathies. Many Koreans learn from an e