The Tables Have Turned: My Experience as a First-Time International Student

International Student

As the clock ticks closer to 9 a.m and students begin filling the classroom I begin to notice that I have become a minority.

As is customary, in most classrooms, the professor decided students should introduce themselves on the first day. Now I am not a shy person and love to meet new people, so I was totally prepared to introduce myself to my classmates. What I was not prepared for was being selected to speak because I was an “international” student. Out of the 78 people in our class, there are only 5 international students and it felt odd to be labeled as such.

Merriam-Webster defines international as the following:

  1. Of, relating to, or affecting two or more nations
  2. Of, relating to, or consulting a group or association having members in two or more nations
  3. active, known, or reaching beyond national boundaries

Of the three definitions, I really like the third one; reaching beyond national boundaries. Indeed I have successfully reached beyond national boundaries and have found myself in a new country but I feel as if I am at the outermost level of what it means to truly be international.

This summer I am taking two classes as part of the Dongguk University International Summer School program. These classes consist of intense two week sessions. I am taking Introduction to Korean Film in the first session. This course focuses on understanding how the Korean film industry has been influenced by Korea’s history. So far we have watched two movies, Deep Blue Night (Bae Chang-Ho, 1985) and Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang Dong, 2000).  Both of which have left me feeling overwhelmed from learning a massive amount of cultural information.

Opening Scene from Deep Blue Night
Opening Scene from Deep Blue Night
The movie is not as sweet as the name suggests.
The movie is not as sweet as the name suggests.

From learning about Korea’s history of military rule to reading about the Gwangju Massacre, it becomes harder to view these two films as simply movies. They have become more than that to me, they have become a window into another culture.

As I find myself being labeled an “international” student I wonder if this is what it feels like for the international students who come to my campus in the states. Do they feel overwhelmed when they are exposed to another culture? How do they feel when they learn about a culture that is different from what they have experienced. It is all very intriguing to me and I find myself laughing at how the tables have turned, putting me into the seat of a foreign exchange student.

My professor is very nice. He teaches the course in English and ensures that the international students feel included. I am very grateful for it! But it is just weird to get attention because Iam from another country.

I would love to hear the experiences of other international students! Are you currently abroad? What has it been like being away from home? What have you learned about the country you are visiting? What are your classroom experiences? Share your stories in the comment section below. 🙂

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7 thoughts on “The Tables Have Turned: My Experience as a First-Time International Student

  1. Before i come to U.S, I thought it was going to be overwhelming. I thought i would not be able to speak and response to people in U.S. That was my first time going to a English speaking country. So when i actually came to U.S , It was not that bad, i can understand and talk to people ( not fluently but one my ESLI instructor said i seem to understand very well). I did not get homesickness maybe because i liked U.S. I was shy to American that time. Moreover, i did not have much interact with American( all of my roommates and friends in U.S was Non native speaker. I hardly had a American friend. Because I did not know how to make friend, how to talk, how should i start a conversation. You are lucky because you don’t to learn and study Korean. Anyway, it is still hard for me to make friend with American right now. I know our campus students are very friendly. That ‘s true but the main obstacle for international students to talk with American is to maintain the tempo. I can not smile at other U.S students joke because i don’t understand it. Ability to speak and comprehend English is the main problem for international students. My classroom experience: normally, International students choose the far back row to sit, because it caught less attention of teacher and other students. I do the same during couple month i entered the college. And then one day i decided to change it. I sit next to American Students, tried to talk to them. The problem still come, I can not keep the tempo or i dont know what to say to them beside ” Have you done the homework?” or smt about class. I cannot join with them when they telling a joke or smt like that. I really dont know what i am doing right now. just some though in my mind. Hope you understand this. If not, that is international student problem: Hard to express what you think. Cassandra, this is my suggestion, if you want your colleague to talk to you, talk to them first. It is Asian culture that we dont want to try new things. Like we alway care about what other people think about us. Thus, i think Korean students at your university will be shy unless you talk to them first. Sorry about my grammar and my broken sentence.

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    1. Thank you for your response Vincent! I really like your point about not smiling and joking with other students. I am very used to making eye contact and saying hello to people you pass on the street. But when I do that here in Seoul I am often met with a confused look. I have also told a couple of people that their outfit is pretty and they often respond with bewilderment. Almost as if they have no idea why Iam speaking to them. That is not true of all the students I have met but it was a bit of a shock to me at first. I never realized how important it was for me to be acknowledged or have eye contact with people before! Just keep trying V you are pretty awesome! P.s you still owe me an invite to a dinner party!

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  2. I really like this post as it is something I have experienced continually over the past 4 years. I’m from England, but have just returned from spending four years studying in the USA. Had the exact same experience with pretty much every class where you have to stand up and introduce yourself. It’s always a good laugh when you see people shoot you a confused look after you have completed the first sentence about yourself. Always found it as a positive personally 🙂

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    1. Thank you! This was my first time studying abroad so it was great to experience the classroom from another point of view. Back in the states I never think about how the international students are experiencing the class. Now I have an idea. What has been tough is gaining so much knowledge about a new culture. It is a bit hard to digest all at once!

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      1. I’m sure the difference in culture that I experienced was nowhere what you had to experience, which is pretty scary concerning that I was surprised by how different the English and American cultures actually are.

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