|PHOTO BY PMJ|
What comes to mind when you imagine your life in a foreign country as an exchange student? I am pretty sure you’ve dreamt of dormitory parties almost every night and mingling with roommates and classmates from different countries, just like the images presented on American TV series. You will also likely picture enrolling in courses that are given in vintage European buildings, similar to the ones that are described in the Harry Potter series. You may have fantasies of raising your hand without any hesitation whenever you have a question during a lecture. Unfortunately, having gone on an exchange, I soon realized all my imaginings were wrong. Studying at the University of Toronto, I woke from my fantasies of college life overseas to the harsh but good reality.
College Life Overseas Seemed So Exciting
Since a teenager, studying abroad had always been one of my dreams. I was really interested in learning languages and different cultures as well as full of envy of anyone who had studied overseas in an English-speaking country as they seemed to take education so freely. I resented my school life because it seemed as though we were always being held back by old-fashioned rules and inflexible norms. To make my dream come true, I applied to the SMU student exchange program with high expectations of school life at the University of Toronto, which ranks as one of the top universities in the world.
Reality Sets In
My fantasies all soon by came to an end within an hour of landing in Canada. All U of T dormitories rejected my application, replying politely that unfortunately they did not offer housing to half-year exchange students. To avoid being homeless, I rushed about calling place to place and meeting landlords with rooms to rent, which I found on the website Kijiji. One of the places I went to see was disgusting. The musty smell and dismal atmosphere from a lack of sunshine from the tiny window reminded me of a prison cell. Moreover, the horror of the bathroom made me want to escape immediately. In the end, I gave up and my only rescue from a life of living on the streets was a connection I made on a Korean community site in Canada. I had to erase my dream of living in a dormitory room with roommates from Pakistan and Brazil and enjoying engaging chats over coffee in English. My troubles, however, were far over and more yet was to come. Once the semester had begun, I got to know the Singaporean girl who had sat right next to me during the orientation session. We exchanged numbers and hung out a lot together. Whenever we met, though, her Singaporean friends would tag along. The problem was that I had a hard time communicating with them because of their Better cold than cool strong Singaporean English accent. Singapore uses English as a national language, but mixed with a Chinese accent and intonation, I need to concentrate on their every word as they spoke in order to understand their intent. The word I spoke most often was “Sorry?” One Singaporean guy mockingly asked me one day whether I had a hearing problem. This single joke discouraged me from speaking in English with others and even made me fear using the language. This tore my second dream of making foreign friends apart.
Besides difficulties in my social life, I also went through some rough times with respect to academic performance in Canada. The English spoken by native speakers in an English-speaking country was quite different from the English I was exposed to in Korea. People spoke much faster and used many phrasal verbs unfamiliar to me. Even though I took English mediated courses for major courses in Korea by Korean professors and courses taught by native speaker instructors from the U.S., I found myself having a hard time understanding the professors at U of T during lectures. Because I couldn’t comprehend the content of the lecture, I couldn’t really discuss issues with classmates, and sometimes, I felt their cold hard stares complain with “why don’t you add to the discussion?” Since I sensed their annoyance, I tried to get out of group work to avoid bothering them with my lack of language fluently. I would request solitary tasks, and I felt my isolation growing.
What Makes You Cold Makes You Stronger
Nevertheless, I did not want to waste my time or money. Even though I was not permitted to live in the dormitory, missed out on dormitory life, didn’t party with friends from all over the world, lost the opportunity to build trusting relationships, and became isolated in class, I decided make the best of things. I was on my own, and for a moment I was afraid of getting close to others after completely insulted by the Singaporean guy, but I got determined to make the best of this opportunity and expose myself to English and the Canadian culture because one the most important reasons for my going on this exchange was to improve my English proficiency. Determined, I contacted to several clubs at U of T which caught my eye on Facebook such as the Yoga club, the Squash club, and the Korean-Canadian culture exchange club. I decided to forgo strong bonds of friendship and look for opportunities to only converse in English while engaging in some tasks with others. In terms of academic performance, I visited professors or TAs several times a week to ask about things I did not understand in the lecture or the way I should do assignments. One of my professors gave me C on a reading article assignment, which greatly shocked me, so I went to consult with her about what went wrong and how I could get a better grade on the next assignment. On my last assignment with her, I got an A.
Looking back on my days in Canada, every moment I faced did not go as I had anticipated. I realized that reality is never like that portrayed on television, especially not like Blair on Gossip Girl. Instead, going overseas alone can be very cold. However, the experience helps you grown and makes you stronger. Now, I have the ability to endure challenges, more so than ever. Battling through those hardships in Canada planted a seed in my mind, which grew and is growing so that whenever I fall, I get back up. It is from this perspective that I recommend all Sookmyungians to grab at the opportunity to participate in a student exchange program.