Life as an International Student: Outsider Status

The hardest part of my day-to-day life here in Korea is when I have to wait for a practice room at school. I love going to church, meeting up with friends, watching dramas and reading in my cute little apartment, practicing piano, going to the market, cooking, and going to studio class (probably in that order), but I hate standing around the hallway of the music school waiting for a room.

Waiting isn’t super fun in general, especially when you have just commuted almost an hour and are afraid your time will be wasted, but recently I realized that those minutes I spend in that hallway are the loneliest of my week.

Standing around, feeling out of place, watching other students greet each other excitedly and go in and out of each other’s rooms . . . it exhausts me. No one smiles at me, no one acknowledges me. I am either ignored or stared at. There is no one to look out for me, I can’t always tell exactly what is going on, and I feel unable to ask for help because of the language barrier. The few times I have started to ask someone whether they are waiting for a room, they have frowned at me as if asking why I am talking to them.

So I simply wait, feeling increasingly alone.

I’ve lived with and been close friends with a good number of international students in the US, but I never really understood what it’s like to always feel one step behind and slightly out of the circle. You feel extra timid because you aren’t familiar with the way things work, might not speak the language well, and know that no one has any reason to help you or pay attention to you.

You are an outsider.

Before I came to Korea, my mom got me a book about Korean culture to prepare me, and in the book it said that Koreans see others in two distinct levels: insiders and outsiders.

If you are an insider, i.e. a friend, you are treated really well. When I bump into students I know at the music school, they bow to me, wave at me excitedly, ask me if I’ve eaten, and show general concern for my well-being. But if you are an outsider, you are a nobody. Strangers do not smile at you on the street. (Although maybe it would be different in the countryside?) Students I have not been introduced to at the music school have no interest in finding out who I am. I am simply not in a relationship with them.

I am tempted to say things are different in the US.

I have had strangers strike up conversation with me while I’ve waited for practice rooms in the US. Random people sometimes smile at me on the street or even greet me if I pass them on a hiking trail or bike trail. But after talking with one of my new Korean friends about her experience studying in the US last year (at a university five minutes from my house), I’m not convinced things are so different, at least not for non-native English speakers.

She found it hard to make Americans friends, found that most Americans weren’t patient enough to listen to her accent and weren’t that interested in learning about her culture. Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. (I told her the joke, “What do you call a person who speaks two languages?  Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.” She thought it was hilarious.)

While I’m deeply thankful that I am an “insider” with many people here, I feel like this experience of being an outsider is really valuable. Every time I feel the deep loneliness of being in a foreign land without the support of family or close friends. Every time something happens that reminds me that I have no back-up here, no one who will always unequivocally be on my side, I feel I am learning something important. This is what so many feel every day in my home country. When I return, will I treat them differently?



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Elizabeth is a teacher, preacher, musician, and writer. She has a Master's of Divinity and a Master's of Music, which represent her two great loves: Jesus and the arts. A half-Korean, half-white American, she spent seven years in South Korea teaching English. Elizabeth is a perpetual learner, a deep feeler, and a pursuer of beauty and truth.

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