No Wi-Fi on buses – but beer on trams

Four South Korean exchange students discover the differences between Seoul and Berlin

Grey skies and rain? Not a problem. At least not for Joobee Jung, Suhyeon Kim, Juyeon Yang and Gwon Heo, who’ve come well-prepared for the weather in Berlin. Winter is slowly approaching back home in South Korea, too, with day-time temperatures already dropping below freezing. When we meet the four students are all sporting woollen coats and scarves – this kind of weather isn’t going to get them down. Thanks to an international student exchange programme, the three young women (age 20, 22 and 22) and one young man (age 24) have the chance to spend a semester studying International Business at the HTW Berlin. They’re the first South Korean exchange students to come here from the private Kookmin University in Seoul. Normally they take business- and IT-related courses – around 8,000 kilometres away.

Many South Koreans have little idea about what life is like in Europe. “For most of them it seems utopian,” says Suhyeon Kim, “but I wanted to see for myself and that’s why I’m here.” She met the other three students while she was preparing her trip. Kookmin University has around 14,000 students, so it’s no wonder she doesn’t know everyone.

Typical for Berlin: colourful styles, hugs and drinking beer on the tram

 The four students have had many surprises since they arrived in Berlin. The pleasant ones include how cheap – in their view – things are to buy in supermarkets, the Berliners’ colourful fashion styles, friendly bus drivers (sic!) and “the fact that people even smile at strangers and hug their friends”. They’ll have to get used to so many people crossing the road at a red light, though. “If you did that in Seoul you’d be caught up in an accident in no time,” says Suhyeon Kim. The South Korean capital has a population of around 10 million, so life is fast-paced and hectic. Unlike Berlin, many shops are open 24/7. “I’ve noticed that people here drink beer on buses and trams. We wouldn’t do that at home,” says Gwon Heo. Juyeon Yang adds: “Here, someone might offer you weed in the middle of the day. That’s banned in South Korea.”

And yet the exchange students are already enthralled with Berlin and its international flair. They tell me that you won’t find so many different nationalities in Seoul. They can already tell me their favourite places in the city, like the Hackescher Markt and the Dom, and pass their tips on to others. “I like the Dom. Its interior is very colourful. When I sit there and watch the people around me everything feels peaceful,” enthuses Juyeon Yang. Gwon Heo loves the Mauerpark: “It’s so big and when I was there with my Buddy we saw all sorts of animals.”

Is Germany as high-tech as it likes to think it is, I ask. “A lot of things are still analogue here, for example door locking systems. In South Korea these systems are all digital, it’s the norm,” says Suhyeon Kim. The students also miss having Wi-Fi on all public transport. However, other things their fellow German students take for granted feel quite exotic to them. “We don’t have deposit on bottles, for example. You hand back your empties and get money for it. When I told my mother about deposit on bottles, she couldn’t understand it at all,” laughs Juyeon Yang. When she and the others have time, they sometimes go clubbing in Berlin. “We’ve had some great times and met some great people. Our parents are very worried, though. They think the clubs are dangerous places for us to be.”

Partying and discussing ideas together

When they’re out on the town in the evening the exchange students are looked after well by the HTW Berlin International Office and their student Buddies. “They really take care of everything. We’ve got to know lots of different people from different countries and are gaining lots of valuable experience. We get on so well with the staff in the International Office – that’s unusual, but really nice. We’ve even partied together on occasion, something we’d never do at our university,” says Juyeon Yang.

One thing the four students particularly like about studying at the HTW Berlin is that “our opinion and our contribution are valued here at the HTW Berlin. We spend a lot of time discussing ideas with the other students. That makes us feel part of the class and makes the time pass quickly. In South Korea our professors usually spend most of the time talking and students just listen. Professors are supposed to be respected. Anyone who questions their opinion or conduct would never say so out loud. But you can do that here in Germany,” Juyeon Yang and Suhyeon Kim explain.

“North Korea isn’t a threat”, or What Europeans need to know about South Korea

Unlike Germans and other international students they’ve met in Berlin, the four young South Koreans aren’t worried about the political goings-on in and around North Korea. They’re used to their neighbour’s sabre-rattling and don’t think there’s any real threat. Suhyeon Kim sets things straight: “It’s all just for show and makes no impression on us.”

All four of them wish Europe could see their country in a different light. “South Korea has long since stopped being a developing country. It’s modern, has a booming economy, beautiful cities and open-minded people,” says Joobee Jung. “Anyone interested in cultural trends in Asia should take a look at South Korea,” adds Suhyeon Kim. “Our country is an important player in booming industries like fashion, cosmetics, music, cinema/TV and entertainment in general.”

Joobee Jung, Suhyeon Kim, Juyeon Yang and Gwon Heo are not only at home in South Korea but all over the world. Some are already planning their next stay abroad in New York or elsewhere in Europe. Their chosen profession? Tax adviser, accountant, professor and systems manager. Above all, though, they want their lives and jobs to be one thing: international.