I attended a small international school in South Korea for seven years throughout middle and high school. While the school was located in South Korea, our academic calendar mirrored the American semester schedule. We followed the International Baccalaureate curriculum, spoke English in all school functions and a good proportion of our teachers and students were foreigners. There are many international schools around the world, and while each system and culture is different, being educated among an intersection of cultures may produce many shared experiences. Here is a glimpse of what my experience attending an international school in South Korea was like!
You live in a small bubble of English-speakers
When you see a foreigner in your neighborhood, your instinct probably tells you to run or hide with your first thought wondering whether or not they are a teacher at your school. Interacting with foreigners and speaking English on a daily basis, I felt like I was living in a small bubble within South Korea. There also exists a bigger community of international schools within Korea, many of which I frequently visited through academic and extracurricular conferences. This small yet largely interconnected social circle extends out of the country as well — you’re most likely connected to every international student in your continent two or three mutual friends over.
You have a cultural identity crisis
As an international student, you may often feel like an outsider — vacation dates don’t align with that of local students (there are definitely pros to this!), you don’t consume the same media and you dress and accessorize differently. I never felt like a pure Korean, and coming to the United States, while people are surprised by my English skills, I still often feel cultural boundaries in social settings. In my high school, some students were more comfortable with Korean culture while others were more engaged with American culture, but many can probably relate to feeling “too American” for Koreans and “too Korean” for Americans. I feel like I’m smack in the middle of the two, and while it sometimes feels good to stand out in an environment, it’s also hard not feeling like you truly belong. On the other hand, there is definitely a growing “third culture kid” community to relate to.
People come and leave
Most international schools have a requirement for enrollment, whether it involves the student or their parents’ citizenship or experience living abroad. For my school, students had to live in a foreign country for three or more years, meaning many students had another country outside of Korea they called home. Many students attend my school while their parents are temporarily in Korea as visiting researchers, professors, businesspeople or missionaries, and students often have family living abroad, so some would return to their family after staying in Korea for a few years. While some students stay for only a year and others attend the school for their entire K-12 education, you get used to welcoming new students and saying goodbye.
After graduation, your class is spread out all over the world
Students from my small high school graduating class of 70 are spread out across many continents, from the east and west coasts of the United States and Canada to Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. As difficult as COVID-19 was, one good thing was that it brought many friends from all over the world back to Korea. As we all move on and pursue our lives, a full class reunion will definitely be difficult, but it’s also amazing to think that wherever in the world you travel, there’s a great chance that there will be a familiar face nearby.
Attending an international school was a unique experience, one that opened my mind up to many cultures and taught me to keep an international mindset. I still struggle to define my cultural identity and ask myself where I call “home.” However, feeling like you’re stuck in two cultures is a beautiful culture of its own.