A little under a week after arriving at school I began my classes. My classes run the gamut from Korean Language to Mechanics of Solids. This gives a wide range of different experiences to engage in. In some ways, classes here are very similar to classes back home: there are lectures, problem sets, reading assignments, even some essays. In other ways, they are totally different, from the way the classes are run to the way that the students act. The first difference I noted was that at the beginning of class the teachers all take attendance. At the first class they even warned that being late X times equaled one absence and that Y absences would cause an automatic failure in the class. I can’t remember any of my professors back home taking attendance. For some classes this makes sense. It would be very easy to skip out on my hundred person design lecture. It would be much harder to skip my twenty person Korean class. In addition, I’ve always been under the impression that failing a lecture based class was pretty inevitable if one skipped over half the classes. More importantly though is that I couldn’t skip a class if my life depended on it. In many of my classes I’m the only guy without a Korean name, and if the professor just looked up he would almost certainly notice the absence of the dark blond mane of hair sitting about 6 inches above the level of the rest of the class. Perhaps it’s not just a Western prejudice that all Asians are hard to tell apart. Who knows? At any rate, the first few minutes of each class are taken up with roll call. The rest of class is often taken up with a lecture that is entirely independent of any student input. I’m always concerned that asking for a clarification on some point is in bad form, largely because I’ve maybe seen two or three Korean students speak to the teacher during class. This isn’t to say, however, that they don’t speak. They talk to each other nearly non-stop. In many ways Korean college is like American high school. I have never seen a collection of such intelligent “young adults” (this may be one of the worst phrases in the English language, just short of “anal fissure” and “last call”) act so much like a collection of pre-adolescent stereotypes. From non-stop texting in class, to complaining about even the smallest assignments, nothing escapes them. I’ve honestly heard entire classes moan over a one page essay with a due date 2 weeks later, as well as a two problem long p-set due a week later. Neither of those assignments took over half-an-hour. Because these aspects of my classes are all so similar, it is the professors that make the difference. And, you know, the entirely different content, I guess.
Within the first few weeks, nearly all of my professors have managed to leave a mark in my mind in one way or another. For one it was a ten-minute lecture on how Eastern cultures put the family name first, whereas Western people put their given name first, in the same vein as “Black people do this, White people do that” comedy. For another, it was the definitive statement that “Pointillism was a failure” that seems to be a rather overly-objective view on a very subjective field. For yet another it was the discussion of how important clearly labeled buttons on a remote are. He illustrated this point by using the example of watching a “raunchy” late night TV show and having to change the channel quickly when one’s young child walks into the room, rather than accidentally increasing the volume. It turns out that this scenario is much funnier when an old Korean man uses the term “raunchy.” This is not to say that any of these professors are bad. On the contrary, these things give me something amusing to think about while I am in class, which is certainly more than most PowerPoint presentations offer to do.
After leaving the fake-carpet linoleum of the classrooms, I tend to retire to the fake-wood linoleum of my dorm room. My room here is a major step down from the one I left back in Massachusetts. While being slightly smaller it contains one more bed, bringing the total bed size up to that which I sleep on at home. The warped flooring and strange strip of extra, differently patterned, fake-wood running down the middle do little to bring a homely glow to the place. The pink, purple, and yellow blankets that were given to us upon arrival unfortunately don’t match the seafoam green door, nor the off-white drapes. Hell, even the bare fluorescent lighting doesn’t help. The outdated calendar hanging over my roommate’s bed is one of the only touches of décor in the room. This is not surprising though. I have found that most exchange students’ rooms are left pretty bare. Honestly, the effort to take the extra Spice Girls poster over from America is rarely worth the effort. Three is usually enough. The other problem with my room is my degree of disorganization. I have managed to turn my desk into a useful wardrobe, mainly by strewing my pants across it. The books I have read, as well as those I have yet to read, are shoved into crevices whenever I finish one, so they tend to be left all over. Basically, it looks like a shitty college dorm. Even the location sucks. Being both right next to the stairs, bathroom, and front door, means that there is a constant clomping parade of Koreans marching past my door at all hours, making as much noise as humanly possible. This is on top of the concussive blast and booming noise of people slamming their doors, which is not unlike that of a small gas refinery explosion. Also, my next door neighbors talk and listen to terrible music until ungodly hours, which I can clearly hear through the vegan-thin walls. In addition, exiting my room subjects me to a blast of freezing air, as pretty much every door in this country is designed to be propped open, and they almost always are, even in sub-freezing weather. As for the proximity to the bathroom, you can probably guess the downside.
The amenities are also not particularly cushy. So far as I can tell, there is no lounge frequented by students. There is a gym in the basement, but it is missing a lot of necessary equipment and is unheated. As for the bathroom, my main complaint is about the shower. It is of the variety that could pleasantly be called “gym-style” and realistically called “prison-style.” The room has 6 shower stalls, most with the standard American showerhead coming out of the wall, but also a couple with the handheld faucet favored by Europeans and others who clearly have some objection to being thoroughly clean without spraying water all over the damn place. The main issue is that of dividers. The people in charge were smart enough to put some in. This is nice. What is not so nice is the material. One would expect something along the line of brushed stainless steel, perhaps aluminum or some cheap plastic. Instead, they settled on glass. While glass is certainly solid enough to block splashing on other people it does have the fairly obvious drawback of being transparent, a seemingly enormous oversight. Guys are often unhappy or even unwilling to piss next to somebody in a line of urinals, even with chest-high dividers. I feel that the societal mores around showering next to somebody in plain view are a bit stronger, but clearly I’m the outsider on this opinion here. The nice thing is that even though the showers serve around 50 people on my floor, I almost never encounter another person in there. This is because of the rather strange habit people here have of skipping showers entirely and washing their hair in the sink. Two of the sinks have handheld showerheads for that very purpose. And while I couldn’t get away without showering for days on end without hanging dozens of those pine tree car fresheners around my neck it seems to not be a problem for the Koreans. Actually, despite the fact that I grow the amount of facial hair in a day that people in this country grow in a week, shaving supplies are sold everywhere here, but it is nearly impossible to find deodorant. I don’t know if the reason for this is that they truly don’t smell, or if it is due to the fact that I haven’t been snuggling up to anybody, but I am glad I knew about it before I got here. Perhaps the best advice I could give to anybody coming over for an extended period of time would be to bring ample supplies of whatever it is you use to keep from stinking and leave the shaving cream at home. Strangely, while avoiding showers and washing their hair in the dorm sinks is commonplace, brushing teeth seems to be a group event. I have seen both girls and boys brushing their teeth in academic buildings at all hours of the day. Some people even bring their toothbrushes and toothpaste with them in their backpacks. There are clearly some things I may never understand about this place. Despite all of this though, I can’t really complain about my dorm. Not considering the total cost of my room for the semester is about 250 bucks. Suck on that every other college ever.