What is it like living as a Korean woman studying art/design abroad?
At the age of 30, some people get a job, get married, and have a child, but I started studying abroad. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t worry about these things. Can I leave Korea, where I have all my foundations? Isn’t it a selfish choice that I think of me and myself only? What will happen to my career here and the people around me? All these questions followed me, but they didn’t change my dream. So, from September 2021, I started studying in a new place. Here, in London, at the RCA.
When I said I was going to study abroad, my grandfather, whose position is Live a life where women can become independent on their own my father, who believes that Marriage is the shortcut to ruining my daughter’s life and my mother, who thinks that Marriage is the essential thing in women’s lives all supported my decision. Anyway, your daughter (and beloved granddaughter) is going abroad. And what should they do when I am offered a place at the university I want to study at? There is no way to stop it.
So I decided to ask five of my Korean friends who are currently also studying at the RCA. How was it for you guys?
What did the people around you say when you told them you were going to study abroad?
-A: Take care there.
-B: Actually, I don’t think the focus is on studying abroad alone. There are still parts of Korea where it is considered natural to study overseas for design or art. My parents loved me studying abroad, and most of my friends were envious.
-That’s right. Anyway, the culture of acknowledging and giving more credit to foreign countries remains.
-C: I received cheer and support from people around me because it was a progression for my career.
-D: They cheered and supported me.
-E: My parents liked it because I went abroad when I was young, and my friends kept crying.
-I guess all our friends are the same. I kept calling my friends to hang out with them.
Indeed, everyone responded consistently. It was surprising. One time, I was eating at a restaurant, and I heard an old lady telling her grandchild at the back of the table, ‘Don’t ever meet a girl who has ever studied abroad because she’s cheap’ Perhaps because I’m from a country where you are constantly censored and evaluated, I’m satisfied with my life in Britain. At least I’m not accused of being a punk for studying here. Oh, but of course that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.
When I was walking through Carnaby Street in Soho, there were so many people that I had to lean towards the stores. Then I bumped into a man, and when he saw me and my friend, I heard him curse ‘Fucking Chinese’ At first, I thought, What? I’m Korean! But it was an expression of Asian hatred, and if I were a big Asian man, I wouldn’t have to listen to it. Am I the only one who feels bad? Have any of you had this experience? Has anyone experienced anything like me in Britain?
-A: Being catcalled because I’m an Asian woman
-B: I met a strange yellow fever person who followed me from the station to right near my house once a long time ago. I remember running away from him when he asked for my number because he likes Chinese people, saying that I didn’t have a British number because I had just arrived in Britain.
Fortunately, I have not had such an unpleasant experience that I’ve thought my parents should come to Britain immediately. It is a real concern for parents of all international students. If you go out and live alone, they always add It’s dangerous outside and Be careful. Mom! Dad! I’m doing well here. I’m free to study and play hard. Well… come to think of it. I have a lot of things to watch out for here.
In Korea, it was okay to play until dawn and go home. Of course, it is not without unpleasant experiences too. I lived in a well-guarded apartment, so it was okay because the security is tight. But in Britain, where I don’t have the same foundation, it is different. If something happens in Korea and I report it, there is a family that will fight for me, but not here. I’m the only one, and I don’t live in a fancy apartment in an expensive neighbourhood where security guards are always stationed at the entrance. As a result, like a nocturnal owl, when I walk on the street at night (or even during day time), I leave my whole nerves open and go home at a faster pace. But I think it’s the same for all of us. How about you guys? Is there anything complicated about living here as a woman for you?
-A: The wrong expectations of Asian women and strangers’ approaches.
I feel like there’s no one here to help me. I could report it to the school, but it is not a matter of that level. I used to live in Britain for a while, and I once had my wallet pickpocketed while playing with a friend from Germany. I immediately asked the police who were there for help. Could you perhaps find my wallet? The policeman answered my question by telling me to report it to a website. I said, ‘It just happened. It’ll be around here’ and they said, ‘Do you think we should search all the trash bins here for you?’ with a smile on their face. Was that smile sarcastic? I don’t know, but it felt terrible.
In those situations, I kept blaming myself. What if I were British? What about a white man? What about a man? What if I was an office worker, not a student? What if I looked professional? Did they treat me differently because I’m a stranger here? I asked my friends if they agreed with me.
-A: I agree. I’ve often experienced unfair things, such as people I’ve never met initiating conversations in Chinese or Japanese, asking personal or rude questions, catcalling, etc. It’s a mixture of unpleasant layers but I can’t tell where to get angry.
-C: Here, rather than being discriminated against for being a Korean woman, I have sometimes seen certain people booing or discriminating because people are Asian I think it’s an example of racism. In Korea, discrimination against women is mainly systemic, relating to jobs rather than individual emotional issues, while here, I think it is more personal and emotive, due to racial discrimination.
-I think that’s what I’ve been through. This is discrimination that we cannot experience in Korea. Korea is a country made up of Asians.
-D: As I said earlier, I haven’t had many of these bad experiences. . It may be because the city of London has so many multinationals, and I also think there may be parts that I am not aware of.
However, I consider myself in the category of a minority like ‘foreigners, Asian, and women’.. I also look at this positively, because I have never thought of myself as a minority in Korea on the basis of ‘I am a woman.’ Because of this , I become more interested in other people (or groups) who are minorities, even if they are not in the same category as me.
-That’s an interesting point of view. In terms of numbers, women are not a minority in Korea, but there is structural discrimination. But here, we are an absolute minority. Has anyone experienced anything like me?
-E: There are so many. In terms of school experience, only Koreans/Chinese students were excluded from the group with only two weeks before the exhibition while working on a group project at BA. I complained about this and got an apology from the school.
As I said, Korea is in Asia, and since it is a society composed of Asians, there is no discrimination in being called Asian in Korea. However, structurally, gender discrimination has always existed. I graduated from a Women’s University, and there was also a resistance movement to abolish it, saying it was reverse discrimination against men. Discrimination against women in the job market and society continues to be ignored. Do you think that I am sensitive to feminist issues just because I graduated from a women’s university? No. A few weeks ago, The Economist released a report saying that Korea was again in last place for the glass-ceilings against women.
Relatively, I feel free to be a student in Britain. At least I haven’t experienced many of the things I’ve been through in Korea. A man snuck into a school building, ran into a girl trying to sleep in a sleeping room and chased a security guard, a stalker came to the front of the library and threatened a woman with a knife, a man dressed as a woman hid in the school bathroom, and a man spread a note saying ‘I’m a masochist. I’m looking for a woman who’ll punish me.’ in front of my college. I don’t have to handle these kinds of strange experiences here. But I don’t know. What will happen in Britain? I have a lot of time left studying here.. How about you guys? Were there any inconveniences while studying here as a female student?
-A: I think there is no particular inconvenience.
-B: I don’t have one. The student is just a student regardless of whether they’re a woman or man.
-C: I am becoming more sensitive to safety because I feel anxious about protecting myself in a strange country and the thought that fewer people will help me when I have a problem.
-Yes, this is just like me. I’m more careful because I know fewer people to talk to and help me.
-D: As I answered earlier, the inconvenience of living as a woman abroad is that I have to pay more attention to matters related to security. As a female ‘student,’ I think the school is a relatively (fenced) safe zone, so the guaranteed ‘student status’ seems to provide some psychological stability.
-E: Discrimination. I don’t know if it’s Asian hate or misogyny.
I feel a little freer while I’m a student here. Of course, discrimination remains in Britain, and we know many problems are yet to be solved. But at least, on the issue of feminism, Britain is trying to communicate much more openly and to respect each other. Recently, the person who pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has become the president in Korea. The aim was to win male voters. In Korea, identifying yourself as a feminist means that your personal info will be stuffed online, ridiculed everywhere you go, and you will be discriminated against.
A voice actor for games was fired for wearing a T-shirt reading ‘Girls Do Not Need a Prince.’ Female celebrities received numerous malicious comments for making finger gestures expressing ‘small.’ They didn’t use it in this sense, but this finger gesture signals that Korean men’s genitals are small. This kind of thing is widespread in Korea. I can’t imagine the same thing happening in Britain. British and Korean feminisms are different.
-A: I feel that people see the current wave of feminism in Korea in a fascinating and unfortunate way. When explaining the social phenomena and causes that feminism responds to, they do not hide their shock. Although I have not fully grasped current feminism in Britain, I think there is a solid message to respect women’s lives, safety, and diversity, think of them as open thinking, and understand each other.
-B: When I talked about my discomfort as a woman, it was different from accepting it. In Korea, people push me, like why are you being so sensitive and let’s move on. But here, an apology for the uncomfortable situation comes first. I think this is a conversation where we can understand each other.
-C: In the case of Korea, I think feminism tends to insist on rights such as gender equality at the institutional level relating to women’s human rights. Currently, living in London and comparing, of course, there are many similarities. But, looking at feminist work in Britain, I think it is mainly focused on women’s human rights, freedom, and confident expression-oriented personal self-esteem.
-D: In Britain, it feels natural for a tutor to introduce herself/himself as a ‘feminist.’ In Korea, it seems that calling yourself a ‘feminist’ in public can still mean having to deal with criticism, attack, or attention, so I think Korea is still essentially trapped in a narrow ideology. I don’t know exactly how much women’s ‘voice-making’ abroad reflects society and whether they have such power. However, compared to Korea, I think there are more stages where I can speak out in more accessible and everyday moments, and I think the spectrum of acceptance is much broader. It is shameful to say that Korea is limited to black and white logic in this respect, and violent attempts to stigmatise feminism and related issues seem to be increasing.
-E: If I had to choose one, I think I am more in line with the view of women abroad. However, since Korea is the country I have grown up in and will continue to live in, I am more inclined to hear and claim feminism in Korea.
My friends gave lots of different answers to my earlier questions, but their answers were surprisingly similar when I asked, ‘Is Korean feminism different from here?’ Sadly, we know. Feminism in Britain and Korea is different, and we have a lot to fix.
I mainly studied in a female-centred school environment. I graduated from a girls’ middle school, a high school with mostly women, and a women’s university. As a result, I thought it was very unconventional when I felt discrimination against women in society. We’re the same. Why are you discriminating? That’s what I thought. Last year, a prominent Korean bank committed a corruption scandal that eliminated female applicants who were tied by giving additional points to male applicants. The trial against it was a fine of only 5 million won (around £3,130).
Did this happen only in the job market? Not at all. While preparing for college entrance exams in high school, I found that some art universities had a ‘male quota system’. Art and design are heavily female-dominant fields, so they thought that the proportion of male students should be maintained at a certain level. However, some areas with a women’s quota system faced significant opposition, saying it was ‘reverse discrimination.’
Since we are students, let’s compare Korean schools with our current school. What’s the difference between schools in Britain and Korea?
-A: The gender ratio of students is female-centred, the same as in Korea. The tutors’ ratio seems to include more men, but it’s a negligible difference to Korea.
-B: In the case of my university in Korea, female professors taught me mainly. However, the difference was that I could often see pregnant tutors here. I’ve never seen a pregnant tutor in Korea.
-Come to think of it, it is. I’ve never seen a teacher who teaches while pregnant in Korea. Most of them take a leave of absence. That’s amazing.
-C: The field I am studying now is textile art, so there are many more women. Korea also had a high gender ratio for women in this field. But when comparing the gender ratio of professors, the proportion of male professors in Korean graduate schools seems to be higher than that of foreign countries. In other words, despite the high proportion of women in the major itself, in Korea, professors’ recruitment rate and specialised fields’ recruitment rate are male-centred.
-I agree. I graduated from a women’s university and can’t compare objectively, but most of the faculty were men when I looked at the experiences of friends at other schools.
-D: It seems similar when you compare just the gender ratio of the school members. Even when I was an undergraduate in Korea, I never thought the number of female professors was small. However, I had an opportunity to observe the female professors’ concerns see indirectly the female professors’ concerns as they are women, and I thought it would certainly be different from the problems that male professors (or male artists/designers) were considering.
For example, one female professor in her 30s had a great career and ability, both as a tutor and designer. At that time, I thought that the professor was a successful career woman, but the professor seemed to have difficulties in her position as a mother, a designer, and a tutor. In Korea, people believe if someone has to give up a part of their career for childcare, it is taken for granted both socially and personally that women will do so. At the same time, they are responsible for parenting together.
-I’ve seen a teacher like this before. She was the first middle school teacher to ask me, ‘Would you like to major in art?’ and then she quit because she was getting married and giving birth before I graduated. She was a great illustrator, and she loved to teach students, but it was complicated for me to understand that she quit everything because of marriage.
-D: I think this is not oppressive coercion but rather an inherently male-centred ideology that continues Hence, it is a more deeply rooted and terrifying social product. Even if men and women are given equal opportunities to build careers as artists or designers, it is still women who worry or feel guilty about childcare. And ironically, thanks to that guilt, men can be freer from the same responsibilities and have additional time and professional growth. In addition, I think this phenomenon is still common in most occupational groups beyond the art/design world (especially for women with children). Of course, this may not be universal, or it may be a criticism that does not consider individual situations. However, I don’t think these situations are entirely extreme or a small number of cases.
And I honestly don’t know how Britain is different in this situation. I hope the ‘demerits’ those female artists/designers worry about would decrease.
-E: I don’t know the situation in Korea, so it’s hard to answer. But in the case of our department (Sculpture), 100% of Korean international students are women.
Of course, there are many other differences between Korea and Britain. Anyway, we were students in Korea, and we are students here, so I thought it would be good to compare. What are the differences between art/design education in Britain and Korea beyond gender comparison? What makes us come all the way to Britain to study? And is that difference good for us?
-First, I can make work by ‘making me think’ here. Does this fit the subject? Is this the best I can do? And so on, I can study the process of making me ask continuously. I’ve only done that once or twice in Korea. There was no group crit. I just do my homework, and when one professor says, ‘Change it,’ I say, ‘Yes.’ It was a repetition of that design class. It was the same at work. When I came up with an idea, someone said, ‘You’re a junior.’ Still, I like it here that everyone thinks about my idea together, no matter how bad the idea is. Of course, some people want to fix their designs with criticism. But design is a field where there is no answer, but ‘fixing’ means ‘changing what is wrong to fit.’ I think it’s different to find the direction by thinking about it myself rather than and by being given an answer unilaterally.
-A: Everything is up to me. Not just learning skills. Commercial works are rarely done.
-B: I think the big difference is that my efforts and process are evaluated by the results. When I was an exchange student, I heard from a tutor that he/she felt how much time I spent on that project and considered it, which moved me. In Korea, the professor’s taste comes first, and I think it is the main reason that made me worry about working on the project.
-C: Education in Korea is conducted according to the organised curriculum, and the process, needs and outputs are defined to some extent. On the other hand, education in foreign countries continues to proceed according to individual will and freedom even on the same subject, so I feel that the boundaries for the outcome are much broader.
-D: I think Korea’s (art/design) education system focuses on upward ‘standardisation’ based on output. It is pretty tricky and nonsense to set standards for objectively evaluating works in the art/design field. Still, anyway, the Korean education system is specialised in bringing out ‘looking-good’ output in a ‘short period.’ Through this education system, standards for the quality of artworks increase, and students make their own system that leads them to the stage of ‘completion’.
However, ‘standardisation’ significantly weakens the opportunities for diversity or difference to occur. In the first place, I don’t think the concept of ‘standardisation’ itself can happen if diversity is recognised. When I was in a Korean art/design university, I rarely felt that work was fun or felt like it’s ‘my’ work!. There were clearly required standards which had to be performed to achieve it through countless processes. I think it was a little closer to the runner’s mind-set than to a practitioner. The sense of accomplishment felt when completing the given target worked as a driving force.
On the other hand, studying in Britain, I felt a lot of freedom and was happy. Sometimes I feel confused or lost because I need to be ‘self-directed’ in many areas. But overall, I worked under the British education system and learned what kind of person I am, what type of work I have, and how this can be my own thing. Also, it was a process that could contribute to the spectrum of diversity as a practitioner. Through this process, I have established my self-identity as a visual practitioner, and I realise that I believe in myself in a humbler way. It seems to be a characteristic of British education that schools provide a lot of potential to establish trust in yourself.
-E: It is difficult to compare in detail because I received Korean education when I was so young. But if Korea was always a passive form and environment in the education field, I felt the difference clearly because everything was active overseas.
Nevertheless, we study and live here diligently day by day. Sometimes I feel scared, sometimes I feel free. No matter what kind of experiences I had in Korea, I’m studying here in Britain now. The fact that we live here as Koreans and study art and design here means different things to different people.
Finally, I would like to know your thoughts on living as a Korean woman studying art and design abroad.
-A: Compared to other fields, the proportion of female students is higher, and Koreans can also be seen as common. I don’t know how students from different majors will feel. Still, the art/design field has a tendency to respect diversity and not to judge unconventional thinking and behaviour as strange. However, even I was confused and was caught up in the frame that Korean women (for example, the eldest K-daughter) has to be diligent, hardworking, achieving something, skillful, and intelligent. It may vary from person to person, but I always feel the ‘Confucian Girl’ idea underlying Korean women’s values.
-B: I don’t think I want to go back because I am living happily and learning freely here, unless it is a matter of being away from my family.
-C: As a Korean woman, I feel proud of my choice to challenge my career and study and live to grow further, but sometimes I felt uncomfortable with my experience and the attention and discrimination I experience because I am an Asian woman. In addition, I tend to feel unpleasant and lonely at the same time and shrink myself when I feel alienated as a stranger.. Investing in myself gives me positive energy, but I think the environment and eyes abroad are not only free and comfortable.
-D: Personally, rather than the category of ‘Korean female international students’,I always prioritise that I am ‘a stranger’ here, and I feel the limitations and restrictions that come from this identity the most. (Maybe it’s in the same vein. Anyway, if I categorise it, it starts with Minority) Therefore, compared to studying in Korea, I don’t feel like I’m realising 100% of my abilities. However, I don’t think of the disadvantages of the ‘stranger’ or the ‘Korean female student’ as fatal ones.I have sufficient support and cheer from my family. In addition, there is a sense of liberation from being an ‘outlander.’ London is a city to experience and learn a lot, and the status of a student is also a place for it, and I feel that I am freer to express myself without prejudice against age, gender, occupation, values, etc.
-E: I don’t have many chances.
-C: Comparing the perspective of women’s roles in Korea and Britain, it seems that in Korea, women’s roles are defined by society, so prejudice and discrimination tend to infringe on women’s rights. But in Britain, men and women are equal in terms of roles. Equality is essential here to have your individual human rights and freedoms respected. From my perspective, discrimination seems to be prejudice and discomfort caused by racial discrimination against Asians, international students, and women.
-I always say this to people around me. ‘I think it’s my last freedom, so I’ll live as I please.’ Is that realistic? When I go back to Korea, I will be asked about my marriage right away. I will cherish this time because it is the only time for me and my career before the wedding. I think it’s a breakthrough to get rid of that pressure. In Korea, What should I do until this age?is set as social pressure, like a norm. And a little freer from discrimination. Of course, there are still many things I haven’t felt yet, but at least it’s different from Korea, and I believe I can express my opinions more actively here. Also, the most joyful thing about majoring in art and design is that I can make something and influence someone by reflecting on my opinion. I think I would be satisfied with it if I saw someone was affected by me or my work. For me, ‘this time studying in Britain’ is freedom. From thoughts, discrimination, and pressures…. everything.
Many Koreans live in Britain. Many of them come to study art/design. There are currently quite a few Korean women studying at RCA. Among them, six people, including myself, conducted this interview. There were only six people, but the story we shared was truly unique. Sometimes similar, sometimes different. The experience of coming from the same country, being of the same gender, having other stories and different ways of understanding, but similarly sharing our problems and consciousness was astonishing. I hope to share more stories with them in the future.
Let me finish this article with the question, ‘How do you live in Britain?’
I would like to thank my friends who gave me precious time and took part in the interviews.
The interview was conducted in Korean and later translated into English, in this process, there may be mistranslation or translation.
I tried to include the interviewee’s answer without editing the contents as much as possible.
The interview was anonymous to protect personal information.