Songyee Lee, 22, knew she wanted to come to Europe to study. And when she started reading about Amsterdam, she knew that this was the city where she would do it. So Songyee came all the way from Korea for a two-semester exchange programme at the University of Amsterdam. [media:factfile]
Right away, Songyee noticed some big differences from Korea, especially in school.
"All the courses I’m taking right now are in such small groups – only 15-20 students – so they’re more like seminars. A lot of students want to talk a lot and really participate. And the professors are really friendly because there’s no hierarchy.
But back home most of the classes are just teachers speaking and students listening and there’s a kind of hierarchy. So there I always have to think before I speak because I don’t want to be rude or disrespectful. Actually, I like the system better here because I can speak and I can hear what people are thinking about. And that brings more discussion and gives more inspiration."
Like many international students, Songyee lives with other international students in housing assigned by the school. This removed one of the major stresses of moving to Amsterdam (housing is in short supply), but it presented other challenges!
"The house is 40 minutes by bike from the city where I have classes. It was hard for me at first because I didn’t use the bicycle as a form of transportation back home. But every day I go through the Vondelpark – a very nice and big park in Amsterdam – so now I really enjoy biking every day. If it’s not raining."
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Meeting so many people from other backgrounds is one of the best things about the experience for Songyee.
"I think that’s important because I can learn a lot from them. If I’m only hanging out with people from the same background I’ll be kind of trapped in this situation – and my ideas and knowledge will be trapped as well. As I get to know other people of course there are sometimes shocking thoughts and ideas, but I find it really interesting."
But there’s a flip side of living and going to school with international students.
"Maybe I’m a little disappointed because I’m not getting to know a lot of Dutch people. I always hang out with international students like me – just here for one or two semesters – because I have very good friends in my flat. But after starting school I’ve met a few Dutch people and am getting to know them. It’s kind of fun to get to know local people here!"
The Dutch touch
So what does Songyee think about the Dutch people?
"People said they [the Dutch] were strict and not very friendly. But after meeting some Dutch people, I think they’re just the same. If you get closer to them they will be friendly and if you don’t know them they’re not very friendly. I’m like that too, so I don’t see a big difference."
In fact, Songyee sees a lot of similarities between Amsterdam and her home town of Seoul, Korea – they’re both busy, densely-populated, capital cities. But, she says, the transportation system is downright crazy.
“I think the transportation system is kind of busy and dangerous – you have cars, trams, bicycles, and pedestrians... I think it’s kind of dangerous and it scares me!”
Then again, maybe that’s balanced out by the fact that there are more parks and nature in Amsterdam. Of course, the weather doesn’t always cooperate.
"The worst thing is the weather! I was very shocked at first because I arrived in August and it was really cold! I didn’t expect it to be so cold, so I brought only shorts and t-shirts. I had to go out and buy a bunch of clothing. In Korea we have a short winter, but I heard here the winter is long with long, cold days. So I’m kind of worried to meet the winter here. I want to enjoy the sun as much as possible while we still have it!"
Getting out in Amsterdam
Speaking of “typical Dutch”, when asked about Dutch cuisine, Songyee thinks immediately of French fries!
"I like the French fries here, they’re really good. Of course I’ve had French fries from McDonald’s everywhere, but we only have them with ketchup which is kind of boring. They have a lot of different sauces here so I think that’s really interesting!"
Of course, Amsterdam does have something of a “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll reputation, so Songyee was a little nervous before she got to the big, bad city. But, she says, it turned out not to be a big deal at all.
"People always asked me about the red light district and whether I’d try marijuana. So I was kind of scared. And my parents worried about it a lot. But there are only a few people who do drugs every day. And of course I’ve been to the red light district, but there weren’t many locals – just tourists looking around."
Now that she’s seen it, Songyee says the drugs and prostitution don’t make the city “dangerous or immoral or anything.” In fact, she says, because it’s regulated, the prostitution wasn’t as bad as she expected. But she still doesn’t plan to try smoking weed!
Songyee plans to use her two semesters to study, of course, but also hopes to take advantage of Amsterdam’s central location as a base to see a little more of Europe.
All in all she says it’s pretty great: Amsterdam is "safer than everyone thinks", "the school systems are really nice", she’s got “good teachers and good classes" and she's "satisfied with everything". Not a bad recommendation!