On Exchange: Tales of Travel, Study and Cultural Acclimatization

Where Westerners Look Foreign

Anna Ecker and Martin Jörg were the first students to participate in the Diplomatic Academy’s new exchange program with Korea University’s Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS). The program facilitates a four-month exchange between two students from the DA and two students from GSIS and is co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.

Anna Ecker

Spending four months in South Korea was unforgettable. Getting used to new surroundings was challenging but happened quicker than expected. My stomach is now (almost) spicy-food proof and being immediately identified as a foreigner no longer provokes a sense of discomfort. In the first days, people would stare at me as I walked. While with a friend on the metro, a lady stared at me for most of the thirty-minute-long ride. Before disembarking, she began to say something to me. My friend, who spoke Korean, told me that she simply wanted to know where I was from but could not express herself in any other language. That was the day my attitude changed. From then on, I realized that people were simply curious about where I was from, that they did not simply wish me to leave the country.

People in South Korea take a bit longer to warm up to others. When they do, however, they are very friendly. Even a K-Pop star in my class showed angelic patience while posing for pictures and signing autographs during course breaks. Academically speaking, the requirements and workload at Korea University’s Graduate School were comparable to those at the DA. They aim to have a mix of students (half Korean and half international) whenever possible. Although Korean students are less active in class because respect for elders is an important aspect of their culture, international students are nevertheless expected to participate actively. As a foreigner, you are more openly able to challenge professors.

Seoul has more than ten million inhabitants; a very good public transport system makes all parts of the city easily accessible. Even trips outside the capital can be done without difficulty by bus or train. One of the most impressive experiences was an excursion to the North Korean border and the demilitarized zone. South Korea’s natural beauty was no less memorable. Hikes in Seoraksan National Park and visits to green-tea farms and beaches in Jeolla-do left a lasting impression.

Image2 (1)©Anna Ecker & Martin Jörg

Martin Jörg

The opportunity to see Asia was perhaps among the best perks of this exchange. From Seoul, you are a mere two hours away from Japan and China and a cheap flight away from many other exciting locales. I was able to visit the Philippines, Palau, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, where I met up with a recent DA alumnus. I was also able to go to Australia for Christmas and New Year’s. Even though the flight from Seoul to Sydney was ten hours, the flight from Vienna to Seoul was also ten hours, cutting the travel time in half.

In Korea, the culture is certainly different. It is still largely hierarchical and patriarchal and people work very hard and were bewildered at the amount of emphasis that I placed on things such as going out with friends and taking the time to relax and travel. In the working world, people never leave the office before their boss, which means they sometimes stay until midnight. Their internships are often paid, but due to the culture of loyalty and honor, many people continue to work unpaid for up to forty hours per week after the internship is over. But Koreans do go out, and that is where you really see them open up.

Since we were the “pioneers” of this exchange, it was exciting to have had the opportunity to explore every option. Conveniently, the course structure allows you to schedule classes in order to maximize your free time. It is important to get to know people early on before cliques are formed, which is once again due to the Korean culture of opening up slowly and less frequently. I made many great friendships within our housing complex and through a buddy program. The buddy program held MT events where participants would spend the weekend at a remote place outside of Seoul, altogether accommodating more than 160 people. Experiencing a whole new culture, a whole new continent and a whole new lifestyle made the exchange a unique part of my DA experience.

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Korea University Graduate School of International Studies

Never Ask Why

Every year, two students from the Diplomatic Academy are selected to participate in a five-month exchange programme with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in Moscow, Russia, co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.

András Zágoni-Bogsch

I arrived on Sheremetevo, Moscow’s largest international airport, on the last day of summer. I had way more stuff than a single person should ever consider carrying alone, and I did not speak the language. Never a diligent traveler, I did not have even the faintest idea about the distance between the MGIMO campus and the airport. I spent the next two hours held up in traffic, listening to an old-school Muscovite taxi driver shout at his son and wife on the speakerphone. Already at this point, the monstrous size of the city was impossible to ignore.

After ninety minutes en route, there was still no sign of an urban center, only the two-times-six-traffic lanes thick of Moscow’s suburbs. Beyond the Garden Ring, the Russian name of which will sound mysteriously familiar to anyone who has read Bulgakov, the best of Moscow begins. It took a week to find a place to live within the circle, and that is when it all really started.

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©András Zágoni-Bogsch

My room was in a first-floor apartment overcrowded with interior decoration gathered from the endless corners of Russia. A sign taken from the train linking St. Petersburg with the chilly Northern outpost of Murmansk, old maps of the capital, postcards, books, bikes to be repaired, jars of jam, olives and vodka, a tentative anti-Putin poster from the 2000s featuring the grim portrait of Russia’s strong man with a list of controversial issues printed over it. Then there were several pictures of my flatmate’s family having fun in a faraway place. It felt like an open house, there was always somebody around.

In Moscow, too, there was always something to do. The capital carries a heavy imprint of the 300-year-old effort of the Russian elite to match the glamor of Paris and more recently, to emulate the power of Washington. It was the first time I spent more than a week in a genuine metropolis, a place where there is nothing you cannot do, and yet you have four months in which to do everything you want.

Enia Bearzotti

I knew Russia would be different from the places I have seen and lived in before, but I had to be there to feel the difference. Perhaps the hardest thing for me was the culture. The people were a bit cold and unapproachable; it was difficult to develop any sort of relationship. To them la bella vita was not about the sun, good food and good company, but rather about Russian luxury – fancy cars and somewhat superficial lifestyles. It was simply nothing like the Italian or “Southern” comfort that I am used to or the Gemütlichkeit we enjoy here in Vienna.

The teaching staff were not the suit-and-bowtie-clad academics I was accustomed to either. One of our lectures was led by a former KGB agent who had spent fifteen years undercover in the United States. He had spearheaded a unit of fifteen moles who had gathered political and economic intelligence in America. He looked American and sounded American, but had spied for Russia. Every time he was about to tell us the “good stuff” he would end with “but the rest is classified.” In general the grading was not terribly stringent, nor was there a great focus on questioning things.

Speaking of questions, the Russian motto seemed to be “never ask why.” Registration for courses bafflingly lacked an official course list. Things that required one click back home were replaced by a routine hunt for stamps from various offices. No office could be skipped because everyone had a specific job upon which others could not intrude. In the end, however, I realized that the best way to get things done was to use their own logic against them. I would enter an office as if Julius Caesar had finally made it to Russia, saying “You’re going to do this for me right now, and you don’t need to know why.”

Straight Outta Stanford

The Diplomatic Academy’s exchange programme with Stanford University provides a three-month exchange for two students to take part in Stanford University’s Ford Dorsey Program in International Policy Studies (IPS).

Katharina Hermann and David Lansky

Unsurprisingly, the most challenging part of our journey were the classes and everything that comes along with a demanding academic curriculum at Stanford. Hours spent at the “Green Library” and a bankrupting caffeine habit became part of the daily routine. An endless cycle of papers needed writing, articles needed reading, presentations needed preparing. But we were rewarded with excellent professors such as Francis Fukuyama and riveting discussions over even the most mundane of topics. It may sound clichéd, but we really did broaden our academic horizons, learning about humanitarian interventions, democratization and the United States’ political system at one of the most intellectually-reputable institutions in the world. But our endeavor included far more than readings, meetings and academic beatings.

Having been spoiled by Vienna’s excellent public transport, we quickly realized that the West Coast was different. The only way to get around without a car was by bike or, for cooler Stanford kids, by skateboard. It is rumored that one of us spent an average of fifteen minutes trying to find his bike before putting a unique marker on it in order to distinguish it from the rest. For those who did have the luxury of a car, the average American road is three times the size of the average Austrian road. Not only are the roads larger, but everything seems to be produced on a larger scale, too, from peanut butter jars and olive oil cans to cars, supermarkets and last but not least, the Stanford campus itself. There are 17,000 students studying simultaneously at Stanford compared to roughly 180 at the Diplomatic Academy. By the time we could finally find our way around with confidence, we were already about to leave.

image1-2©Katharina Hermann and David Lansky

Not only was the sheer size of everything remarkable, but also the friendliness of the people. Despite hailing from the Freudian city of Vienna, we were not prepared for in-depth psychoanalytic encounters at the local “Wholefoods” counter. The cashier would ask us: “What was the greatest part of your day today?” This is something we do not even ask ourselves too often. Being able to approach people so easily was a warm and welcoming feeling. This open mentality also enabled us to make great friends despite being there for such a short time. Our classmates had the most diverse backgrounds ranging from India to Pakistan, Argentina, Japan, China, Turkey and of course the United States. Their professional pasts also varied from experienced US Army officers to unblemished undergraduates. Stanford offered it all. We gained invaluable food for thought from colleagues as well as real food from various university-sponsored events.

We also found time to enjoy the spectacular diversions the West Coast has to offer. We visited San Francisco, Los Angeles, University of California, Berkeley, the Big Sur, Santa Barbara and drove along the Pacific Highway. Local nightlife was also great. Well, at least until 1:30 AM at which time security guards would kick you out of the bar. Finally, there was tailgating before football games. A practice whereby Americans eat loads of food, drink beer and socialize in front of the football stadium. Of course, we only discovered this after showing up to the first football game right on time like good Austrians (too late for tailgating).

In order to attain a more unbiased view of the United States, we made sure to visit the East Coast, namely New York and Washington DC. In these cities we visited Austrian diplomatic representations and dove into the world of Facebook at their New York headquarters thanks to the generous help of the Stanford administration who connected us with several alumni. The Washington visit was equally interesting. We met with former Stanford students working at Johns Hopkins University, The Atlantic and the Inter-American Development Bank.

In sum, the exchange term offered everything we could have wanted: A great academic experience and the opportunity to experience a different culture. Most of all we made friendships we would never have made without this opportunity, friendships that we hope to sustain for years to come.

 

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