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Seoulmates in Hindustan
Over a decade and a half after the chaebol invasion first introduced most Indians to things South Korean, a significant new influx from the East Asian country appears to be bringing the two nations closer. Scores of students from South Korea have been quietly trickling into schools across the country over the last few years. They're attracted to India for a variety of reasons, and, from all accounts, appear to be coping rather well with the cultural and linguistic challenges that student life in India presents.
Significantly, a majority of these students are not the children of Korean expats in Indias. They're mostly secondary school boarders - sent away by resolute parents looking to install their kids into a faraway but fairly well-regarded education system. Most land up in international schools that offer more 'global' secondary school qualifications like the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, the GCSE and GCE 'A-Level' certifications, or similar tags better recognised in the US, like the College Board Advanced Placement (AP) degree.
Korean students now make up sizeable numbers in several such schools across India. At Woodstock School, Mussoorie, among India's oldest and most noted international ones, South Koreans now tie with American students (traditionally the largest international cohort at the institution) as the largest group after Indians - who account for well over half of Woodstock's 508 students, of course. And the school's 56 Koreans are a very distinct and significant presence there, says Ed Beavan, the school's communications associate, as he points to their vigorous and visible participation in various school activities.
This trend is mirrored at Kodaikanal International School (KIS) in Tamil Nadu, which even has a tab in Korean on its website. "That's to assist Korean parents, who in our experience usually speak very little English. When we go to educational fairs in South Korea we need to be able to effectively connect with such parents curious about India and our school as a good option for their kids. The education system here is highly valued, " says Adrian Moody, KIS principal. He also highlights the school's extensive support system for such students, which includes a few key IB courses offered in Korean and taught by Korean teachers. But he says that a big reason these students come here is to acquire good English-language skills.
Cyrus Vakil, deputy head of Pune's UWC Mahindra College, agrees. "Most Korean students are sent here by their parents not just to learn English but to study in a genuine English-speaking environment, which they're mostly unable to get back home. The Korean presence didn't exist even until six years ago, " says Vakil, who also explains how such an education better prepares these students for college in the US and Europe. "Most parents see our schools as a good springboard for their kids to get to top universities in the West. " He also lists rising economic prosperity across much of East Asia as an important precondition for this trend. Such higher education abroad, whether at leading international schools in India or colleges in the West, would cost most folks pretty penny. Tuition fees alone at some leading international schools in India can even nudge Rs 7 lakh per year.
Kirsten Bradby, Woodstock's director of admissions, also attests to the East Asian trend but lists India's rise as another factor. "Parents are thinking more strategically now. Many parents also want their kids to get to know India. They are also looking beyond the classroom. They want their kids to grow up in a more balanced and holistic environment - one without the huge pressures that school life in South Korea involves, " she says, and cites an anecdote. "One student spent a few years here and went up on stage at his farewell to thank this school for changing his life. He said he came here a robot and left a boy. "
A teacher at KIS, who prefers not to come on record, also lists this "incredible amount of pressure that kids are subjected to in South Korea" as a big reason for parents looking at Indian schools. Suman Kumar of KS India, a Bangalore-based educational consultancy that helps Korean families find their way through the Indian school system, has more to add on the subject. "I've seen kids start their day at 5 am and then do everything - eat, snooze, play - at school. They then go for multiple tuitions and sometimes come back home only at 11 pm, to sleep. Yes, they're very hard-working, even when they come to India, but the kids feel a whole lot freer here, " he says.
Sang Hyeon Cho, a chirpy 18-year-old Class XII student at Woodstock, is a bit guarded when asked about pressures back home but does keep stressing that "it's really different" in India. "I have more freedom here, and it's about learning outside the school too, about travelling widely, about seeing reality. It's not just about learning and memorising things, " adds Cho, who comes from the southern city of Jinju and hopes to study further to become either a marketer or a diplomat.
Moody mentions Jinju, too, as he lists how word of mouth is another key factor bringing Koreans to Indian schools. "A number of families in Jinju go to the same church and pass around relevant information. We've been there to meet parents and found we've already been recommended by people in the community for our holistic approach, " he says. Besides good buzz, alumni networks, points out Bradby, are also a rather important factor in bringing kids to schools here now, indicating that this trend - of bright, eager Korean kids spending three to four years at school in India - appears to have gained considerable traction over the last decade.
So just how much of India rubs off on these kids? Cho talks of how he's been able to experience such a different culture and that it has indeed made a big difference to his worldview. Schools are only too happy to help that along. As Cho's principal at Woodstock, Jonathan Long, puts it, "International diversity is certainly a good thing for the school, and it's an even better thing for students if it's as much about coming to India as Woodstock. These students benefit from the school's diverse community and history, but if they imbibe something of India and its cultural heritage and traditions, so much the better".
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