Hallyu, is it me you’re looking for

Beyond just language classes and authentic Korean eats, there are now even more ways to get hooked on the Hallyu scene on campus. Chrystal Chan checks them out

It is a hot, muggy afternoon on campus. The students are in class, their eyes riveted on the screen in front of them. But unlike other lessons going on around them, this class isn’t watching the professor explain a complex concept. Instead, the students are all watching the latest episode of the current K-drama sweeping the region, Descendants of the Sun. They will later discuss the reasons for its popularity and examine it from a few perspectives.

Welcome to module CS4160 – The Korean Wave: A multidisciplinary perspective. Teaching this class is Asst Prof Liew Kai Khiun, an avid Korean drama enthusiast who keeps himself updated on all the latest serials in his free time. It goes without saying, then, that this module is anything but standard fare. One class involved a guest lecturer who has written tracks for K-pop groups, and another lesson was a field trip to the Korea tourism office in Singapore.

One might expect the students in his class to be hardcore fans of the Hallyu wave, and whilst that’s true, Asst Prof Liew says there is a surprising number of European exchange students among them.

“I had an ex-student who was a well-versed fan-subber for her favourite K-pop group, TOP7. But my class has also been well received by exchange students from Sweden and Denmark. They have gained a more intimate understanding of the region through this course,” Asst Prof Liew says.

“But more interesting to me is the number of South Koreans who take the class to better appreciate how the outside world views their popular entertainment,” he explains.

This module is just one of the many ways Kimchi culture has made its presence felt across NTU. A count of the Korean fare on campus comes to about six, not including the newly-opened Paik’s Bibim at the North Spine Plaza. There’s even kcuts, a hair salon that promises to provide Korean-style haircuts in 10 minutes.

The Hallyu wave has such a far-reaching impact that the home ground of Samsung was the top Asian exchange destination for NTU students in the last academic year, with 151 students going there, up from 69 in 2011. It is also the only Asian country in the top five exchange destinations.

A street in Myeongdong, Seoul.

“The Korean culture, with its pop groups, dramas and cuisine, is one of the main reasons Korea is a hot favourite amongst NTU students. Leading universities like Seoul National University and Korea University also offer a range of courses in English, making it a top choice for many,” says Ms Pauline Ho from NTU’s Office of Global Education and Mobility, which works out exchange deals with partner universities.

Taking it one step further is Edwin Neo, a final-year Renaissance Engineering Programme student, who flew to South Korea for NTU’s Language Immersion Programme, spending four weeks of his mid-year vacation there attending cultural classes, workshops and activities, as well as field trips to attractions around Seoul.

Edwin says he became enamoured of the country after meeting Korean students during his first exchange in California.

“So I went to South Korea and saw for myself how beautiful it is. The food is good, systems are efficient and the people are approachable and fun,” he says.

“One of the highlights of my time there was the city tour that brought us to Gyeongbokgung Palace (left). I’m usually less interested in cultural attractions, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed learning about the history of the palace. Also, I am now a huge fan of Korean food.”

The allure of all things Korean looks set to grow. NTU recently launched Singapore’s first endowed professorship in Korean Studies in collaboration with the Korea Foundation. This new professorship will focus on modern Korean society and help further develop the Korean studies curriculum in NTU.

“The collaboration is a step towards expanding Korean studies in Asia. We believe the professorship will inspire more people to learn about Korea and lead to more research on contemporary Korean society,” says Korea Foundation President Dr Yu Hyun-seok.

On the science front, NTU has launched a research programme in technology and innovation with Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. KAIST has been NTU’s long-time academic partner.

The five-year programme will focus on “hot” areas such as robotics, entrepreneurship, medical technologies, satellites and materials science and engineering. With this, there will be more chances for exchange visits, overseas business plan competitions and even dual degree programmes involving the partner universities.

Meanwhile, major Korean companies such as Hyundai Engineering and Construction have set up joint labs on campus with NTU. Maybe the next Korean high school drama can be shot at The Hive?