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The case for going back

If there’s one thing I’m asked more frequently than where I’m from, it’s whether or not I’m going to stay in the United States after I graduate. Granted, my questionably fluctuating accent and ethnically ambiguous looks confuse even the keenest observer. If my limited Korean and even sparser knowledge of K-pop isn’t confusing enough, I’ve even had people on campus ask me if I was from “East or West Korea.” However, despite my seemingly superficial ties to South Korea, never once have I conceived of working in the United States post-graduation.

For the past decade, South Korea has been struggling with one of the fastest rates of brain drain in the developed world: The vast majority of South Korea’s youth, at least those who can afford it, has chosen to be educated in the United States and remain there. Cultural biases have favored an American education over a South Korean one, and even those pursuing degrees in the most prestigious of South Korean universities choose to study abroad and only return for graduate school. The South Korean government has been grappling with incentives to keep its educated youth within the country, yet, sadly, it’s been fighting a losing battle.

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On the flip side, the United States has been doing a fantastic job of bringing in foreign students and keeping them in the country. For many international students like myself, America’s number-one commodity is its education. Prestigious institutions like Princeton value international students because they create diverse student bodies, and these students, in turn, value the opportunity to jump-start their futures. The result is rather symbiotic. So why would I even conceive of returning to a country with backward cultural practices and an aging population?

There’s something to say for the fact that South Korea values Ivy League degrees much more than most American companies and would therefore offer higher positions and more prestigious jobs to those returning to the motherland. Confucianism has always valued the educated more than any other philosophical system, placing scholars above all other social classes. To top that off, a sense of national pride, no matter how superficial, makes me feel obligated to contribute something to my own country. The fact that my family and friends all live in South Korea, as well as the sheer familiarity of Seoul, are just a few basic yet critical factors to take into consideration.

To be honest, it is difficult to pinpoint which factor influences me most, as it is a combination of all four. South Korea may be known for its advanced technology sometimes bordering on the absurd — like the new Galaxy phone that purportedly allows you to scroll down menus with your eyes — but its social values and culture are ridiculously anachronistic. We’re talking about a country that just elected its first female president, whose first order on the agenda is banning miniskirts in Seoul. Seeing as “pretty boys” are valued to the point of androgyny, I don’t know what the government expects people to wear in the future. In a way, condescending as it may sound, I feel an obligation to my country to modernize and liberalize a staggeringly backward society. This isn’t just applicable to South Korea but to any nation, especially the developing and recently developed.

It is also important to note that in order for America to improve its foreign relations, it is first necessary to accurately assess what is happening abroad. No matter how much the United States may want to keep tabs on South Korea for regional and domestic security issues, it is impossible to do so without knowledgeable experts advising the White House on the best course of action. This could have serious policy implications, as the United States cannot make critical decisions based on partial knowledge. By sending those educated in the United States back to their native countries, we not only provide these nations with a chance to see eye-to-eye with the United States, but we also have an invaluable source of information to make better decisions in Washington. It may be one thing to act in our nation’s service, but it’s equally valuable to do so through the service of other nations.

Ye Eun Charlotte Chun is a freshman from Seoul, South Korea. She can be reached at ychun@princeton.edu.

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