Andrew and Crystal are thirteen and fifteen. They attend Yongsan International School of Seoul, an American-based private school which is both Christian and broad-minded. I was particularly interested in their stories because when I was a child and young adult my family spent a year in Europe every five years, first in Luxembourg and then in Germany, where I attended public schools and university. It turned out there were some similarities. We spoke in their home in Seoul.
Before I moved here to my international school in Seoul, I went to Navarro Elementary School in Seguin Township, Texas. It was a good public school in the middle of nowhere but kind of close to our house. It was like any other school. They’d teach us the lesson and ask questions.
I was nine years old when we moved to Korea. We’d been here before, but I was little and didn’t remember. I was expecting this to be like where I am from, but it was really different because of the culture. Like how people like talk to each other, like express themselves. For example, we’re used to having our own personal space. So when we’re talking we just talk like this [about three feet apart]. But in Korea, even though most of my friends are half American, there’s more of a feeling that friends stick together. We’re a little closer when we talk and maybe hold each others’ hands or something like that. It’s kind of a weird. [Korean society is more highly socialized, more tightly interconnected and less homophobic.]
I came from a small town to a big city, and I wasn’t used to being on a busy sidewalk with people rushing and bumping into me. It was so crowded, and there was no personal space. It made me uncomfortable for about a year, but then I guess I got used to it by being with my friends on busy sidewalks. We played soccer, and we went to Korean restaurants and small shops and just hung out. At first, since I’m part Asian they just assumed I knew how to use chopsticks, but they didn’t assume I could speak Korean because they didn’t know whether I was half Korean or half Filipino.
The school is pretty strict. If you don’t do your work you’ll have detention or not get a break between classes. The kids around me are under pressure to get good grades. Otherwise, their parents punish them. So I when I was fooling around with my friends, the girls near me would complain to the teacher that I was making noise and they couldn’t hear or they couldn’t concentrate. I had to do pushups or something as a punishment.
When I was in the Luxembourg in the second grade, I was treated like somebody really special because my classmates hadn’t seen an American before. This was only a few years after World War II. Most of the kids were dark-haired and skinny, and I was chubby and had blond hair and blue eyes. Their first response was, “Oh, an American! Let’s teach her Luxembourgish. Let’s teach her how to play marbles.” Was your experience here like that or different?
It was actually a lot like that. They don’t usually see a lot of almost full Americans in that school. So they said, “Let’s hang out with this kid. Let’s teach him kai bai bo.” That’s rock-paper-scissors in Korean. They also taught me how to speak Korean to girls, just like hello, anyong haseo. And yeah, also some insulting things. The Korean guys taught me a few curse words, but I didn’t want to be the guy that’s always a pain to people who aren’t like him.
With me, being the center of attention got me into trouble. I remember we’d be playing marbles during class, which we weren’t supposed to do, and I was the one always dropping the marbles. So I’d have to stand in the corner behind the blackboard. Was that something like your experience?
Yeah, most of my friends would fool around during class, and I’d follow them. Here in Korea if you want to have friends, you do the stuff they do so you can hang out with them. That’s true in the US too, but here there’s something very different.
How long do you your Korean friends have to study?
All weekend, like sunrise to like ten or eleven at night. They study for five hours, do sports for five hours and then go back to studying. The Korean girls just stay in the house all day studying and reading books. They don’t even go outside. Today when we were at the Seoul Club, one of my friends was in a tournament there. His mom was there too. Afterwards my friend had to go home and study. He’ll get a little free time and then go back to studying.
I tutored a Korean middle school girl who would have loved to have had free time with her friends.
The mom is usually the one who orders them to study, and then the dad gets in the way and says she should give him some time off. So it depends on what happens between the parents. It’s off and on.
My situation is nothing like that. I don’t start studying for a test a month early. I just study, and then I don’t even review it again until the night before the test. My mom just asks me to work a little harder. I have one C, one F for not turning in a paper, then the rest are half A’s and half B’s. I have 100% in PE. Athletic stuff is easy for me because I have more time than the other kids to go outside. I have a 97% now in Mandarin. This is in an international school which is at least two years ahead of schools in America. My sister’s doing high school math.
My schools in Europe were also way ahead of my American schools. What are you doing in your classes?
In English we’re reading a book about Greek mythology. In science we learned about ecology, and now we’re learning about the layers of the earth and the atmosphere. We’re learning how a hurricane or a tornado forms. We each have to do a research paper on a specific storm or hurricane which really happened, then for English we have to be able to cite the works with the right documentation. The science part is writing about how the hurricane formed and what damage it did—wind velocity and intensification and all that. I don’t like my topic very much. Hurricane Andrew was one of the five most damaging storms in American history, but I really only chose it because of the name.
I have some advice as somebody who’s done a lot of research. Pick a topic that you really like. Take a careful look at what the options are, like maybe writing about one of the typhoons to hit the Philippines not far from your relatives. Pick something you really want to know about. Before I wrote my PhD dissertation, I had two possible topics in mind, so I wrote a seminar paper on each one to see which one worked better. Taking the time to take a good look at the options ends up saving you time for what you’re actually interested in.
Cool. I’ll take that. Thanks.
So that’s English and science, what are you doing in your math class?
We did geometry—area and volume of specific shapes. Now we’re doing equations, so algebra. We just finished our integer unit and adding and multiply integers and everything like that. In physical education we’re playing soccer, playing capture the flag and doing fitness tests, like pushups. In technology class we’re learning how to program and code our own applications, which is what I’m doing now in my spare time. Classes are a lot harder than last year. Now we’re learning a little bit of what high school students do. Science is going to be hard for me. Oh, I forgot. We also have a Bible class.
In Mandarin I’m doing okay, but nobody likes the teacher. It’s so boring. It’s about 50% writing the characters and 50% memorizing simple phrases. This is the first year Mandarin is being offered, and they made the sixth graders take it for some reason. The seventh and eighth graders have a choice between Spanish and Korean. I wanted to learn Korean. I speak some, but I’ve always lived in an environment where we spoke only English.
If you had a choice between being in the international school that you’re in now and going back to Texas to the school system you were in before, which one would you choose?
In Texas I didn’t fit in. It was torture. I couldn’t cope with the people around me. When I was in kindergarten there were a lot of germs in the school, and I was sick a lot, so I either had to repeat kindergarten or go on to the first grade and make up for the time I’d missed by going to school every Saturday and Sunday. I repeated kindergarten. That meant I was older than my classmates, and some of them would say things like, “Did you get held back? What are you, like stupid or something?”
In the first grade I transferred to public school from the primary school in the education department at the university, where I hadn’t learned anything. So I had to repeat the first grade. I was embarrassed about being older for years.
The international school is a good experience. I’ve learned a lot from the comparison between American culture and Korean culture. For example, in America you have to sit up straight and pick up food with your fork, but in Korean culture you can just put your face right over your plate and make noises while you eat. Only the elders are allowed to talk or the men that are hosting the dinner. The little ones can only talk if the elders talk to them. The wives of the hosts, they’re just quiet the whole time. But in America the wives talk more than the husbands, at least at my house.
Why do you find it interesting to observe cultural differences?
I observe, and then I wonder, if I was in that position, that specific culture, would I do this or would I do that? So there are more possibilities. In Korea I definitely had to change. If I want to hang out with my friends, who have good grades, I should have good grades too. I mean, I’m kind of off and on. I’m focused now, but maybe tomorrow I’ll say, “Oh, it won’t be a big deal if I don’t get a good grade on this test because I already have an A in the class.”
How about getting interested in the subject just because it’s the subject?
If it was technology, then I would actually do my best because I want to learn. Here I learned that I can achieve something. In Texas I was doing nothing, just playing games. My whole mindset changed. Now I’ll be concentrating in class because I want to get this method right, know it, master it and then go on to something else.
Why do you think you’ve become more outgoing in Seoul than you were in Texas?
I used to be the really quiet kid. But here when I’d hang out with my dad, we’d go to Korean business dinners and he’d make me socialize. So I’d think that I had to talk to this guy or my dad would feel ashamed of me because I didn’t know how to talk. My mom encouraged me too.
You’ve come out of your shell a lot.
But when I want to focus I go into my shell.
Many people don’t understand that when a person is an introvert, someone who turns inward, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re shy. It means that you get your energy from going inside rather than picking up energy from lots of other people.
That’s kind of like me.
Do you find that you have to be more polite and respectful of people here than you did in Texas?
Yes. In America at a soccer game or something which calls for teamwork, you’d gradually learn to trust each other and be polite enough not to point out when someone messed up. But in Korea you have to be polite first and then you can relax and go the other way, so at first I’ll be more in my shell, rather than joking around first.