Down on the farm, far, far from homeSEOCHEON, South Chungcheong -- In near silence, the 38 students seated in clusters put the finishing touches to the model houses they had begun last week. Wearing a pair of fashionably small, black-framed glasses and sporting a hairstyle just a little bit long for a student, Samuel Chun, 16, holds up a model of a hanok, a traditional Korean building with curved eaves, for his partner to paint.
"How about blue for the roof?" Samuel suggests and his partner nods in deference to a classmate who is a year older and a "guest" at his school.
Wearing the school uniform of blue plaid dress shirt and navy blue pants, Samuel is not quite in his element. He is used to wearing faded blue jeans, worn at the edges, plain black T-shirts and a pair of black-and-white Adidas sneakers to school. The familiar old sneakers on his feet provide some sense of continuity and security thousands of miles away from home, family and friends.
Samuel, whose Korean parents emigrated to the United States in 1981, was born and reared in New Jersey. Had he not come to this rural province to attend Donggang Middle School on a Rotary International Student Exchange program in August, he would have begun his junior year this fall at Cherry Hill High School West in suburban New Jersey, 15 minutes from Philadelphia.
Samuel's French teacher his freshman year was a member of the Rotary Club and she often talked about the club's student exchange program during class. Intrigued by the idea of spending a year studying abroad, Samuel signed up to go to China or Taiwan.
"They had a list of 10 countries where I could go," he says, in the teachers lounge. "Korea was not on the list but I wrote it as just another option." It came as a surprise, then, when he was told that he had been assigned to Korea.
His mother, who grew up in Seoul, was against the idea when she heard that he would be spending a year in Seocheon, a farming region about three hours from Seoul via the West Coast Expressway. (His father died when Samuel was a child.) With no relatives nearby -- an uncle lives in Gwangju, Gyeonggi province -- Samuel Chun would be on his own in a country more or less foreign to him.
Although Samuel carries a Korean last name, he had never been to Korea before. Had it not been for his mother, a discount store owner who speaks limited English and speaks Korean at home, he may not have spoken any Korean at all. "Mother would speak Korean to me and I would speak English to her," says Samuel. For instance:
"Oneul mwo haetseo?" (What did you do today?)
"Not much. I went to the library and then ate pizza with some friends."
Samuel still speaks Korean slowly and has difficulty understanding sentences when Chinese-character-based Korean vocabulary is used.
"I am Korean-American with a mixture of both mentalities," he says without hesitation. "There is never one thing that identifies who you are."
"It was interesting how he introduced himself to his new classmates on his first day in school," says Kim Ga-bin, Samuel's English teacher, who, together with her husband Lee Jong-lim, the school's art teacher, have taken Samuel under their wings. "He said, 'Thank you for accepting me without any racial discrimination.'" Although he does not see himself as Korean, Samuel said he considers Korea his motherland, a word laden with special emotional attachment.
Donggang Middle School with its student body of about 80 and a faculty of 10 is a new experience for Samuel, whose high school back home has more than a thousand students.
"It is a lot calmer here," he says as he walks out of the one-story school building, one of the three in a row connected by covered paths that make up the campus, and looks around. Although many of the students had come out for a 15-minute recess, you could still hear the calling of magpies. "Going to a school in Seoul would have been just like going to school in New York City. I wanted to try a new cycle of life," says Samuel. "It's not too bad," he adds as he sniffs the air, heavy with the pungent smell of fertilizer from a nearby rice farm.
So far, his main difficulty has been in making friends. "Communications is a problem," he says. However, there are many students who want to get to know him. "A number of freshmen are corresponding with him through e-mail in English," says Ms. Kim. "Although they may not show it, they are curious about this outsider.
Samuel was placed in a middle school because of his language deficiencies, making him a year older than his classmates. "I practice English on hyeong and play pranks on him," said Kim Jun-soo, the class prefect. "Hyeong" is a Korean word for older brother but used generally by younger males in Korea.
"You have to do the silly things together before you get to be really good buddies," says Jun-soo.
In Korea, middle-school students study 12 subjects, a load that amazes Samuel. Ethics is a completely new subject and social studies is difficult because he has no background in Korean situations. The Korean terminologies used in science have him floundering. Mathematics is much more advanced here. He barely manages Korean class only because of a month-long Korean language school he attended when he was 12 years old. "I learned to read and write that summer," he says.
To earn high school credits, Samuel is planning to take distance-learning classes that operate out of Daejeon. Ms. Gim is also planning after-school lessons to fix his Korean grammar problem. "Since he has asked for help in preparing a portfolio for college admission, my husband will teach him ink painting with the Korean brush," Ms. Kim says. Samuel wants to be an architect and wants to explore Korean building forms.
Samuel is staying with a local Presbyterian minister's family who volunteered to be hosts. The Reverend Her Ki-Sung has three children who also attend the same school. Not leaving anything to chances, the host family bought a bed for the guest, thinking it would be difficult for him to get used to sleeping on the floor.
"I'm used to sleeping on the floor at home, and now I am adjusting to a bed," Samuel says.
Although he likes Korean food, and he has put on 3 kilograms since he arrived, he misses his neighborhood pizzeria, where he hung out with friends. "We did try pizza when we went to town, but it just wasn't the same," he says. "Soggy dough and the white cheese is not rich enough at all."
He tries not to call home too much. "The Rotary recommends limited contact for the first six months," he says. Living with a large family, homework and church activities leave him little time to be homesick.
"This experience is going to change me," Samuel says. "I am a procrastinator, but here I need to keep up."
In a way, things have already changed. He is hounded by the local press who want to know why this Korean-American youth has come to Korea to study when so many of its own youngsters are going abroad to study. A television crew lived with the family for two weeks shooting a documentary that aired regionally.
Says Ms. Kim: "Samuel is a celebrity. People in the next city recognized Samuel when the family went shopping."
If he came to Korea purely by chance, what does he hope to gain now that he is here?
"Get to know the culture and become fluent in Korean. I think it will be useful one day to be bilingual."
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