He’s just another one of the gangOn a playground in Daehyeon-dong, northwestern Seoul, some kids are kicking a soccer ball around. A gentle afternoon breeze blows yellow and red leaves around the young David Beckham wannabes.
Fighting over the ball, the kids get loud, rolling on the ground. It looks like a typical after-primary-school scene in Korea, except that one of these kids is an American boy named Thomas Creed.
Thomas’s best friend, Lee Dong-won, suddenly stops kicking the ball and picks up his bag. In an immaculate Korean accent, Thomas cries out, “Ya, eodiga?” meaning “Hey, where are you going?”
Though Dong-won speaks no English, the two have no trouble communicating. Thomas is a ready speaker of Korean. In fact, the 11-year-old’s snow-white face, brown hair and blue eyes seem to be all that set him apart from his classmates.
“Thomas is like any one of us,” Dong-won says. “I don’t think he’s a foreigner.”
Thomas is a fourth-grader at Ewha Elementary School, which he’s attended since he was five years old. His father, Daniel Creed, is a command sergeant major in the U.S. Army’s 17th Aviation Brigade, stationed in Korea.
Previous tours of duty in Germany, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia taught Mr. Creed the value of speaking the language of the country where one lives. Having sent his eldest son Patrick, now 24, to a German kindergarten when he was a boy, Mr. Creed says he found that attending local schools was the best way for kids to pick up a language.
Patrick is a sergeant stationed in Pyeongtaek, specializing in Korean language. He also attends Yonsei University’s Korean language program. “After seeing Patrick adapting well to the Korean language after German, I decided to send Thomas to a local school,” Mr. Creed says.
Thomas’s parents decided to send him to Ewha, a private school affiliated with Ewha Womans University.
“We were pretty lucky to get him into a private school,” Mr. Creed says. “Back then, public schools were not so ready to accept a foreign student.”
It wasn’t as though Thomas was born prepared to go to school in Korea, though. When he first entered kindergarten at Ewha, he had a hard time adjusting.
For the first few months, Thomas wanted his father constantly by his side. Many times, while class was going on, Mr. Creed would wait in a small room adjacent to the kindergarten classroom to reassure him. “It was not going to a Korean school, but being in a new culture that made it hard,” Mr. Creed says.
But Thomas gradually adjusted. After two years, he finished kindergarten and entered elementary school.
Now it’s been six years, and Thomas blends in fine with his classmates, eating kimchi at lunch and bowing to his teachers. Thomas says he has a hard time with the language when it comes to Chinese characters, but overall he enjoys it. “I’ve read a lot of Korean novels and stories, which I like,” he says in Korean.
One thing he doesn’t like so much is when some of his classmates call him “Tomato Ketchup.” Most of the students, however, call him by the Koreanized pronunciation of his name, Tomaseu.
“Thomas is pretty good-hearted and easy to get along with,” says Yang Dong-wook, one of his classmates. Another, Yu Ho-seon, rips a picture of David Beckham out of a magazine to give to Thomas. In a computer class, a few classmates ask him for help in solving a logic game.
Thomas gets help from his friends, too, especially in Korean class when he comes across words whose meanings elude him. He keeps a sizable Korean dictionary in his desk drawer, next to his favorite, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”
He’s not the ringleader type ― in fact, he’s rather shy ― but Thomas is accepted as a full-fledged member of the class of more than 30 students. His homeroom teacher, Goo Soon-ok, speaks highly of him. “Thomas is quite well adapted to the school by now, though it must have been hard,” she says.
Once, when Thomas missed the school bus after getting carried away playing soccer after school, Ms. Goo gave him 10,000 won ($9) to take a cab home. The next day, Thomas gave Ms. Goo an envelope containing the money she was owed, with crooked but legible Korean handwriting on it that said “Seonsaengnim gamsahamnida,” meaning “Thank you, ma’am.”
Ms. Goo also has concerns, however. “Though Thomas speaks the language well, his writing is not so advanced,” she says. Showing a daily journal that students are assigned to keep, Ms. Goo says, “He’s still weak in grammar and writing style. But he hits it off with his friends and excels in physical education classes.”
For his part, Thomas says, “I like school and my friends ― though I hate science.”
Ms. Goo doesn’t understand why Mr. and Mrs. Creed don’t seem to worry as much as typical Korean parents do about how their child is doing in school. “Mr. and Mrs. Creed take very good care of Thomas, but when it comes to achievements, I guess they are not so interested,” she says.
Annual sessions between teachers and parents, held mostly to discuss scholastic achievement, do not go particularly well when Thomas has to be the translator. But Mr. Creed is happy with the school, saying he’s appreciative of the friendly teachers and students at Ewha.
Thomas’s education in Korea is by no means near an end. Although he retires from the Army in January, Mr. Creed won’t be going home to Boston ― he plans to stay in Korea for good.
“My family is happy here, which makes me happy,” Mr. Creed says. “I like the Korean people, who are friendly and loyal.” His wife, Margaret Creed, is studying at Sookmyung Women’s University for a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language.
When he reaches seventh grade and enters middle school, Thomas will probably go to an American school on the army base. He still feels more comfortable in English than in Korean. And though his best friend Dong-won might not be happy to see his Tomaseu leave Korea, Thomas says he eventually wants to go to an American college.
“I guess my parents want me to be a translator,” he says, in English. “But my dream is to be a basketball player.”
by Chun Su-jin