Rural school, global ambitionsThe first week of September brought about the usual throngs of kids going back to school, but in the rural town of Seocheon, South Chuncheong province, a few new faces stood out from the school’s 67 students.
In a classroom, Julian Quintart of Belgium and Emilio Molinet of Mexico groaned as they were told to get ready for a Korean vocabulary test the next day. Rose Evans of the United States raised her hand to ask questions about hangul, while Lori Scott, also from the United States, and Daniela Juarez of Mexico flipped busily through their notes written in squiggly Korean.
“Is ‘Jal jineseyo’ and ‘Jal jineyo’ the same thing?” asked Lori, 16, frowning at the various forms of Korean for saying “How are you doing?”
Above them, a huge banner welcomed Donggang’s first foreign students in the Rotary International Club’s exchange student program. Each one was matched with a host family for their yearlong stint in Seocheon.
The town, a three-hour train ride from Seoul, is as rural as it gets, with endless rice fields and a few farmhouses. But three years ago, Donggang Middle School set its sights far beyond Korea’s borders, coming up with a plan to be the first school in Korea to join the international exchange student program, with the help of a Korean agency that cooperates with the United States Information Agency.
“Even if this is just a small school in a rural town, the school and I wanted to take part in the international trend of learning about a globalized world,” said Seo Yong-byoung, principal of Donggang Middle School. “I just hope our first foreign guests enjoy their stay here and have the impression that Koreans are a good-hearted people.”
From 2001 to 2004, a total of 12 Donggang students went overseas for a year, but few foreign students wanted to visit a school that’s housed in an old building with creaky wooden floors.
Yet the unique opportunity to study in Korea was what attracted at least one of the students this year.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to go to a school in Seoul if it was similar to the one I used to attend in Belgium,” said Julian, 17, who wanted to learn Korean after he finished his senior year at Athenee Royal Aywaille.
Rose, 17, who decided to spend her senior year at Donggang instead of at Laramie High in Wyoming, said, “I am madly in love with Asian cultures. I am just absorbing everything that I am seeing, including the Korean language.”
She didn’t know much about Korea before, she said. One thing that surprised her was that Koreans used spoons to eat their rice, unlike in Japan, where they use a set of chopsticks.
Lori, 16, was willing to skip her junior prom in Maine in order to learn more about a part of the world she knew little about. “Korea has a much longer history than the United States. That’s what amazed me,” she said.
The first thing she noticed about the school was its laid-back atmosphere and lack of violence. Pointing to a full-length mirror in a hallway, she said, “If that was in my school in the States, someone would have broken it in a day.” Her school at home was careful to ban anything that could be used as a weapon.
Some of the students were surprised at the Koreans’ self-discipline, that everyone finished his or her bowl of rice at every meal and that they studied all the time.
“Kids here come to school at 8 in the morning before the first period starts to watch broadcasted lectures on television,” said Daniela, 16, referring to the state-run Educational Broadcasting System. “We follow them to school at that time too, but we don’t understand the program so we just sit and wait until our class starts at nine.”
The five students were following a different class schedule from the 16 ninth-graders with whom they would spend the year. In the morning, Donggang Middle School teachers took turns teaching Korean to the five students, from 9 a.m. to noon. After lunch, the students joined their Korean counterparts in class activities until 4 p.m.
By end of their stay, it is hoped that the foreign students can hold a simple conversation in Korean and generally understand a Korean lecture designed for ninth-graders.
English teacher Ms. Kim Ga-bin, who also is the Korean teacher in charges of the five students, said the 10 faculty members try to treat the foreigners the same as they treat the other students. Because it’s the first time the school has had foreign exchange students, everyone has been trying to make this program successful, she said.
“The kids are great, but it’s not the language that is the problem,” said Ms. Kim. “It’s probably the cultural differences that bewilder both the Korean and foreign students at certain times.”
Because their uniforms are not ready yet, the five were free to wear their own clothes for the first few weeks.
Ms. Kim said one wore a short skirt and a tank top to school, which the student considered casual but was strictly against the school dress code. Girls at Donggang Middle School wear a blue pleated skirt that falls an inch below the knees and a white sailor-collar blouse.
“When I tell them that they can’t do certain things, they always ask me why. That’s something you will rarely find a Korean student saying,” said Ms. Kim, chuckling. “You would consider it disrespectful to question an adult.”
The five kids had their own observations of the cultural differences. “In Belgian schools, we didn’t spend time memorizing things. We learned how to think instead. I am surprised students here spend so much time memorizing the contents in books,” Julian said.
Emilio, 16, pointed out that Korean teenagers were very shy and sensitive when it comes to the opposite sex. “When I greeted Daniela with a hug, everyone stared and some even hooted. So it was a bit embarrassing,” said Emilio.
He said his favorite Korean food was what his host mother prepared a few days ago: a Korean-style taco with barbecued meat, rice and bean paste in a folded lettuce.
The five all agreed that school may be tough, but the host families were “just lovely,” Julian said.
The kids at Donggang certainly enjoy having guests on their campus. Yu Hwan-sun, 15, said, “It’s cool to go to school with foreign students. I feel that I should study English harder to be able to talk to them freely.”
The school is especially appreciative of the foreign students’ presence because in recent years, its enrollment has dwindled as more people left town for the bigger cities and remaining residents weren’t having children anymore.
In 1992, the school had 354 students enrolled. This year, enrollment fell sharply to a mere 67 students.
But things are looking up for Donggang Middle School. “After hearing that we have started a foreign exchange program, students from big cities have come to our school,” said Ms. Kim.
Kim Dae-gyeom, 16, is one of 13 students who transferred to Donggang in the past two years because of its exchange program. “The school and the international program pay for everything, so all I have to do is study,” Dae-gyeom said.
But he’s finding the rural school pleasant. “It’s very quiet here, and the air is much cleaner than where I used to live (in Seoul).”
by Lee Min-a