Monday, August 31, 2015

Changwon Meets Berkeley

When I left the school where I taught in Korea back in June of 2014, I gave a small speech to my students that included what has become a life motto of sorts: "This isn't a 'goodbye', but a 'see you later'." I never promised that I'd return to Korea after one year to visit, but then I did. And none of my students promised that they'd come to California, but then one did!

My student JH, who wanted to be called by his English name in my class, is in the middle of his second year at a prestigious science and technology university in Korea, but he decided to spend a semester abroad as an exchange student at UC Berkeley, where I am now doing my graduate studies! This guy is going to become an electrical engineer or have some other kind of brainiac career, but for a few months he is going to study comparative literature, German, and art alongside some of California's brightest students at the world's best public university.

I'm so glad that I've kept in touch with many of my former students through Facebook, because I don't think I would have heard that JH was coming here if I hadn't. But when I did find out, I was ecstatic. I mean, I know it's not easy for Korean students to go abroad: they might have the ambition, but not the requisite English skills or the money to afford it. Most of Changwon Science High School's alumni believe that their earliest chances of coming to the States for their education will be for graduate school or even post-doctoral programs.

But one way or another, JH found himself in sunny California two weeks ago, rode the BART from SFO to Berkeley's campus, and has already had several orientations and three days of classes. I met up with him yesterday and we had a great conversation about all of the bits of culture shock he's experienced so far and what he plans to do during his short stay here.

We had lunch at Bleecker Street Bistro, where he had his first avocado ("It kind of tastes like potato; I like it.") and remarked that the way Americans say "please" and "thank you" all the time was really impressive (I told him we're nothing compared to Canada). In Berkeley, he is amazed by the weather ("I heard that it never rains.") and by the way cars come to full stops to allow pedestrians to cross the street, and he is unsure what to do about panhandlers, since they can be more aggressive here than they are in Korea.

I was excited to hear about his classes and told him I wanted to make sure he had the best semester possible. "I'm not your teacher, anymore," I said, "but I can still help you. Here's my phone number; call or text me if you ever have a problem." When I taught him, JH's English skills were at the top of his class -- discounting his peers who had actually lived abroad in English-speaking countries -- but he still admitted that he felt completely lost during his first comp lit lecture. Well... I'll be honest; I felt the same way in my freshman English seminar way back when. I hope that this is just the first of many ways JH and I can connect in the coming months.

Changwon Science High School meets UC Berkeley! What a fantastic reunion! :)
JH and me in front of Berkeley's famous Sather Gate

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