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After the first week, I slowly began to pick up a few words of Korean, here and there. The first word I learned was no (실어), and the second was food (밥). Eventually, I made friends, and even though we did not speak each other’s language very well, we were able to laugh, smile, and communicate with each other. They were the ones that helped me adjust to school life, which was entirely different from what I was accustomed to. We were assigned to reach school early, and clean part of it every day- hallways, classrooms, the playground, you name it. Then we would have various lectures until noon.
Schooling was an important matter, and we were instructed to listen to the teacher’s every word. If we didn’t, there was a chance that we would be smacked with a ruler, or forced to stay in push-up position for 30 minutes. The students took education very seriously, and everyone attended additional classes after school. It is completely normal for Korean students to be up and about at learning centers from 8 P.M to 2 A.M after school, and also on the weekend.
However, instead of finding displeasure in this new life, I relished the bond that I formed with my classmates. Every moment of my school life was spent with them, and we formed lasting memories with each other, either frantically studying together for a test, or exclaiming about the difficulty of our classes and the grimness of our teachers. On the weekends, we would stroll through the humid streets, constantly eating popsicles because of the heat, run and laugh on the scalding playground, and come home together late at night. Of course though, this was before we entered high school, and had much more time to spare. Regardless, we have been friends for 10 years, and are still in contact today.
Whatever time was not spent at school, or at learning centers, was spent with my grandmother. We liked to go everywhere together- the market, the bank, the trash centers, the bakery, anywhere. She would tell me stories about her dramatic escapes during the Korean War, and I would listen eagerly, amazed at the hardships she suffered. I was pleasantly surprised at the deep bond we formed, even though we were separated by a vast age difference.
I had envisioned that Korea would be a place of severe austerity, and even though there were certain customs that I disliked, I found Korea to be a place of warmth, comfort, and friendship that I would always yearn to return to every year. Even though I greatly disliked the notion of going to Korea, this trip allowed me to realize that perceptions are easily changed, and that it is best for me to keep an open mind. Although certain circumstances may seem dismal and dispiriting, it is always best to make an effort to make the situation enjoyable and rewarding.
I’m Rhea for “(Bay Talk Friday)” on Youth Radio Raw. For this commentary and more, visit www.youthradio.org.