Haechan Lee has only been in the United States for three days, but he’s already noticed a big difference between here and his home in South Korea.
“The food is really heavy. I mean, bacon and sausage for breakfast? C’mon!” he says. Breakfast in South Korea might be rice, fish and kimchi, which is salted and fermented vegetables.
But then Lee admits: “I love all the food here.”
As you can tell, Lee speaks English very well, but he’s at UTC for two weeks with a group of 20 Korean students who are taking a crash course in English as a Second Language. The high school students live in Gangneung, a sister city to Chattanooga, and the two cities and UTC collaborated to bring the students here. It’s the first time for the program and the first time most of the students have been to America.
In the morning, the students are on campus, taking the same classes college-age and adult ESL students attend. The afternoons, though, are filled with such activities as trips to Rock City and Ruby Falls, taking in a Lookouts baseball game, the Tennessee Aquarium, the Hunter Museum of American Art, bowling, biking and other fun pursuits.
“We’re hoping they will improve their English and maybe understand American culture a little bit better,” says Anna Savary, director of the ESL Institute at UTC.
An additional goal, says Savary, who’s also assistant director for university’s Center for Global Education, is that “some of them will like UTC so much, they’ll come back and start an undergraduate program here.”
Plans to bring the Korean students to campus began in January with talks between UTC and the Sister City Association of Chattanooga. The local groups then worked with the Youth Learning Center in Gangneung, the students’ regular school.
Boseul Kim, a 15-year-old who just started high school, says she wanted to come to the U.S. after her sister visited the country and told her that it’s an excellent place to improve your English. While English is a standard course in Korean schools, it’s a good idea to learn more, says the soft-spoken Kim.
Beyond the language, one thing she’s learned in the short time she’s been here is that Americans “are all kind.”
“And I love their smiles. I really love their smiles.”
Along with the differences in cuisine, Lee—a college student who is one of the chaperones on the trip— says he’s discovered another significant difference between Korea and the U.S. In his country, there is an “age hierarchy,” he explains. As a 20-year-old, he says he simply could not speak to someone who is a good bit older than him, say a 40-year-old.
“That gap would ban us from being friends,” he says. “But here, when someone is speaking English and I’m speaking English, I can feel that atmosphere that, ‘We don’t care about your age. We don’t care where you’re from.’”