Hyuk “Jim” Jee, is 17 years old and just finished 10th grade at North Babylon High School on Long Island. Jim lives with a Latino host family who also have their own children. He’s from Seoul, and has returned there for the summer, but he plans to attend a Catholic high school in St. Louis, Mo., when he returns in the fall.
Hyuk Jee’s narrative is one of three stories on Korean study-abroad students who have lived in North America without their parents. Jee’s first-hand account has been translated from Korean, edited, and condensed. (Editor’s note: This story was amended after publication to correct two errors, above, and to correct the English spelling of Jee’s name.)
My mom had a lot of influence on the decision for me to come here. I had wanted to go to a specialized high school in Korea, but I failed to get in, so that’s when I decided to come here.
This isn’t the original family I was staying with, but because of a financial situation, I had to move. I was supposed to leave North Babylon, but I didn’t want to transfer to a new school. I asked one of my friends if I could stay with them instead, and they said yes.
But it’s hard for me to live with the host family. They seem to favor their own children, so it makes me feel sad. On top of that, at first I didn’t have my own friends, so it was boring. For the first month, I just tried to learn English. I also miss Korean food. I order Chinese food here a lot, but it’s Americanized.
Both places have advantages and disadvantages.
In Korea, people only want to work for the government or for Samsung. I used to be like that, but after coming here, I saw that people can do what they want. I’m so excited by that. Now I see I can be an elementary school teacher. I can do this, that, anything I want to do. I could cook, and people have told me I’m talented at arts.
People here are very proud of whatever job they have. In Korea, it’s a much bigger deal to be rich or poor. Money influences my job plans, but I can’t get the idea of being an elementary school teacher out of my head.
But the Korean educational system has its advantages. Every student is ranked from best to worst, which makes everyone competitive. That prepares people for hard work. Here, students think if they don’t want to do something, they don’t have to. They just have to do enough work to avoid failing.
The Korean system makes students too exhausted, and the American system makes people fail.
That’s why it’s not that hard to study for me here, because I’m used to the Korean system. I’m not saying I’m smarter, but I already have good study habits ingrained in me.
But when I first got here, I couldn’t speak English at all. So I didn’t go out, I just studied English textbooks. Slang is hard for me, like my friend asked if I was getting “mad bitches.” I thought the term “mad,” meant “crazy”. Then, after a while, I started to get it. At first, people were reluctant to talk to me because I spoke so formally and didn’t speak slang. After I got used to the slang, I made a lot of friends.
Guys here make friends through sports, and I’m not that kind of guy — I like art and stuff like that. So when the guys run around, I just cheer for them. Still, I am a social person. I have a lot of friends.
In Korea, I hung out with friends, but it was not the same as here. In Korea I would go to school, take classes after school, go to a private tutor, and then go study. So even though I had friends, I didn’t really know how to socialize outside of academics.
In school here, at first I was scared because everyone is bigger than me. But I’d try to become closer by making conversation, like “do you have a pen?” Now I can talk with strangers, and be friends: A cashier at the supermarket, and another cashier at a deli, and another one at a bagel shop, are my friends. People tell me I’m crazily friendly.
But after being here, I became too open. Back in Korea, if a girl gets pregnant, you say, “that’s crazy!” But here you say, “congratulations!”
I’m not sure if I will end up back in Korea. But a lot of friends who go back end up failing because they have gotten used to the American educational system. All my friends back home say they are struggling with school work.
I still have a lot of things I want to do. I don’t want to leave my friends here. But you never know, I might come back for college or marriage. And being here gave me the opportunity to think about the world differently.
Edited by Peter Moskowitz