Jiha Ham, 30, is a reporter for the Korea Times in New York City. In 1999, at the age of 17, he left Seoul, South Korea to study at a high school in the small town of Huntsville, Ontario, in Canada, then went on to attend the University of Utah. In 2002 Ham wrote a guide book for Korean families based on his experience doing chogi yuhak, or early study abroad.
Ham’s narrative is one of three stories on Korean study-abroad students who have lived in North America without their parents. Ham’s first-hand account has been edited and condensed.
I was very lucky. My host family and their son were very nice. Most homestay families are just old people who have an empty house – their sons or daughters have gone off to a big city – so I was very lucky because when you first go to a foreign country, the first struggle you have is making a friend. In my case, my friend was there – he lived with me – we went to school together, we came home together, we ate lunch together. And his friends became my friends too.
I’m still in contact with them and visit them once every two years or three years. The son of the family came to my wedding in Korea.
I felt like I’m a special person, because no one else in my high school was from Korea. I really loved telling people where I’m from and what my culture was like, and sharing my stories.
Of course I had a language barrier, but I even enjoyed that. Even though I don’t speak English well, I enjoyed it because people were trying to teach me. It was a small town. Everybody was nice. Maybe that was the main reason. They were not ignoring me, they were just trying to help me more.
It all depends on your personality, because if you’re not a very outgoing person, it must be a very hard experience. After one year that I was there, another Korean kid came to my town, and he just left after six months, because he couldn’t enjoy the life there.
My mother paid an agency about $20,000 a year [Canadian, around $15,000 American at the time], and that included everything. Compared to other cities, and other countries like the United States, it was very, very cheap – that’s what my parents could afford.
When I left Korea for schooling, everybody would say, “You are running away from the Korean education system, and that’s only possible because your parents are rich.”
It’s a controversial issue: running away because you have money. I felt bad, I felt guilty. My Korean friends were all struggling with studying. But I also felt free, being in an easier education system.
When I went to Canada, everything was easy. I was in 11th grade, but I took the 12th grade math, and also grade 13. In Korean schools, students stay in school until 9 p.m., and then you go to private academies for three or four hours, and then you go bed at 2 a.m. That’s life in South Korea. And even though you spend that much time in school, you’re not guaranteed to enter a good university where parents want you to attend.
In South Korean high school, you can’t really choose what you want to study. I counted all the stuff I was taking in a year. It was 20 subjects – 20 courses that I took in a year. And then I went to Canada, and you only choose four courses. It was very shocking. By taking only four courses, you can concentrate on what you like. I was very shocked that in Canada they had a course called “media,” so I took 11th grade media class and in grade 12 as well. That was the first beginning of journalism for me.
The high school is easier in the United States and Canada, but the college is not. All Korean parents say to their children, “just study hard so you can have fun in college.”
It hasn’t changed a lot since back then. The title of your college is the only important factor. There are three top universities that you need for a good job and a good future. Here, people say the top fifty or the top hundred, or people don’t even care. But it’s very important in South Korea.
If you are not sure what you want to study, then I wouldn’t recommend to come here. But if you have a certain goal, then there are more opportunities and more talented people.