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‘I Intend to Promote a Spirit of Mutual Respect in the United States’

Korea-U.S. Youth Exchange Network 2009
Interview by Kim Bo-ram
Photography by Kim Hyun-min &
Yonsei University
At the Korea-U.S. summit meeting in March, the leaders of Korea and the U.S. agreed to support student exchange activities between the two countries in order to promote friendly relations among the next generation of leaders. Related to this, the initial session of the Korea-U.S. Youth Exchange Network program was recently undertaken in Korea (August 9-22). Under the sponsorship of the Korea Foundation and program organization by Yonsei University, the U.S. delegation comprised 101 high school and university students who were selected from among some 250 candidates across the United States. The participants recorded the highest scores for essays on Korea and question-andanswer tests. Much like Lucas Johnson, a 15-year-old high school student who said: “After seeing students speak in Korean at my school, I became curious about how many peoples and cultures there were in Asia, in addition to those of China and Japan,” the students were all teeming with curiosity about Korea, based on a variety of reasons and circumstances.

The Real-life Korea
During their stay in Korea, they gained firsthand experience about the real-life Korea, not simply the brief images seen on the TV news, through various activities, including Korean language and taekwondo lessons, a city tour, “Shoes of Hope” event, and volunteer efforts. According to the student visitors, the most popular events were the two-day stay at the home of a Korean student and a visit to the DMZ, which separates South and North Korea. Ifeoma Ozoma observed: “I felt the tension along the DMZ – so realistic beyond comparison with what I had read in books.”
She also added, with a look of concern: “It is hard to imagine my Korean schoolmate, who has not yet completed his military service, would stand here, armed with a weapon, several years from now.” The American students who have not personally experienced war or the division of their country seemed to have been deeply impressed by the young people who stood motionless, facing each other in different uniforms, although to most Koreans this is quite a familiar scene.
The U.S. students all said that their stay in a Korean home, as a friend and member of a Korean family, was the most helpful for acquiring a deeper and broader understanding about the culture and people of this strange country named Korea. Sitting around the table on the floor for a meal of jjigae (Korean-style stew) and rice, and enjoying a family weekend outing – sharing such experiences common to all Koreans, could be described as a “happy culture shock.” Benjamin Stango Vanson, a Korean-American university student, noted: “There were many things to learn even from such small differences as sharing side dishes and jjigae when you eat. For Americans, who are served on an individual plate, they care about their own plate, while Koreans who share dishes with others at the table naturally pay more attention to their family members. Koreans seem to naturally learn warm-heartedness and care unique to them from this kind of a thing.”

Mutual Understanding
Since this student exchange program seeks to enhance mutual understanding among the next-generation leaders, who will be leading our two countries in the near future, the program focused on opportunities for student interaction and to learn about each other’s culture. The activities thus included lectures on such topics as the “Korea-U.S. alliance” and “Korean society seen through the eyes of an American,” along with group discussion sessions and kimchi-making. Although lectures might be somewhat boring, like attending a class, the students expressed a positive reaction, saying: “They were very useful and interesting thanks to the lecturers who were outstanding communicators and could maintain everyone’s attention.” They also said the curiosity and exuberance of the participants helped them easily overcome any awkwardness, due to cultural differences, during their time with each other. “We also talked about such issues as the Korea-U.S. FTA. But, we were especially enthusiastic when we talked about school life in our respective countries.”
The American students looked rather downcast on the final day of their stay in Korea. After saying, “I think I should come back again because two weeks is just too short,” Lucas asked whether the program would be held on a continual basis. He emphasized that he would definitely encourage his friends in the United States to more actively experience and accept other cultures. Korea seemed to establish itself as more than just a friend in the hearts of the American students when they were heard saying that the best thing they would bring home from Korea was a “sense of respect,” rather than some high-tech device or MP3 player.

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