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Navigating Two Worlds: Hwaejin Chung

By Ronan Lauber '21

It is another typical Saturday night for Saint Thomas Academy junior Hwaejin Chung and his parents.  The last golden rays of the sun stream in through the giant windows in his family’s living room as the sun sets behind the mountains in the distance.  The sweet, smoky aroma of Korean barbecue fills the air as dusk settles and Hwaejin and his parents sit down to enjoy his favorite homemade meal.  In Korean, the conversation starts with Hwaejin’s parents asking him how his day went, followed by the continual question of how his studies are progressing, making sure he is keeping up with his school work and on track to attend a respectable college.  Although Hwaejin enjoys communicating with his parents and answering their questions, this typical exchange for the Chung family is anything but typical.  Hwaejin is not eating any of the Korean barbecue his parents prepared. He will not relax on the coach and watch a movie with them later that night or walk around the neighborhood with them the next morning.  In fact, Hwaejin is actually only present on a grainy Facetime video, as he is halfway around the world in Minnesota.

Hwaejin first arrived in the United States on June 29, 2013, as a fifth-grader. Back in South Korea, the school system is extremely intense, and standardized testing and after-school tutoring begin at a young age. Parents place a lot of pressure on children to perform well.  This, along with the strict academics, often leads to intense stress, depression, and even suicide. Realizing this system was not conducive to physical or mental health and wanting a more enjoyable school experience for their son, Hwaejin’s parents chose to send him to Christian Life School in Farmington and then STA for a fruitful academic experience.

Prior to coming to STA, Hwaejin had no familiarity with the school and expected the teachers to be extremely strict and the students to be pompous, as STA was a military academy.  He says, “I really had no clue what to expect.  It was a whole new world.  New faces, new food, new classes, new everything.  I didn’t know one single person before coming to STA.”  However, Hwaejin recalls being immediately welcomed at the Academy and surprised at how friendly the American students were, a noticeable difference from competitive South Korean students. Additionally, the teachers were not as intimidating and rigid as he previously perceived.

Hwaejin enjoyed a great seventh-grade year at STA and has smoothly progressed to his current junior year. Nevertheless, Hwaejin did encounter difficulties as a foreign exchange student. New foods such as sloppy Joes and beets had strange textures and flavors.  The common American habit of using sarcasm left Hwaejin constantly wondering why people were saying the opposite of what they meant.

Besides being overwhelmed by the culture shock, Hwaejin remembers the language barrier being a huge obstacle at first:  “I had taken English since kindergarten, but I was nowhere near as fluent as I am now. I could only form a few choppy sentences, and my grammar was awful.”  Hwaejin explains, when someone calls your name in Korea, the recipients’ common response is, “Why?” rather than, “What?”  This was a hard habit for Hwaejin to break as he transitioned to speaking English.  “It took me a lot longer to process English, and I always had to translate back into Korea in my head to understand anything.”  Luckily, when Hwaejin arrived, he was fortunate to stay with his fifth-grade teacher who had previously hosted other Korean students. She gave him morning lessons all summer to help him improve his English and prepare for school. Hwaejin recalls, “Within the first year, I could speak fairly fluently, but it took years to get a really good grasp of the language.  My grammar and the way I speak took a lot longer to click.”  Now, Hwaejin prides himself on his language abilities and the fact that many Americans do not even suspect him of being a foreign student.

Another difficulty Hwaejin remembers was the stereotypical and sometimes racist comments from some children, such as joking he couldn’t see as well because his eyes were more narrow.  He did not usually regard the comments as malicious and feels that his easy-going personality allowed him to develop a thick skin and use humor as a way to deflect any negativity.  Hwaejin views these experiences as beneficial, as he believes it is better to learn how to adapt and deal with diversity at a young age.

Some people might regard middle school as an exceptionally early time to live away from home.  However, Hwaejin believes coming early makes for an easier overall experience.  His hobbies are similar to those of many American teenagers: playing lacrosse, piano, and guitar.  While he does miss his family and old friends, he has gotten used to being away from home.  Hwaejin explains, “I never really got homesick or super sad. I more just tried to live in the moment and accept that this was how it was going to have to be in order for me to take advantage of this opportunity.” He is thankful for both the good friends he has made here and the opportunity to talk with his parents on weekends and visit them in the summer.

Overall, Hwaejin puts an extremely high value on his U.S. education.  He has become efficient at adapting to different environments, and enjoys knowing how to speak two languages. Just being able to say he knows people from the other side of the world is an amusing thought for him. Despite all the challenges, Hwaejin understands that the adventurous part of his brain, the “YOLO side” as he calls it, wanted to take advantage of this incredible opportunity:  “It was a good decision… it has had a positive effect on my life, and I know it will pay off in the future.  I am very grateful for all those who supported me, especially my parents for sending me here.”

Image of Hwaejin Chung
Hwaejin with his mother
Image of Hwaejin at lighthouse
Image of Hwaejin with Nick Horst