So Long, Hangu Nam
I just flew back from a week in Jackson, Mississippi and on the flight I sat next to a young man from Korea who had been an exchange student. Hangu was keen to practice his English so we chatted on and off for most of the flight. Having spent 6 years in Saudi Arabia and 4 in Germany when I was young, I know part of what he went through, although I was with other English-speaking people 99% of the time.
He was very pleased when I correctly guessed his age at around sixteen; he said most people thought he was in college. I thought it was a little odd that he was happy to be picked as younger -- don't most kids want to be thought of as older than they are? I think he must have had a hard time getting along with other high school kids in small-town Mississippi, or maybe adults who assumed he was a better English speaker than he actually was. I later realized that the student who'd recently killed 32 people at his college was also Korean and I wondered if some small-minded people had given Hangu a hard time about this. He was happy that I knew something about Korea too, that Hyundai and Samsung were Korean firms, not Japanese - I guess that a lot of the people he met did not make much distinction between countries of the Far East.
Hangu had been in America for 9 months and was flying to Philadelphia to stay with his aunt for a week before heading back to Korea. I assumed he was staying there after his exchange year, but he quickly corrected me: he loved going to school in the US and had applied to attend another high school in Atlanta. Korea has very long school days, thanks to the "Cram Schools" which can see a student's day run from 6 am until MIDNIGHT...for three years! Surely this is no way to raise kids?!
I asked Hangu what was different between America and Korea. He said Americans loved to eat fried food...*all* the time! "Too many cheeseburger!" But he knew it was a Southern thing and it was less common in the rest of the country, though in Korea he had much less food like that. Americans were also much more religious; one of his host families had taken to him to their baptist church. He went along to learn about it, and to be polite of course, but was a bit surprised when the preacher "tried to convert me". I'm not sure what the "conversion" consisted of - Hangu may not have picked the right word for what could have been anything from a brief chat to a full-on dunking attempt.
He asked me about the book I was reading, Lonely Planets, which I told him was about astrobiology and the search for alien life. He told me his thoughts on the subject (we agreed) and I noted to myself that his English had got steadily better throughout our conversation. When we'd started it was very simple questions and I spoke slowly and used very little slang, and the simplest words to get my point across, and he'd seem to miss some of those, but by the end I was almost at normal speed and using more complex sentences, which he seemed to have no trouble with. When he couldn't think of a word, though, he would press his forefinger against the middle of his forehead as he thought.
At the end of the flight he politely said he'd very much enjoyed talking with me (he said "Yes, sir" or "No, sir" to a lot of my questions) and I returned the compliment. I helped him identify which gate he needed to go to for his connecting flight, and he was on his way. I hope he gets to stay here in the US and complete his schooling.
Oh, I remember he was not 100% polite all the time; when we talked about Korean companies I pulled out my phone to show him it was a Samsung. He almost laughed at it - "that is nearly seven years old model; it is ancient!" - and he showed me his sleek black model with pop out bits and bobs. I told him mine was paid for by my boss, and I didn't get to choose which one I got :)