by Brian P. Gatens, Superintendent and Principal of Norwood Public School, New Jersey (funded by Korean Parents Group at Norwood Public School)
When the Norwood Public School Korean Parent Support Community offered me the opportunity to visit Korea, I jumped at the opportunity to be immersed into Korean culture, tradition and history. Over 25% of our students at Norwood School are of Korean descent and while I've always enjoyed strong and positive relations with our Korean community, I felt that learning more will only help me to serve our students and their families better.
The beginning part of our twelve-day trip to Korea consisted of a three night homestay with a Korean family. I was blessed and lucky enough to stay with the family of J.B. Kim in their home just outside of Seoul in Bundang. They truly opened their house to me and their kindness and graciousness was beyond measure. Mr. and Mrs. Kim, along with their adult son Ernest, made certain to offer me both the home experience consisting of Korean food and hospitality, but also a full understanding of life in and around Seoul. Knowing that I'd be doing a home-stay led me to think that there may be some awkward moments as we navigated both our language barrier as well as cultural understanding, but Ernest's strong use of English (he's a medical student) as well as Mr. and Mrs. Kim's prevented language from being an issue.
From my experience any trip to a new place usually revolves around food, cultural practices and historical sites, and the Kim family made certain that I had all those items in plentiful supply.
Due to the 13 hour time difference between Seoul and New Jersey, I ended up waking up at 4:00 AM local time and decided to explore the trails up and behind the Kim's apartment complex. I took off up the trail and about twenty minutes later I was standing at the mountain top watching the rising sun. Unlike in America, where I might be by myself, I saw many other I saw many other hikers and runners on the trails. I took note of the all-weather workout equipment at the bottom of the trail. Equipment, by the way, which is all over Korea.
For breakfast, Mrs. Kim assumed that I'd be on the hungrier side and worked very hard to offer me a traditional American breakfast of yogurt, eggs, coffee and milk. It was delicious. I also learned that Mr. Kim walks the same trail each morning as part of his wake up ritual. During breakfast it was a pleasure speaking to Mr. Kim about his memories of America as he lived there from 1981 - 1985.That was on top of last night's post-dinner conversation with their son, Ernest, about his experiences going to school in Atlanta. It was clear that the Kim family wanted to give me a full understanding of Korean culture and spoke about their home life, expectations for school and how important family is to them. It was great insightful stuff about Korean culture and it helped to develop my understanding.
I also had the opportunity to attend church services with Mr. and Mrs. Kim. I was able to fully take part in the experience as I wore a headset offering me an English translation. It was interesting to hear the songs that I know from church at home sung by Mrs. Kim and the choir in Korean. The pastor also made it a point to welcome all of us. Following the service we had a small reception where we were able to sit and chat with the parishioners. I was asked many questions about American life and I also learned much about the church's history, their members and the work that they do in the community.
Mr. Kim was kind enough to bring me to a traditional Korean day spa. It was a fun experience and the massage, as compared to an American massage, was rather vigorous. Aside from the massage we also sat in Korean saunas with temperatures hovering around 125 degrees. We followed up that with a traditional Korean noodle lunch with fried dumplings. The Korean Day Spa is very often a family experience with children running around. At one point a group of them stopped and stared at me. Mr. Kim laughed and said that they were fascinated by 'the foreigner'.
We took a trip to the local Hyundai mall. It was packed with apparel displays and rows and rows of food booths. It was clear that Koreans take their food and shopping seriously. And if it wasn't for Ernest I'd have never made it home as the mall consists of six different levels that look exactly the same.
That evening the Kims and I joined some friends for dinner at an out-of-the-way restaurant about thirty minutes away from Bundang. In typical Korean fashion, the food just kept coming and coming. Acumen with chopsticks was noted and all that practice paid off. The other couple that joined us work as teachers in a Korean University and we discussed the school system differences and also the cultural differences that pop up from time to time.
My acumen with chopsticks was noted and all that practice paid off. The other couple that joined us work as teachers in a Korean University and we discussed the school system differences and also the cultural differences that pop up from time to time.
The Kim family was very kind and gracious in not only shuttling me around, but also taking the time to explain the differences in our culture. They are wonderful hosts and excellent representatives of Korean society and culture. The home-stay was a great way to start our trip.