Dispatch from South Korea: Zeller meets his new Korean family

August 29, 2008

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of dispatches from Luke Zeller, who graduated in June with a bachelor of science in secondary education (English and communications) from the College of Education. A Schreyer Scholar, he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English as a foreign language in South Korea. He arrived in early July, and spent the first six weeks in an intensive Korean language and culture orientation at Kangwon University in Chuncheon. Afterwards, he was placed with a host family to begin his teaching at a community school until July 2009.

Aug. 29

My dorm lifestyle of the past six weeks has come to a close. The American culture, English-speaking bubble has popped, and I am beginning my true Korean immersion.  A few weeks ago, I found out that I would be going to Hwasun to work at a co-ed high school, but that was about it. I knew very little about some very important elements for my experience for the rest of the year: my host school and my home-stay family. 

At Yonsei University in Seoul last weekend, we had a grand introduction to our new schools. A teacher and principal from each host school came to Yonsei to meet us.  All of the teachers and principals sat in a kind of lecture hall with a stage and podium at the front. Then, we all walked in and encircled the room. When our name was called, we would step forward and bow to our new employers, who excitedly waved and smiled. 

This day stirred a strange swirl of emotions in all of us. There was the anticipation and excitement of meeting our new school and family mixed in with the glum realization that we were about to split off from a great group of new friends. The emotions hit me like a ton of bricks and prompted a strange trance of apathy. I was so confused by the context that I did not know what to feel; so, I felt nothing. We ran about taking pictures with each other, and then began to collect all of our bags in a crazed hallway of confused, excited, and, sometimes, apathetic new acquaintances looking for a way out. 

I was very fortunate to have had one of the teachers from my school drive to Seoul to meet me. He graciously drove me and all of my luggage for the four-hour trip down south to Hwasun. When we finally arrived at my new home, my family walked out in the night to meet me. I shook hands with the mother and offered a nervous greeting that they all smiled at. They insisted upon carrying all of my bags and showed me to my new room. 

I was surprised and happy to find that I have three new brothers who are all close in age to me: 20, 22 and 24, which is a stark contrast to my life at home where I have five sisters and one brother. We sat around a small table and had our first bit of "family time." The nerves and intrigue in the atmosphere were fun as we learned a bit about each other. The teacher who drove me told them a bit about me, and I showed them pictures of my family. 

They sliced some watermelon to share, and I -- unknowingly -- performed a good omen. One slice of watermelon remained among the other finished pieces. Since I was hungry and parched from the long drive, and the watermelon seemed delicious, I was pleased to eat it. When they saw me bite into it, everyone started laughing. I was confused. They tried to explain that it was a good sign that I, as a Westerner, was so willing to eat the piece that was among eaten slices. I was willing to unabashedly share in their meal. 

South Korea has a culture of sharing that is unlike anywhere I have been. Meals and drinks and snacks are shared communally. It is very odd to eat or drink alone. My hunger, therefore, created a positive bond with my family from the very beginning. 

This week has been a lot of fun as I have gotten to know everyone in the family. The most entertaining conversations are when we start to teach each other English and Korean. It has been very funny as we have shared utter bafflement and broken abilities in each other's languages as we try to learn and teach them. I already feel like I am learning a lot more about English as I learn basic Korean.

Finally, you can see a picture of our house. It is really beautiful the way we are surrounded by mountains. It is nice to sit outside in the communal yard. I am happy to be in an actual house rather than an apartment, which is what the majority of South Koreans live in. Everywhere, there are these high-rise apartments, which you can understand when you figure that there are around 50 million people living in a country that is the size of Minnesota. 


  • There are about five houses like ours that are grouped together with a communal backyard. Everyone gets along very well.

    IMAGE: Luke Zeller

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Last Updated November 18, 2010