CATLIN – A Catlin teen’s trip to South Korea this summer has inspired her to keep traveling and experiencing other cultures.
Naomi Dolan, a sophomore at Salt Fork High School, spent nearly a month in South Korea through the States’ 4-H International Exchange program.
“They offer a variety of trips so kids can experience other cultures,” she said.
The Seattle-based States’ 4-H International Exchange program is a nonprofit organization that works with 4-H Youth Development Centers of Cooperative Extension in the U.S. and a network of international partners around the world to conduct cultural immersion and exchange programs.
States’ 4-H is governed by a board of directors composed of 4-H Extension professionals from across the U.S.
“I had to choose from South Korea, Japan, Costa Rica or Finland,” Naomi said.
The 15-year-old said she chose South Korea because she is interested in K-pop, which is short for Korean popular music.
“I’ve heard about K-pop and the Korean War, and I like the Korean culture,” she said. “I did learn more about K-pop, Korean history and the Korean War because of this trip.”
According to Naomi, “Korea has had 4-H since the 1950s since the war. Americans had a big influence on them.”
The Korean 4-H program is “mainly based on agriculture. They have farming, and they also have a business component,” she said.
Naomi, who is in her eighth year in 4-H, said, “I mostly focus on arts and crafts, health and projects on foreign countries.”
“I found out about the 4-H exchange program because of a project I did on South Korea in June of 2018 that I entered in the Vermilion County Fair,” she explained.
Her project earned her first place, champion and best of show ribbons and a place as a state fair delegate.
“I learned about the exchange program at the state fair,” she said.
The application process for the exchange program was rigorous.
“There was an eight-page application with questions and essays, a 30-minute phone interview and an hour-long face-to-face interview,” she said.
The Catlin teen couldn’t believe her good fortune when she was selected from among numerous 4-H club members in 23 states who were vying for the special opportunity.
“They try to pair you with a family with members of similar age and interests,” she said, adding that her Korean family wasn’t very involved with 4-H. “My host family was focused more on the exchange program part of it.”
After a 14-hour flight from Chicago, Naomi arrived in Seoul on July 17.
“I was near Seoul in the town of Deokso,” she said. “I lived on the 14th floor of a 20-floor building about an hour southeast of Seoul. The view from my bedroom was a mountain. It was beautiful.
“They considered it rural, but it’s not,” Naomi said of Deokso. “It felt like a small city.
“There are 51 million people in the entire country that is smaller than Illinois, and 20 million just in Seoul,” she said. “It took me a couple days to get used to that.”
Also, it was humid in South Korea in July, and air conditioning was scarce.
“They import their energy, so a lot of places weren’t air conditioned,” she said.
Before embarking on her trip, Naomi said she learned to speak Korean by watching YouTube videos and went to Champaign to familiarize herself with Korean food.
“Korean is the third hardest language for an American to learn, and they have two different number systems,” she said.
“Kimchi is fermented cabbage,” Naomi said. “I love it, but it’s an acquired taste.
“They also eat a lot of beef and pork, and kimbap, which is sushi-like,” she said. “They also cook meat and vegetables in a cast iron skillet in the middle of a table and eat ‘cold noodles,’ which are buckwheat noodles in a cold broth.”
As much as she expected Korea to be different than the United States, Naomi discovered there were many similarities.
“I learned so much about what’s different and what’s the same,” she said.
“Everyone spoke English,” she said. “A lot of the music is the same. There’s rapping and ballads and Indie and pop and American pop.”
“My host mom participated in Zumba classes, and I played tenor saxophone on the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ theme song with the school orchestra.”
Naomi is thankful for all she was able to see and experience while she was in South Korea. Her host mom gifted her a small photo album in which Naomi has placed some of the 2,000 photos she took.
“My host family didn’t like to sit still,” she said. “My host mom is a teacher, and I got to go to her classroom.”
Naomi discovered the Korean education system — and its high expectations — is very different than the American education system.
“They start a new grade in March with breaks year-round,” she said. “They go to academy (American equivalent of school), and then to an outside activity and then they study until 2 a.m.
“There were 2,000 students at the high school, which is the population of Catlin,” Naomi said. “They lived in dorms — if they were really focused on their studies — or lived far away from home.
“They are very focused,” she observed of her Korean teen peers. “You are expected to go to college or university and get a good job.
“Since they strive to do well, they were shy and worried about making mistakes when they spoke English with me,” she said of the younger members of her host family. “They used me to practice their English.”
During her nearly month-long stay, Naomi was able to learn about Korean customs.
For example, everyone would sit on the floor at mealtime.
“You had the option at restaurants to sit on the floor or sit on a chair, but you had to take off your shoes to go inside a home and in the part of the restaurant where you would sit on the floor to eat,” she said. “I also slept on the floor with a mat that was like a giant pillow.”
Naomi attended church camp with her host sister and visited the main palace where most of the country’s kings had lived.
She also attended a 4-H camp in the mountains where she met other 4-Hers from Taiwan, Malaysia and the United States.
“The purpose of the camp was cultural immersion,” Naomi said. “The Korean 4-H club leader took the 4-Hers on tours of Seoul, and we exchanged things that were representative of our cultures.”
What did the American 4-H'ers share that was representative of American culture? A Tootsie Pop.
“They were challenged to find out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop,” she said.
To demonstrate what they had learned about one another’s cultures, Naomi and her host sister danced to a K-pop song during the camp.
Naomi said experiencing the Korean culture has inspired her to want to travel more.
“I knew there was a whole world out there, but there are so many amazing people out there and so much to learn,” she said. “Knowing something and experiencing it are two different things.
“I definitely want to go back,” she said. “I was emotional when I left ... there’s more that I want to see and do. I loved the experience overall.”
Naomi will have the opportunity once again to travel and experience new places when she travels to Greece and Italy in mid-June with a Salt Fork High School group.