Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Teacher, I'm Coming to America

During my first two years teaching in Korea I had multiple students that spoke of the day they'd be coming to visit me in the United States. I of course encouraged these dreams, but aside from a select few, seriously doubted it would actually happen.  Then last year, while teaching in Cambodia I got a text from one of my previous students 임희욱.  He was asking for advice, which school from a list of 7 he should pick; believe it or not he was going to start studying in America that summer.  My jaw hit the floor when I browsed through his choices, there at number 5 was UW-Milwaukee, a short 20-minute drive from my parents. house.  I gave him an unbiased review of his options, but also mentioned that Milwaukee was in fact my home-town, although I wasn't planning to be back for a while.

A few months passed and we exchanged the occasional texts, until I got the one that read "Teacher, I'm coming to America - Milwaukee!"  I still didn't believe it was real that one of my previous students from Korea would soon be living and studying in my hometown, but it sounded cool. Due to a series of unfortunate events, and realizations about those I left at home, my plans to return changed and I was back sooner than expected.  Within a few weeks of my return I was meeting 희욱 (Hue) for dinner and could hardly believe this was really happening.  It was so cool being able to help an old student adjust to his new home, introduce him to my city, friends, family and life in America after he had witnessed me do the same thing in Korea.

My summer schedule was wide open so I promised Hue that we could meet often, and if he had any questions not to hesitate calling me.  Another highlight was the weekend my friend Caitlin was in town, a girl I met in Korea, but coincidentally went to the same University as I, and we decided to test our cooking skills and make Hue 찜닭 [Jjimdalk].  He was definitely skeptical of our ability to prepare this dish correctly, but he seemed equally excited at the prospect of having some home-cooked.  After a day of exploring Milwaukee we came back to amazing smells filling my brothers apartment (we took the slow-cooker approach to Jjimdalk) and our mouths started watering as we waiting for my brother and his girlfriend to return home from work.  If Hue's words of praise weren't convincing that the food was delicious the amount he ate proved it. Bowl upon bowl Hue devoured our Jjimdalk with a goofy grin pasted to his face, clearly we had accomplished what we set out to do.

Although he was often busy with his studies we were able to meet frequently for dinner, coffee, or a day exploring Milwaukee.  One weekend I invited him to visit my hometown - suburbs of Milwaukee, for a taste of real American life.  We took a bike ride around town, where I pointed out all three schools I attended, rode through 'downtown' and sampled the iconic Ferches custard, and this was only the beginning.  For the night I took him to my cousins little league baseball game and the following day we hit up the Asian market not too far from my house.  The look on his face was priceless, like a kid in a candy store, reminding me of the first time I stepped foot in the Military base grocery store, in Waegwon.

Caitlin returned again for the 4th of July and we felt it was only appropriate to include Hue in our celebrations.  The weekend was old fashion, hometown style, starting with the local morning parade, a day at my aunt and uncles house for a cook-out and pool party, finishing with fireworks again in my hometown.  I guess I became so accustomed to traveling with Asians that I didn't realize others giving us sideways glances, wondering who my new little Asian family was.  It was also a bit awkward as I realized many friends and family assumed Caitlin and Hue were an item - being Korean with a little girl in toe (Caitlin's adorable daughter Brynn), you couldn't really blame them. As 'American' as the day was we couldn't help but add a bit of a Korean flare, while enjoying the eruptions of light in the sky we 건배'd [cheersed] with a bottle of 막걸리 [Korean rice wine]. I guess you can take the girl out of Korea, but not the Korea out of the girl.

It was during the 4th of July holiday that we devised our next travel plan.  Our friend Shaun was returning home in August for a visit which included a wedding party in the suburbs of Chicago, to which Caitlin and I were both invited.  As this was another friend from Korea we figured he wouldn't mind us bringing Hue along, and we ultimately decided to make a weekend of it, including the Korean market, 삼겹살, 노리방, and even a Korean style 찜질방.

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