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(Yonhap Interview) Admiration for Korean culture brings Canadian teen new school life

All News 18:54 March 10, 2016

By Chung Joo-won

GOYANG, South Korea, March 10 (Yonhap) -- When Korean youth reach out to foreign countries for schooling, most of them have definite goals in mind -- fluency in a language, shortcuts to an elite career and fostering a global mindset.

But for Elena Foote, a cheerful Canadian exchange student in Korea, her passion for Korean culture was the sole reason for traveling half the globe away from home. Born and raised in Vancouver, the 17-year-old Canadian youth is from Edmonton, Alberta.

"Back home I had quite a few Korean friends in my school. I heard them speak Korean all the time, and fell in love with the language. I really wanted to learn Korean," the Alberta teen said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, on Thursday.

While Chinese and Japanese were the two other popular Asian languages to learn among her peers, Foote was determined about her pick.

"I loved the way how Korean sounded. Some languages are aggressive and sharp-sounded, but Korean is not like that. It's also very different from English, which is something that I wanted. I fell in love with the bounce of it," she continued.

While an increasing number of international students come to Korea for college-level exchange programs, Foote is a rare case of an international exchanges student in a Korean public high school.

"When I first told my mom about the idea, she wasn't too happy because I was obviously leaving home earlier than she'd expected. But she knew that it was something that I'd really enjoy, so eventually she came around to the idea," the Alberta girl said.

Her Canadian friends were anxious about more practical reasons -- the language barrier and lack of local acquaintances.

While her mother and her friends were opposed to the idea of her going, she was bent on tackling the language.

In order to study on her own, she tried to shop around for a Korean textbook, but it was not easy to find a suitable one, she said.

All she could find were some Korean conversation books for travelers in Korea, with simple dialogues for common scenarios while traveling. Even now, she wishes there were reliable textbooks for foreign learners of the Korean language at the local bookstore in her hometown.

Eventually, she had a university student tutor her in conversational Korean. The more she learned Korean, the more certain she became about her penchant for the language.

After months of research for a suitable exchange program for Canadian students, she applied for the World Heritage International Student Exchange Program. The international educational organization abortively contacted hundreds of high schools in Seoul and the surrounding area, only to find the teachers intimidated by the prospect of accepting an international student for a one-year term.

Gajwa High school was the only school willing to welcome its very first international student since the school's establishment, embracing the idea of "counter-hallyu," or the surge of international students to Korea for a better sip of Korean culture.

Finally, Foote landed on Korean soil for the first time on Feb. 24. A week later, she had her first day at Gajwa High School in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, where she will spend an entire year as a high school junior in a totally different culture.

Foote said she had great time with her 35-year-old host father -- a good-humored engineer -- and caring host mother. She also had adorable host siblings.

She said her favorite Korean food was gimbap, or Korean rice rolls with vegetables wrapped in dried seaweed, and bibimbap, a bowl of rice and vegetables mixed with hot pepper sauce.

"My host mom made me the best gimbap that I've ever had," she grinned, rolling her eyes while trying to think of the exact ingredients.

The school lunch menu on the day of this interview was ddeokmandu-guk, or spicy soup with pork dumplings and sliced rice cake, which she loved. When a spicy dish comes up on the menu, her Korean classmates are the first ones to alert her.

"My classmates would come and say the soup is very spicy, then I take a sip and say, 'no, not that spicy,'" she said, wearing a big smile.

Foote's favorite class at Gajwa High School is world history, because her history teacher is always fuming with passion.

The biggest culture shock was when she saw her physical education teacher for the first time. At first glance, she did not recognize him as a teacher, so she said "annyeong!" casually waving a hand at him, as she would to a classmate. Then the whole class burst into laughter, telling the puzzled Canadian classmate that the baby-faced man is actually a teacher, a "legitimate adult."

During her yearlong stay in Korea, Foote has several resolutions to achieve. She hopes to visit as many Korean cities as possible; try on hanbok, or Korean traditional costume; and taste as many varieties of Korean food as possible during her stay here.

She was delighted at the food prices in Korea; the price of gimbap, mostly 1,500 won (US$1.25) to 2,500 won a roll, is considerably cheaper than in Canada, where the same product is priced several folds higher.

Foote will be returning to Canada on Dec. 20, after which she will attend college near her hometown.

But after graduating from college, she said she wants to come back to Korea to teach English to Korean students.

"I am having such a great time in my school life in Korea. Some day, I want to come back and teach English in a Korean school," she said.


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