By Dustin Luca
---- — A dozen South Korean students may be the ones on an educational and cultural exchange to Andover this winter. But they are providing as much insight as they are gaining during their six-week experience.
The students, who are in town through Cambridge-based exchange program Educational Divide Reform, have been absorbing every facet of American life since arriving Jan. 13 and joining the student body at West Middle School.
It’s the first time West Middle School has hosted a full-fledged exchange, Principal Stephen Murray said.
“We’ve had kids come visit for a day, or take a trip, but we’ve never had kids come for an extended period of time,” Murray said. “The teachers are so ecstatic.”
The visit was set up by West Middle School graduates and brothers Peter and Tim An, who are regional coordinators for Educational Divide Reform. Peter An graduated from West in 1998, followed by his younger brother in 2000.
Growing up as an Asian-American in Andover wasn’t always easy, Peter An said.
“There wasn’t much diversity. Diversity wasn’t promoted at my age,” Peter An said. “It was hard for me to fit in, so I wanted to expose the Asian culture (to Andover).
“... This is the place that molded me to be the person I am, and I trust all the teachers to do the same for these students.”
The visiting students, most of whom are from Seoul, have been experiencing a crash course in 21st century America as they stay with host families in neighboring Reading and shadow their peers at West.
“This culture is very different,” 13-year-old Lee Bu Geon said. “America is more free.”
Kim Hyun Sung, also 13, said she was surprised by how American food is sweeter than what she is used to in Korea.
They also took note of the landscape as well the environment in the U.S., in particular the air quality. They said in the region surrounding Seoul, there are a lot of concrete buildings and air pollution both darkens the sky and causes other health concerns.
“The air is so good. I can see the stars at night,” 12-year-old Aileen Kim said of what he has experienced in the U.S. It was an observation echoed by 14-year-old Brian Hong.
Peter An said the Korean students are also finding academic life in the U.S. is easier than they’re used to.
“These kids have it really tough out there because it is so competitive,” he said. “They wake up at 6 in the morning, they go to school and study, and then after school they go to academy.”
As part of their visit to the U.S., the students have been touring colleges like Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shopping at American malls and dining at area restaurants. They got a taste of a hamburger on a trip to Fuddruckers.
“One kid ate a 1-pound burger. He finished it all — the smallest boy,” Peter An said.
Recently, the students visiting Andover as well as their counterparts on exchanges in Lexington and Concord came together with Korean War veterans for a program at West Middle School called “Bridging Generations: With Heroes of the Forgotten War.
“It’s a huge opportunity to learn lessons from American forefathers who fought for (the students’) freedom and democracy in Korea,” Jay Jang, managing director of Educational Divide Reform, said. “It’s a good opportunity to express appreciation to Korean veterans.”
Meeting youngsters who represent the descendants of the Korean War provided a sense of vindication, said Albert McCarthy, commander of the Korean Veterans of America.
As he watched the Korean students present aspects of their culture, McCarthy said he was “blown away” by what he was seeing.
“I never thought they would ever get to this,” he said.
McCarthy, who served for two years in South Korea during the war, recalls a country where entire portions were “flat-out leveled. Every intersection had a machine-gun bunker,” he said.
“In the war, you’d look in their eyes and know they were hurting,” McCarthy said. “They’d see you and smile, and that smile told you all you needed to know.”
While McCarthy admitted that he has spent the decades since the conflict struggling over its purpose, he said, “Now when I talk to these young people ... the looks in their faces, they’re full of hope. There’s nothing they can’t do.”
“The thing that impresses the hell out of me is the smile, the openness. There is no fear. There is only hope, just openness. And I thought, damn, it was worth it.”