Student embraces travels to South Korea


Westlake juniors Hannah Tucker and Fernanda Contreras drink water from the fountain at a Buddhist temple.

The excruciating 14-hour flight from Dallas had just ended and I itched with excitement as I waited to get off the plane. I caught quick glances of the sky as I passed the tiny windows located next to each row of seats. I thanked the flight attendants and the captain as I stepped off of the plane into the long jetway. I walked quickly and saw natural light filling the end of the long tunnel. My heart racing with excitement, I stepped onto solid ground and saw a window across from me. Before me, I saw the beautiful country of South Korea, with its majestic mountains and its bright blue skies. The building was full of beautiful flowers which my group, consisting of Westlake Spanish teacher Mari Albright, her husband Daniel Estrada and Westlake juniors Maxson Boyd, Tag Garibay, Adam Anderson, Hannah Wells, Sarah Holland, Hannah Tucker, Fernanda Contreras and Monica King, walked past on the way to the customs desk. We waited in line and handed our passports one-by-one to the customs agent. I walked past the agent and felt a weird, gratifying exhilaration; I was now in a foreign country for the first time. This feeling of elation was nothing compared to the excitement that the rest of the Bugil Academy-Westlake Exchange Program would entail.

As we reached the exit of the airport in Incheon, South Korea, we were greeted by a woman who introduced herself as Alice, and, as a staff member of the Bugil Global Leadership Program, would be our guide throughout the trip. She directed us to a kiosk where we could exchange our American dollars for South Korean won. Then we boarded a charter bus that would take us to the city of Cheonan where Bugil Academy is located. The long bus ride gave our group a chance to get to know each other as some of the Westlake students had never met before. We reached the city as the sun went down and the bright lights covering the buildings advertised the large number of stores, restaurants and hotels. “Kamsahamnida,” I said, thanking the bus driver with the Korean phrase as I got off of the bus. We walked several blocks to a restaurant that had a buffet filled with Korean barbeque. Inside, we each grabbed a plate and prepared to gorge ourselves on our first real meal since the bland airplane food. Besides the traditional American brisket usually seen at barbecues, none of the food was what I expected it to be. There was fried rice, “sweet” potatoes, which were actually just regular potatoes soaked in some kind of sweet sauce, exotic fruits I had never seen and rice cakes of all different colors. Our first night ended as we boarded the bus again and headed to the hotel. We entered our rooms which were laid out in the traditional Korean way, with a separate room at the front to remove your shoes. Exhausted after a long day of traveling, I fell asleep, anticipating my first day at Bugil Academy.

The hotel was mainly for foreigners and I expected breakfast to be what I would see in any other hotel I’d ever been to. I was wrong. The weirdest part for me was the rice, which it turns out, is eaten during every single meal in Korea. The next were the frozen French fries, heated up and sprinkled with herbs labeled “breakfast potatoes” and the hot dogs labeled “breakfast sausage.” I served myself some rice and fruit and I grabbed a boiled egg. I decided to steer clear of the “breakfast sausage.” After breakfast, Alice met us in the hotel lobby and we boarded the bus and headed to the school. When we reached the school, the pretty campus stretched before us with its main building at the center, another building behind it, several dormitories and other buildings to the right, basketball courts, a giant field and a baseball diamond. On the field was a large group of boys in matching blue athletic clothing doing exercises in unison and counting in Korean. We were ushered up a hill to a smaller building hidden behind the others; this was the building that housed the students of the Bugil GLP Program. We walked into the teachers’ collective office and into the conference room that we would visit every day before we went to class for the rest of the trip. Alice informed us that it was now time for the welcoming ceremony.

Our group walked into the library and we were surprised by a round of applause. The GLP students sat in desks and crowded around the shelves of the library. There was a long table open for us to sit at. We took our seats and the head of the program, Dr. P, gave us a short welcoming speech and then turned it over to the students, a common occurrence as the program encourages the students’ responsibility over what goes on at the school and in their own lives. Several members of the student council made speeches. The final speech was by a boy named Tommy and he began by describing his friend, another boy at the school, who was from far away and he didn’t necessarily have typical Korean facial features. He described the diversity of the boy’s background and moved on to talk about the diversity of the teachers of the program, and then the diversity of the GLP itself. He said that the Westlake students were also unique and the reason we were all together was to learn about these differences and to help us expand our knowledge of the world. It was an inspiring speech that left me excited for my immersion into the culture of South Korea. After the speeches were over, the Westlake kids all stood up and introduced themselves. There was another round of applause and the students returned to class as we prepared to choose our school schedules. The math teacher, Mr. Chang, handed us each a piece of paper that showed the GLP schedule and listed the classes that were available. I personally tried to sign up for as many social studies and language arts classes as I could because I thought those would be the most exciting to compare to my classes in America. After we chose our classes, we went back to the conference room where we waited for the next item on our agenda: lunch.

The cafeteria was located right between the boys’ school and the GLP building and was shared by the two schools. We were some of the first people to the cafeteria and we were told to go through the teachers’ line to get our food. The meals at the cafeteria always consisted of rice, some type of fruit, a type of soup, a type of meat and the traditional kimchi. I have to admit that I wasn’t as adventurous as I should have been with the cafeteria food, and needless to say I was very tired of rice by the end of the trip. I’m not a very big fan of fish and I was not excited to see the octopus tentacles in the soup. We reached our seat at a table and the cafeteria became more and more crowded and the line of students grew so long that it wrapped around the outside of the building. We got several stares from students of the boys’ school and the seats around us remained empty even as all of the other seats were filled. I guess we weren’t completely comfortable with each other yet.

After lunch we attended our first classes. The GLP classes usually had four to 15 students, depending on the size of the room. Other than the number of students, the classes were very similar to Westlake classes. The students sat down and listened as their teacher lectured or they took part in planned activities, just like at Westlake. After several classes, it was time for extracurricular activities. I played lacrosse with the girls lacrosse team. I mostly talked with the goalie, Iris, because she and I play the same position. I learned that several of the girls on the team would be going to Japan in the next couple of weeks to play at a tournament. For the other Westlake students, there was a huge variety of activities they could choose from. Mondays and Wednesdays were the active extracurricular days so activities ranged from K-pop dancing to improv. On other days, extracurriculars were reserved for actives such as the film club, a cappella, or Rock ‘n Roll.

Tuesday was mainly just another day of group bonding and getting to know the GLP kids. The classes were a great opportunity to get to know the GLP kids and to understand how hard they work. Their classes were challenging and they took many AP classes and even some higher level courses, but the main thing we learned in those classes was that these students are teenagers just like us who need to eat, sleep and have fun just as much as the rest of us. That day at lunch the boys’ school students still stared a little and kept their distance, but we had definitely all become more comfortable and friendly with the GLP students and we chatted with some of them as we ate our lunches. After the afternoon classes, it was time for non-active extracurriculars. I signed up for the a cappella club, even though I’ve never sung in an organized group before. The teacher, Mr. Lim, told us that he hoped to have a song ready by the talent show the next Wednesday that incorporated both Bugil and Westlake students. He chose the song “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse. The club members sang a song for us that they had been preparing and it sounded amazing, so I was very excited to try it out. We began preparing the song until dinner time at 6 p.m. We ate dinner and continued to bond with the other kids.

The next day, we would only be going to a couple of classes in the morning. After those classes, we left for our city tour of Cheonan. Our first stop on the tour was the Independence Hall, which had a museum that explained Korea’s history. We walked through the museum and listened to the headset we were handed that explained everything from the earliest dynasties to the Japanese occupation of Korea and their fight for independence. After the museum, we went to one of Cheonan’s main tourist attractions, The Galleria, a fancy department store. The outside was covered in thousands of LED lights that showed images such as fish swimming around the outside of the building. The inside was modern-looking and featured a food court that sold all kinds of traditional Korean food as well as Western food. After we looked around for a while, we went to a Chinese restaurant on the top floor for dinner. This food was very different than food you’d find in a Chinese restaurant in America, but it was delicious all the same.

After our day touring the city, it was time to begin thinking about what we would be doing for the talent show. The next day and during our breaks and after lunch, we began to draw out our plans. The talent show is an annual event for the GLP students and it is a time to show off a personal talent or something related to one of the extracurricular activities. My group decided to dance to a mash-up of songs that we thought represented America. From then on, we made sure to practice every chance we got. By Thursday, the kids at the school grew very used to seeing us and they began to say hello to us. As we passed the long lunch line, one student said hello and then all of the other boys from the boys’ school started saying hello and waving at us. After lunch, a few of us went down to the soccer field to play soccer with the boys. We had all become pretty comfortable with each other by the end of the first week.

Friday was March 14, also known as Pi day. The students were holding a pie-eating contest, a Pi memorization contest and and were choosing random students to throw a pie in the face of a teacher of their choice. We watched the Pi memorization contest first. Three students got up to write one by one. They each wrote until they made a mistake. The winner ended up writing more than 150 digits of Pi. The next event was the pie-eating contest and whoever won got to choose a teacher to throw a pie at. Only one Westlake student, Fernanda, entered the pie-eating contest. She put up a good fight, but unfortunately did not win the contest. The student who won chose to throw a pie at the math teacher. The teacher was handed a plastic poncho and the student smashed the pie against his face, making sure to cover it completely. Next the Bugil students offered a pie to one of the Westlake students. We chose Fernanda because she had entered the pie-eating contest. She chose the teacher who led the a cappella club, Mr. Lim. We all laughed as she smashed the pie into his face and moved it up and down to cover his whole face. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay to watch the rest of the contest. We were leaving for our home-stay families in a short time and we had to eat dinner before we left. The school had gotten us pizza; too much pizza for all of us. There were eight large pizzas sitting in the conference room when we walked in. Excited for traditional American food, we opened the boxes, but were surprised by what we saw. There was corn on the pizza. One pizza had potatoes on it. The ingredients were very different than the pepperoni or sausage or just plain cheese that we expected to see. I bit in to a piece of pizza and was pleasantly surprised. After we ate, Ms. Albright and Mr. Estrada handed the pizza out as we prepared to leave for our home-stay. Seven of us were going to Seoul, two to Pusan and one to Incheon. I was headed to Seoul for my home-stay and my sister, Hannah, and I were going to stay with one of the GLP students, Genie. All of the kids going to Seoul rode a bus for about an hour and a half to get to the city.

When we reached the city, Genie told us we’d be getting off at the second stop. When we got off of the bus, we followed Genie onto a smaller street. A man came up and hugged Genie and introduced himself to us. This was Genie’s father. He led us to an apartment building and opened the door. We boarded an elevator and got off on Genie’s floor. Genie’s father punched a code into the door and led us inside. This was my first time in a Korean home and I almost forgot to take my shoes off as I entered, but I was reminded as Genie and her father pulled their shoes off. We walked into the kitchen where Genie’s mother stood welcoming us.  Next to her there was a table full of traditional Korean food: homemade kimchi, fried tofu, noodles and so much more. We sat down with the family and introduced ourselves. Genie’s mother told us all of the activities we would be doing over the weekend as we ate. I had trouble with the chopsticks at first, but by the end of the meal, I could at least pick up some of the food. She led us up to the second floor of the apartment where Hannah and I would be sharing a room. The floors were heated and they felt amazing on my feet. She showed us the view outside on the balcony. From the window we could see a large river and the beautiful skyline of Seoul. We went to bed excited for what we would be doing the next few days.

On Saturday morning we ate breakfast. Genie explained to us that there is not much difference between breakfast, lunch and dinner for Koreans and it showed when we ate the same food as the night before, although it was just as delicious. We started off the day by heading by subway to an old palace where we watched a traditional wedding ceremony that was open to the public. The rest of the kids who had gone to Seoul met us there. It was a colorful ceremony and it was interesting to compare it to the weddings I’ve seen. Next we went to the tourist district where we painted coasters in the traditional Korean way with lots of shading and bright colors. We tried some street food and then had lunch at a famous Korean restaurant. After that, Hannah and I split off from the rest of the group and went with Genie and her mom to get facials. It was so relaxing that I almost fell asleep. After that, we got sandwiches and went to the 4D movie, “Non-Stop” with Liam Neeson. The movie was in English but there were several instances in the movie where words show up on screen and those were in Korean, so Genie’s mom translated for us. After the movie we went back to the apartment and got some much-needed rest.

The next day was just as eventful as the first. We went to one of the biggest bookstores in Korea. After that we went to a huge lunch where the main course was rice cakes. They are hard to explain, but they are basically like really thick pasta noodles and really squishy. They served us several dishes of rice cakes with different sauces on them. One was basically Alfredo sauce and it was absolutely delicious. They also served us fried calamari and fried potatoes. After the delicious lunch, we went to a K-Live hologram concert. This was probably the most fun thing we did the entire trip, in my opinion. We waited in the lobby as we got our tickets. There were several large screens on the wall that played clips of each of the famous k-pop stars, posing so that you could take pictures with them. As the doors to the concert opened, we walked into a dark room with large screens on the side and a stage in front. We each took pictures in little booths as we entered and walked onto the floor to wait for the concert to start. The pictures we took in the beginning showed up on screen, Photoshopped onto different backgrounds. The lights dimmed lower as three people walked on stage and started dancing. Then the hologram version of Psy walked on stage and started dancing with them. The show featured two other bands and they continued to put our faces on the screens throughout the show; they even put some of our faces on the dancers. After the concert, we had a quick dinner before we had to head back to Cheonan. We all said goodbye to our home-stay families and boarded the bus.

Back at the hotel, Ms. Albright told us that there was a minor change in our schedule for the next day. Instead of going to school for the whole day, we were going to a Buddhist temple in the morning. The Buddhist temple was beautiful. Outside, we threw coins in the wishing well and drank some fresh spring water. There were several buildings in the lower area of the compound. We walked up to one building and took our shoes off. The inside was very colorful and there were three statues of Buddha at the front. We each grabbed a mat to sit on and placed them behind the other people who were praying in the temple. It was completely silent for about 10 minutes as we sat there, taking it all in. Several of us stood up to leave the building and move on to the next. Outside, we walked up a staircase to a giant Buddha statue. A man gave us each an incense stick and we walked around the Buddha three times and bowed after the third time. Then we placed the flame into a huge container to put them out. It was really interesting to carry out this ritual because I’d never done or seen anything like it before. Afterwards we followed a hiking trail up the mountain. There were seven Buddha statues on the way up the mountain, the final one at the top. When we reached the top, we saw the view of the city; we could even faintly see the school.

We went back to school in time for lunch. After we ate, a few of us played soccer while the others watched the game. Then we practiced more for the talent show. The next two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, were filled with more practice, classes and bonding with the GLP students. We’d gotten really close with a lot of them and we’d met the four kids who would be coming to Austin. Before I knew it, it was Wednesday night and the talent show was about to start. I was nervous for the a cappella because it was my first time singing on a stage. The talent show began with acts from the K-pop dance group, the Rock ‘n Roll club, a few people singing on their own and a few other acts. It was so cool to see all of the kids’ talents especially because they’re so good at what they do. The a cappella club finally went up on stage to sing “Valerie”. Three Westlake kids had solos, Monica, Tag and Hannah T. It sounded great and it was so fun. We watched several more acts and finally the Westlake kids were called on stage to perform our act. We stood up and got in our triangle formation and put our hands over our hearts. “America the Beautiful” played over the speakers and we sang along. Suddenly the music changed and each of us struck a pose as the music switched to “Sexy Back” and Maxson and Tag walked to the front to “drop it like it’s hot.” The music transformed into “We Are the Champions” and Tag and Maxson lifted Sarah Holland into the air and put her down as she ended in the classic Freddie Mercury pose. Next was “Happy” and two couples, Tag and Lindsey and Maxson and Fernanda, danced up front. The cheerful music ended when Hannah Wells put on a horse mask and jumped to the front just as the music turned into dub step. We danced on stage until the beat dropped and we all collapsed as the music changed to “Thriller” and we performed the well-known dance. The song finally ended and the crowd started cheering. We walked off stage and took our seats as Mr. P took the stage. He said his farewell speech and presented us each with gifts. We sat down to take a picture with all of the Bugil kids and then said our goodbyes. We each took individual pictures with as many people as we could and as we left the gym, the students from the boys’ school stopped to ask us for pictures also. We said our final goodbyes and grabbed our things from the conference room for the last time. We went back to the hotel to sleep before the bus ride to Seoul.

In Seoul the next day, we mostly shopped and ate. I bought so many pairs of socks because they were only $1 a pair. I also tried some street food. There were potatoes on sticks, cut into a spiral shape then fried. They were so delicious. In the evening, we went to a Nanta show, which is a comedy about three cooks preparing for a wedding when their boss’s nephew tries to help them cook, but just causes more trouble. The show was similar to Blue Man Group and Stomp and there were really cool stunts and music. The next day we went to a fabric market where they sold traditional Korean clothing. We walked around for a few hours until it was time to head back to the hotel. When we got back, we packed our bags and headed to the lobby, ready to go to the Incheon Airport. Before we left, we grabbed McDonalds for lunch and headed to the airport.

As we got in line to get our tickets, we chatted about our trip, talking about all of the things we did and all of the fun we had. We talked about our home-stay families and all of the things we saw when we were with them. This was just as sad as when we said goodbye to all the Bugil kids. Alice waited until we got our tickets and got into the security line to leave. We all hugged her goodbye and thanked her for everything she did. We waved goodbye one more time and went to find our gate. We finally boarded the plane that would take us back to America, excited for the next part of the program, when the Korean students would come and visit us.