All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
“Through the school bus window, Unhei looked out at the strange buildings and houses on the way to her new school. It was her fist day and she was both nervous and excited.”
This is the first page of The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi. It is the story of Unhei, a Korean girl who moves to the United States. Names in Korean are very important. Each syllable has meaning. Unhei means grace, Yangsook, means sweet and pure. Unhei’s story is a powerful vehicle to teach children about customs, mores, immigration, different cultures and beliefs, family values and multiculturalism.
The Name Jar is one of the books I read every year to my students so we can connect with each other in our diverse classrooms. I teach in an area that many Korean immigrants have made their home so this story resonates with many of my students and families. It also gives children, who are not Korean, the tools to learn about a different culture as they get into the character’s shoes and feel what it must be like to leave her home country.
As the story develops, the children around Unhei learn from each other’s similarities and differences. They begin to appreciate how each of us is unique and how important it is to be open to other cultures, to be respectful and tolerant. http://www.yangsookchoi.com/
During my school visit to Yongsan International School in Seoul, I noticed that Yangsook Choi, the author of The Name Jar was invited to be the guest speaker for a day. I had brought the book with me to Korea to use it with teachers to demonstrate how to foster critical thinking skills, the focus of my research. Robin Parsons, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the school extended an invitation for me to join the workshop and get to meet Yangsook Choi. It was like a meeting a rock star!
The day was amazing. I watched the students learn from Yangsook about story structure, illustration and the importance of pursuing one’s passions and dreams,
This week, I met Yangsook and she shared with me her neighborhood and stories of her childhood. It was one of the most memorable and insightful days of the last four months.
Yangsook showed me the elementary school she attended, Kyodong Elementary, the oldest school in Seoul.
We visited Unhyeongung Palace where there was an exiibition of hanji, paper made flowers that looked real and summery on a very cold and grey day.
Yangsook grew up in a neighborhood called Ikseon-dong, one of the oldest in Seoul. Residents have fought for years to avoid demolition of the hanoks, typical Korean houses, that make it unique. Now it has become a local tourist place to go – not really discovered by foreigners yet.
She took me to her grandmother’s house, a typical hanok and then to the house she grew up in that is now becoming a restaurant.
We walked around the alleys that feel like a maze with intricate wires decorating the sky. We stopped at a spot that people call “the island of Seoul” where you can look around and see no high rises in the otherwise dotted sky.
We visited Gwangjang Market which has been in existence for over a century where smells, sounds, tastes, textures and colors all blend into this unique Seoul experience. A place that is like a sensory tsunami that encapsulates the spirit of old and new Seoul. You can have a meal, pick up silk and linen fabrics, have a hanbok, the traditional Korean jacket and dress made, get a pound of fish, some different colored and shape plastic bowls and buy a suitcase to carry your goods on the way out.
Lunch was at a stall where we ate bindaetteok, a mung bean pancake filled with vegetables or meat. Another juxtaposition of old and new – where the beans are ground into flour in front of your eyes, the seats and lamps are covered in foil to avoid them getting greasy, the steam of dumplings rises, the hot oil crackles, where cooking and serving is as fast as broadband speed. It was a fascinating experience. You can get a glimpse of the hustle and bustle from the video below.
After another walk around more shops and a quick stroll through a park, we went to a tea house where we sat and talked for a long time about her country, her time in the United States, becoming an illustrator and writer of children’s books and returning to Korea, her home.
Spending the day with Yangsook Choi gave me an even greater appreciation of this country’s history and culture. It has made it harder for me to say goodbye.
Just like Unhei in The Name Jar, I looked at the once strange but now familiar buildings and houses on our way to Yangsook’s family home. I was both, excited and sad as I walked in Unhei’s shoes taking in the images, smells and sounds of Seoul.