By Benjamin Bang, 17, Palos Verdes Peninsula HS
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Ben has gotten involved in lots of activities at Palos Verdes Peninsula HS. Here are two pieces of art he created, a picture of him running track and his soccer award.
Collage by Sophia Richardson, 15,
Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies

I moved to the United States from Korea two years ago for a better education. In Korea, teachers and schools don’t care who you are or what you are interested in, they only care about what and how much you memorize. I felt like I was caged. In America, you can choose the classes you want to take and explore your interests before going to college.

When I was in Korea, I met a friend who lived in San Francisco and visited Korea a lot. He told me he could choose his classes. He had time to do extracurricular activities and on top of that had a girlfriend. I was jealous that he was doing things that I had no time to do. It felt like he was living in a totally different world. I wanted to find what I truly enjoyed doing too.

In Korea, most kids have tutors starting from first grade if they want to go to a good college. When I was a first grader, my mom, who was an English tutor, used to tutor me and other kids in English. I had a math tutor who gave me a packet full of work that she would check the next week. In middle school, I went to three English grammar academies, but I never understood anything, not even noun and verb agreements. We never wrote using the rules they made us memorize.

On top of studying, parents make their kids do everything. When I entered third grade, my parents made me play piano and violin, take swimming and Chinese classes. As a little kid who’d rather watch cartoons or play sports, I felt like these activities were a waste of time. Most of all, I was so tired from swimming that every time I’d go to violin class I’d fall asleep. One time, I didn’t even open the violin case, and slept until the time was up. On the days I didn’t have violin lessons, I took Chinese. But I was just a kid, it’s not like I was going to go to China, so soon I forgot what I had learned.

When I entered middle school, I had tutors on Saturdays and Sundays. My friends and I were so busy that it was hard to hang out. In school, we were told that we would have four exams in each subject during the year, which would mostly determine our grades. The school chose our subjects. Our classroom stayed the same (teachers would rotate, not us). I had seven to eight subjects that would change each day. They were social studies, math, science, Korean, moral education, English, P.E., technology/domestics, music and art. In moral education, we memorized rules such as the ways to make a society better.

In music, art and P.E., the written tests were a big part of our grades. In P.E., when the test came closer, most of the students actually brought books and studied at school. I mean, there were questions like, how many players are there in a soccer game, what rules are there in baseball and what is the size of an official basketball. We would learn faster if we played those sports and learned from experience.

There was more reading than painting in art class

Art focused on art history, not creating art. Test questions asked the name of the painter of a given painting, what a technique was called, the time period of an art trend, and so on. When the non-written part of the test came, we barely knew how to paint. In seventh grade, when we had a scratchboard project, my friend brought in his tutor’s work and turned it in as if it were his own. The teacher didn’t care as long as we turned something in, so he got a better grade than I did. I was pissed. Another time, when I asked for feedback, the teacher told me to come back later but as the class ended, she would leave the room to avoid my question. I lost interest in art and I thought it was just another boring subject.

I am not trying to say that the Korean educational system is pointless. It just didn’t suit me. I didn’t like that all of us had to do the same thing, when each of us has different talents. And four exams deciding my grade for the entire year was just too cruel.

In January 2007, my dad got a job teaching at  Cal State Fullerton. I thought, “Yes! This is my chance to get out of Korea.” I went to middle school in Fullerton for eighth grade. During P.E., I found out about the school’s soccer team and its tryout date (I didn’t even know what tryout meant). I went to the tryout and played better than I thought, making the soccer team. We played soccer in Korea too, but the fact that there were uniforms, a coach, referees and a grass soccer field was just so new to me. When I played soccer in Korea with my friends after lunch at school or when we rarely had common free time, the field was dirt and sometimes the nets were missing and to think of referee and a coach was just funny.

As I got better at English, I spent less time in ESL (English as a Second Language). I had room for two more classes and took art and electronic art. Teachers would go around the room to give feedback on my paintings. They didn’t teach because it was going to be on the test, but because they really wanted us to learn. In electronic art class, I used Photoshop for the first time. One day we had to go out with a digital camera and take photos of the campus. Afterward, we used Photoshop to combine the photos and come up with a finished project. I also got to create patterns, nametags, business cards and maps. Compared to my Korean school, this school was fun.

For ninth grade, I went to Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, but I had to move to Rancho Palos Verdes to live with my aunt when my dad and mom returned to Korea. I knew if I went back to Korea, it would be almost impossible to catch up and I hated that system. I didn’t see any reason to return, so I asked my parents if I could stay here for college. They agreed under one condition, that I go to at least UC Berkeley or UCLA.

I liked getting to choose my classes

As soon as I came to Palos Verdes Peninsula High, even more choices were available. I had a counseling session to go over my schedule. The counselor recommended that I join the track team when I said I like running and playing soccer. Since the soccer season was over and I didn’t want to get out of shape, I said yes. She also asked me whether I wanted to join the honors program, which I knew would definitely increase my chances of getting into Berkeley or UCLA if I got good grades, so I said yes. That was a big step, since it had been only a year since I came to the United States. However, I think that was the right choice, since honors classes have helped me improve a lot in English. She asked me if I wanted to continue art. Of course I said yes.

Even though I got into honors English, I was still struggling with speaking English, and I was bad at making friends. I didn’t have anyone to eat with during lunch so for about a week I ate alone. One day, I saw some guys from track who were eating together, and I joined them. I still eat and hang out with that group. Without track, I would still be wandering around and eating alone during lunch.

In September 2008, we had a club fair at the start of my sophomore year. I was so excited that I signed up for so many clubs—Christian clubs, art club, Model United Nations, Junior State of America (JSA), Key Club, friendship club, math club, and the list goes on. I tried to go to most of the clubs’ meetings the first day, but they overlapped so I ended up choosing four clubs. I lacked English public speaking skills so I thought Model United Nations and JSA, which are debating clubs, would help me. I was helping out with disabled people at my church so friendship club, where we hang out with kids with disabilities, was another opportunity to be involved with those kids. In Christian club, we meet every Friday during lunch, which strengthens my faith.

I took a few honors classes, art and sports. For drawing and painting 2, we were in the same room as AP studio art students. Their work inspired me to try harder. I submitted three pieces to our art show and when I saw my paintings hanging on the wall, I felt tingling inside.

I proved myself on the soccer field

For sports, I tried out for the soccer team and barely made junior varsity. I knew I wasn’t good, so I tried hard. I was a bench player for most of the season and rarely played. In the second to last game, coach subbed me in and I played my butt off even though it was raining. I got hit in the face with the muddy ball, trapped it on my chest, slide tackled, and played so hard that my entire body was soaked with mud and rain. Since I played better than the coach (and I) anticipated, I started and played the whole last game. A few months after the season ended, we had our banquet. I didn’t feel like going but I followed my friends to the banquet. Then, boom! Coach awarded me with Most Improved Player. I was so surprised that when I heard my name, I didn’t stand up. My friends shook me and I realized that I just won the first award in my life. I started grinning, and couldn’t stop.

The education in Korea is like making stamps, the same thing over and over. Some students like it. Being in one classroom makes you become close to other kids. But I did not like how the school and the society were forcing education to make us all the same.

The education I’m getting in the U.S. is so different. I choose my own classes, joined honors, play sports and actually enjoy coming to school. Choosing my own classes, clubs and sports made me more independent. In Korea, students don’t go to academies and have tutors because they want to. They do it because their parents told them to, or they feel they are behind or because the whole crowd is doing it. When I participate in clubs and classes that I like, instead of blindly following the crowd, I learn more and actually achieve something.

I think it was the right choice to come to the U.S. In August when I visited Korea to see my family, my friends told me that I am more confident and outgoing. I feel good about that change.

Other stories by this writer …

A mouthful of beats.
Learning to beatbox has given Ben, 16, a talent to be proud of. WITH VIDEO OF BEN BEATBOXING!! (January – February 2009)