Kiwi kids in Korea: local school’s new cultural exchange

"“The exchange complements our international programme well and gives our Kiwi kids a chance to be on the reciprocating end of this culture for a change.” – Rowan"
Indy & Zach

Kiwi kids in Korea: local school’s new cultural exchange

It’s not every day that a group of primary school students travel halfway around the world without their parents, that’s exactly what a handful of brave kids from Papamoa’s Tahatai Coast School did.

Over the course of a whirlwind eight weeks, eight students signed up and fundraised before finally welcoming a group of Korean buddies to Tauranga for ten days. Soon after, they headed over to Seoul themselves.

For some students it was their first time overseas; others were spending their very first night away from Mum and Dad. Add to that a new language, culture and time zone and it becomes clear that these are pretty exceptional kids!

Education Tauranga sat down with two of these students, their mums, and Tahatai Coast School’s international student manager Rowan Barton to hear about the huge success that was this inaugural cultural exchange programme.

Inspiration behind the exchange

When one of Tahatai Coast School’s agents, Vision Education Consultancy, brought the idea of the exchange to Rowan, she jumped at the chance. The majority of the school’s international students are from Korea, which made partnering with a Korean school particularly appropriate.

“The exchange complements our international programme well and gives our Kiwi kids a chance to be on the reciprocating end of this culture for a change.” – Rowan

In a flurry the idea evolved and developed; suddenly students had signed up and were raring to go.

Indy & Zach

Two such students were Indra (Indy) Wong-Sang and Zach Davie.

“I was keen but my parents weren’t so sure about me going to the other side of the world when I hadn’t even crossed the road by myself.” – Indy

Zach on the other hand wasn’t interested until the very last registration day, his interest piqued when Rowan discussed the programme in class.

Together, Indy, Zach and the other six students started the process of getting to Korea. They sold raffle tickets and organised a movie night; they washed cars, sold donuts and cooked sausages, in the end raising over 1000 dollars for each child, forming strong relationships with the other students in the process.

Meeting their buddies

The Korean students arrived in Tauranga first.

For some, like Zach, the initial meeting with their buddies felt a tad awkward. For others, like Indy who had exchanged emails regularly during the lead up, the connection came quickly.

“We recognised each other and connected straight away. We played together, did some drawing, I even taught her some Maori which she thought was really cool.” – Indy

Either way, the Kiwi and Korean kids all got to know each other and discovered that despite different languages, food preferences and personalities, there was always common ground.

Time in Tauranga

During their ten days in Tauranga, the Korean students became familiar with Kiwi culture, running barefoot in large grassy yards, eating spaghetti bolognaise for dinner and watching backyard fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day.

The parents gave the Korean students a typical Kiwi welcome – warm but casual, easing them into New Zealand gently. The Wong-Sang family took their host student Hayoon to the beach on arrival. The Davies made sure to have some Kiwi treats like L&P and pineapple lumps waiting for Ji Hoon.

They went luging and held baby kiwis in Rotorua, climbed Mount Maunganui and soaked in the hot pools. Yet despite the excitement of these adventures, some of the best moments came out of more ordinary aspects of Kiwi life that were novel to the Korean students.

“We have horses which Hayoon had never seen before. She wanted to go out to the paddock every day. When I was in Korea, she couldn’t stop talking about our animals here.” – Indy

Kiwi kids in Korea

When it was the Kiwi kids’ turn to adventure overseas, they were already familiar with their exchange buddies leaving room for fewer nerves and plenty of excitement.

“I wasn’t sad seeing Ji Hoon leave because I knew I would see him in a couple days. The day he left I was getting so excited about going to Korea.” – Zach

Once in Korea, our Kiwi kids quickly learnt ways to communicate with their host parents, using makeshift sign language and learning key Korean phrases.

Where the Korean students were surprised by New Zealand’s greenery and Tauranga’s one-story city, the Kiwi kids marvelled at high rises that make Auckland look like a small town. The students got a glimpse into Korean life, accompanying their buddies to Academy after school, walking instead of driving around town and witnessing first-hand the long days and structured activities that make up a typical Korean child’s life.

Cultural Differences

The students on both sides of the equator have no shortage of stories about the weird and wonderful things they were exposed to, making it clear that one of the best things to come out of this cultural exchange was a heightened understanding and respect for a vastly different culture.

Indy and Zach noticed that Koreans are very respectful, especially to their elderly, while their mums were shocked by the Korean students’ baggage – incredibly organised and filled with a pharmacy’s worth of individually wrapped medications for any potential ailment.

Dressed in hanboks, they learnt about traditional Korean culture during a visit to a folk village.

For all the cultural differences, the essential human similarity shone through. As Indy so beautifully put it:

“Korean friends play the same way as I would play with my friends. They play tag and paper, scissors, rock. And the people are really nice, I felt as comfortable with them as I do with Kiwis.”

Bathrooms, language & food

If there are three things that can define a culture, it might just be bathrooms, language and food – and the students certainly took note of this.

“Every bathroom I went to was different. All these buttons on the toilet that we didn’t know what they were for. And they made me put face lotion on before bed.” – Zach

“My host Dad would accidentally speak in Korean and sometimes I could understand what he had said!” – Indy

Rowan was pleased to see that most of the Kiwi kids were quite adventurous with trying new foods, which was important as it not only is a huge part of the culture but also had a knock-on effect for the students’ emotions, energy and comfort levels.

“Their breakfast is as big as dinner with chicken, noodles, rice, seaweed and kimchi. The whole table is filled with food. Imagine what Hayoon was thinking when she had two Weetbix for breakfast at our house!” – Indy

While Indy and Zach weren’t keen on the octopus legs and attempt at western dishes – prawn hot dogs! – offered at the school cafeteria, they agree that kimchi is delicious and fell in love with bibimbap.

Lasting impact

For the students, new and potentially life-long friendships formed, as did a newfound empathy towards and interest in international students at their own school.

For the parents, the impact of this experience is far-reaching.

“The way I view Zach has changed, he seems a lot more grown up. I talk to him differently, more like an adult conversation.” – Sandra (Zach’s mum)

Indy’s mum Kym realised that she automatically started giving Indy more responsibility, letting her wander around Bayfair on her own and pack her own bag for the beach.

To Rowan, seeing her students’ personal and emotional growth made the hard yards involved in planning this first exchange well worthwhile.

“They managed themselves amongst sensory overload: culture, language and food. They had to care for themselves and take ownership over themselves. They were all amazing ambassadors for our school and country. I was so proud of them all!”

And while nothing can live up to their ten days of independence in Korea, they also came home with an appreciation for New Zealand. As Indy’s mum says:

“They took in a big gulp of NZ air when they came home!”