Between Two Cultures: An Interview with Hailey Park

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week marks the first of an interview series on the Looking at Us blog.  I will be interviewing multiple women, including students and professionals, on their experiences and viewpoints on education, and more specifically girls’ education in the United States.

The first interview is with Hailey Park.  Hailey recently completed her sophomore year at the College of William & Mary, where she is double majoring in Math and Economics.  She was born and raised outside of Seoul, South Korea until she was 15; when she moved to America on her own to attend high school in Pennsylvania.  As well as her double major, Hailey is very involved on the William & Mary campus as part of a sorority, the sailing team, and a Christian fellowship.

RV: You grew up in Korea.  What is the educational system like in Korea?

HP: It depends a lot on if you go to a public school or private school.  I have experience going to both.  I mainly went to a private Christian school.  Generally I would say that it’s very strict in a lot of ways like study times and schedules.  The hours that you stay in school are pretty long.  If you go to a public high school you have a study hall time after you classes that is mandatory until 10 pm.  They take it very seriously. But if you go to private school it’s a different story.  It’s more similar to American high schools.  My experience in the public school was that you go to school very early and come home very late.  

RV: What are the educational expectations for Korean girls?  Are they similar or different to the expectations for boys?

HP: I think they’re pretty similar.  Maybe it’s just the environment that I grew up in, but girls are expected to do as well as guys; there’s no difference.

RV: What are your family’s expectations of you?

HP: They want me to work hard. They used to tell me when I was in middle school that I had to get good grades in order to succeed. You have to do well on this test and that test. But I think right now, I don’t want to say they let it go,  [but] I think their emphasis is on working hard. Like, if I get a bad grade, they’re fine with it so long as I did my best.

RV: You came to America in high school.  Can you tell me about that experience, such as how old you were, and how you made that decision.

HP: Before I came to America in high school, I lived in America in elementary school for a year.  We lived in Fairfax and I was 10. I had the best time of my life, here with my parents; I made a lot of friends.  I was really sad to leave and go back to Korea.  That’s when I learned most of English.  After I went back to Korea I always wanted to come back. I loved the environment, I loved the way people communicated, I loved the education.  It was a dream place for me to study and carry on with my life.  My parents said maybe I could go there for college.  But then I convinced them, and I came here when I was 15, going into 10th grade.  The school had an international coordinator to find host families, so I lived with a host family.  I lived with them until my graduation.  They consider me their daughter.  I love them so much; I don’t know how it worked out so great.  My other [international] friends had to change host families every year, but I didn’t. I got the best one.  They taught me how to drive, all that stuff. 

The first year I almost considered moving host families.  I was very stressed out; it was the worst year of my life so far.  I had just come to America, everything changed.  I didn’t see my parents, the food was different, I had to make new friends.  That was really hard. I missed my parents a lot. Once I made some friends and settled I got along with most host parents and everything was better.

RV: How has your relationship with your parents changed as you’ve been in America for so long at this point?

HP: I go home at least once a year, sometimes twice a year.  I talk to them about once a week.  Sophomore year I would Skype them every night.  Now I’m busy and talk to them once a week. It’s kind of sad but I feel like as I’m becoming more Americanized it’s becoming difficult to communicate culture here to them sometimes. I constantly feel like they have a lot to catch up to. If I explain sorority life, they don’t know what that means.  [My mom] has no clue what that means.  [Even when I explain it] she still doesn’t get it.  It’s hard to make my parents understand.  But they try.

RV: Do you ever feel caught between two cultures?  You lived your whole childhood in Korea and now you’ve lived your whole adult life so far and your late adolescent years here in the US.  Where do you feel more at home?

HP: I feel more at home here.  At the same time, I’m not 100% American.  I’m not 100% comfortable.  But I’m not 100% comfortable there.  If I speak English for an entire semester and talk to my parents once a week on the phone, I forget all of my Korean.  When I go back, I can’t talk.  My mom always says, “How do you not know this word?”  For example, I was trying to say to her “this was the best I could do.”  And I couldn’t think of that in Korean. Sometimes it’s very hard to communicate.  But I don’t feel 100% comfortable with English either.  Culturally I fit in more here.  A lot of my Korean friends tell me I just became an American.

RV: Going back to education. What have been your biggest challenges in the American school system?

HP: I think the biggest thing about the American education system is you consistently have to do well in order to [ultimately] do well.  You can’t slack off.  But I feel like in my experience with the Korean education system you can slack off and then do really well on the final and get a great grade.  My biggest challenge was learning how to keep up with my work and not slack off.  When I first came here [I was shocked to learn] that we had tests every week.  That was really new to me because that had never happened in Korea.

RV: You’re a math and econ double major, both of which are male-dominated. What are the challenges, if any, of being the gender minority in your majors? If there aren’t any, what are the perks?

HP: I think there are more perks, actually! People always tell me “this is a male dominated major, and you’re doing a great job.” When they say that it makes me feel good. I can do things that other people do. For example, this summer I’m taking a class here [William & Mary] on probability. I’m the only girl in the class. I feel like the professor will care about me more. They don’t see as many girls so I’m encouraged more as a girl.  I’m not intimidated by being the only girl. I like it.

RV: Why is getting a college education important to you?

HP: I feel like knowledge is everything in this world.  The more you know the better you are, and college is the place that provides that.  I always grew up in the environment where college is expected.  You go to high school, and then you go to college.  In Korea, which college you go to is everything, it determines everything.  It determines social status, even more so than in America.  It’s kind of sad, but it’s the truth.

RV: What do you think of the American education system?

HP: I think it’s very good.  As I mentioned before, one of [my] biggest challenges was I had to work consistently.  I think that’s a very good system.  I think that’s how you actually gain knowledge. Instead of “oh I have to memorize this,” short term memory and then forget everything—what’s the point of that? The environment here [in America] makes you actually learn better than the other system I’ve experienced.

RV: What do you think we can improve on?

HP: I don’t think it’s that necessary to divide up girls’ fields and guys’ fields.  If a girl is in this physics class, then she is, and vice versa.  What we can improve on is getting rid of the stereotypes that physics is only for guys and math is only for guys and gender studies [are] only for girls.  I think that will open up more perspectives with girls who want to study and major in a “guys’” field.  I think early education for parents is the answer.  Removing those stereotypes from a young age.

Thank you to Hailey for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States!

Hailey Park

Hailey Park