Long and winding road

Before Michelle Lee ’09 began school, she had a problem: to bow or not to bow. As a junior, Lee needs to show respect to those older than her by bowing whenever she sees them.

As a new student at the Korean Minjok Leadership Academy this year, 130 kilometers outside of Seoul, she did not know who to bow to. Afraid of forgetting to bow to an elder or accidently bowing to someone younger, Lee was concerned. However, upon her arrival at the academy, she learned that she had to skip a grade and was now a senior. Quickly, her fear subsided.
Lee was born in Korea in 1991 and moved to the United States in 2002 to go to Harvard-Westlake. Needing to take the ISEE for admission, she learned English and ended up doing well on the exam despite the language barrier.

Instead of spending her junior year in Los Angeles, Lee took an alternate route and spent the year in Beijing, China through School Year Abroad. She lived with a host family and attended the Beishidia Erfuzhong School, which is affiliated with the Beijing Normal University.

Lee expected to be placed with a family that spoke English. Instead, she was with people who could hardly say “hello.”

Lee did not know Chinese before she went to China, but now calls herself “pretty much fluent.” She accelerated from level II to level IV in five months.

With her newfound fluency, she volunteered as a sixth grade English teacher at a migrant school. The school is for children whose parents illegally moved within China, many coming from the countryside to find work.

Trouble arose on her second day of teaching when a 12-year-old boy she and her fellow volunteers dubbed “the mafia head” threw a desk at a teacher. Another child had to be taken to the hospital when “the mafia head” kicked him in the stomach.

The violence was so severe Lee deemed it a distraction and created another class where the troublesome child and other bullies could be taught without injuring others.

At the Beishida Eruzhong School, Lee took extracurriculars such as calligraphy and traditional painting. She learned to play the erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument and took wushu, a type of martial art.

At the beginning of July, Lee received devastating news. Her mother, who lives in Seoul, had Stage IV gastric cancer, a form of stomach cancer that “spreads out like seeds rather than clumped together in one area,” Lee said.

Gastric cancer is the leading type of cancer in Korea. It is believed that the Korean diet, high in salt and broiled foods, along with genetic factors, contributes to its prevalence, according to WebMD.com.

Lee left School Year Abroad on Jan. 10 to return to Korea to be with her mother.

Lee herself was enrolled at the Seoul International School for one week. However, finding that the atmosphere did not suit her, she took the entrance exam for the Korean Minjok Leadership Academy. The exam included calculus and linear algebra.

Overjoyed to find that she had passed, Lee enrolled on Feb. 10. Because the Korean school year begins in February and ends in December, she had to skip a grade.

At the academy, students are required to wear traditional Korean robes called hanboks.
“It’s a really nationalistic school,” Lee said.

Every Monday there’s a patriotic assembly with a Korean traditional orchestra, singing of the national anthem, a formal greeting for all the teachers, reciting the school motto and the school anthem and an awards ceremony for students who have won competitions over the past week.

Students wake up at 5:30 a.m. to begin their morning workout, which includes kendo, a Japanese martial art with fencing, taekwondo, a Korean martial art, and track and field. After breakfast, there are morning, afternoon and evening classes separated by lunch and dinner.

Students are required to speak English from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. except for meal times. If they do not comply with this rule or others, they are taken to student court and given penalty points.

Points can be given for things such as slouching or wearing inappropriate shoes. If a student gets too many penalty points, he or she must copy a Confucian Bible by hand.

Romantic relationships at the Korean Minjok Leadership Academy are also forbidden. No male and female can meet for nonacademic purposes. If they are found in a private area, they can be suspended.

In Korea, children are expected to bid their parents goodnight around nine. Because the academy is a boarding school, the teachers receive every respect that parents would if they were there. So, every night the students must bid their teacher good night before they head back to their rooms to study.

After self-study from 10 to 12 p.m., students are given an optional study period until 3 a.m., when lights formally go out.

“A lot of students take out their personal lamps and study around the clock,” said Lee. “The school’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so we have nothing to do other than study, study, study, work, work, work. I’m still trying to figure out how these guys operate.”

Usually, students are only allowed to leave the school once a month. However, Lee is allowed to leave every weekend to visit her mother.

“I’m sure my mom appreciates our presence, and that’s all that matters,” Lee said.
At Harvard-Westlake, Lee was a member of the varsity golf team. At her new campus, there is a driving range and she practices there every weekend. There aren’t many teenage golf competitions in Korea, but Lee still hopes that with practice, she can play in college. 

Lee plans to attend college in the United States. She will rejoin the class of 2009 during their first year at a university.