by Tyler West
Most children look forward to watching their favorite television shows after school, going to sleepovers with their friends, and what they’re having for dinner.
Things were a little different for a young girl growing up on the other side of the globe.
Hyunji Jang was born in Seoul, South Korea. Her early days consisted of studying for midterms, finals, and partaking in numerous extracurricular activities. She played piano, ping pong, tae kwon doe, golf, and was even tutored in time management at the ripe age of 5 years-old.
As a small child, Jang was already working her way toward the top of an academic list required by her school system. Teachers would rank their students by number based on their midterm and final grades.
This was something that Jang’s parents couldn’t seem to agree with.
“My parents were like no, they didn’t want that for me. They wanted me to have more freedom and to have time to do things,” said Jang. “Kids in South Korea don’t have free time. They’re always studying and competing with each other to get the highest grades and be the best at their extracurriculars. Getting into college there is so competitive and everybody wants to get in. But they decide based off one test. My parents knew I wasn’t going to make it to college.”
Jang began learning English as her second language in kindergarten, which would later come in handy when her parents eventually decided to immigrate to the United States .
There are 6,552 miles of distance between Jang’s old life and her new one. A 15 hour and 55 minute flight changed her life forever.
Pittsford, N.Y. was a whole different world for then 14-year-old Jang and her family. Hyunji adopted her American name, Hannah, and quickly began to see how stark the difference in culture was in the United States.
Between learning how to make friends and solve word problems in math, Jang said she had a lot of adapting to do — and fast.
Maybe the time management tutoring was helpful, because she said she made friends quickly and only faced minor setbacks in school due to a deteriorating language barrier.
One of the biggest things she noticed after a few months in America was the difference in the freedom of self-expression and beauty standards.
“Back in [South] Korea, everyone would look at you funny if you did something different. It was like New York City, but everyone was the same race. They all acted the same and tried to look the same. Big eyes, skinny, and pale. If you looked different they would tell you to get plastic surgery to fit that standard and norm everyone wanted to fit into. But no one could,” said Jang.
With the memories of how strict and limiting South Korean culture could be, Jang says she never takes for granted the freedom that she experiences today — like being a full-time student at SUNY Brockport who is able to express herself in all aspects of her life.
You can listen to her full interview below.