Maya is an alum of the 2021 Korean summer program. This story was submitted as an entry to the NSLI-Y 15th Anniversary Storytelling Competition.

Image of locks with writing on them

My grandmother loves to make photo books. Growing up my sister and I would be the first to see her latest publications: photos of my dad as a young boy and her own childhood photos. When we would visit her in the summers, she would sit by me and tell me the stories behind each photo: the houseboat, Awater, where they spent their summers; her childhood dog, Gangster, and photos of her life growing up during the war. As we grew older, she started making photo books of my sister and I. When I look at those books I can feel the love and care my grandmother feels for us and those memories.

Image taken through a fence that shows a green area in front of buildings

When I first met my host mom she gave me a letter. In this letter she told me how most of her family were quite introverted, but she thought her personality and mine were very similar. The first night I arrived my host mom brought out her college yearbooks. She had attended Hanyang University, the same university I was taking my own classes at. As I flipped through the yearbooks my host mom told me the stories behind each photo: the friends she still keeps in touch with, her favorite professors, and how she would spend her free time. Hearing her talk I started to get the feeling that she was right: we both seemed to have very similar personalities.

Image of two peers in hanboks posing in front of a tradiitonal Korean temple

My host mom would often get home quite late, around 8pm, but we would have dinner together, and we soon started having conversations until late at night. I learned that when she was younger my host mom spent a year abroad in Japan and her experience with her own host family motivated her to welcome an exchange student into her own home. I was my family's first exchange student. This was really wonderful as this was my host family's first time getting to know an American student. I felt it was in many ways even more special to be able to share aspects of my own life and culture with them.

Image of a subway entrance

My host mom especially loved to listen to what I had to say and would always push me by asking hard questions. I didn’t always have the exact vocab or grammar to answer, but I would attempt to anyway. My host mom always seemed to know where I was trying to go with what I was saying. She would try to help me finish my thought by adding onto what I was saying or suggesting words I could use to express my point.

Image of people in a cable car

A week or so into my stay, my host mom pulled out the photobook she had of her time in Japan. In the photos she seemed so adventurous, so excited to learn about a new culture and language. My host mom went on to show me photos from her time in the US. In all these photos she seemed like she was simply so happy to be there and experiencing whatever was happening, to be learning about another culture and way to see the world. In her photos I started to see similarities between photos I had already taken during my time in Korea: photos with my friends and experiences I had had with my host family. Looking through these photos with my host mom made me realize how, though we were both from different corners of the world and she had taken this trip over 30 years ago, we shared something important: a love to learn about new cultures and a desire to see the world in different ways.

image of Maya posing in a hanbok in a hallway with red columns and traditional Korean architecture

A few weeks into my stay, I started showing my own photos to my host mom. From photos of me as a kid, to more recent photos of my summer adventures. As we went through my photos she would ask me questions. She was curious about my family, what type of house I grew up in, the types of food we would eat, what school was like, but more so she was happy to see what I looked like as a little kid and hear about the activities I enjoyed growing up.

As we went through photo albums of my host brother's childhood photos, and of family trips my host family had taken to America, Europe, and Canada, we also went through my own childhood photos and photos of our family trips to visit my grandparents in the Netherlands as well as holiday trips to Wisconsin and Corpus Christi.

image of a street in Korea with shops on the sides

Looking through this discography of photos with my host mom, more so than any differences, all I could see were similarities. My host brother and I both had the first birthday photo with cake smeared everywhere, the photos running around with friends for hours on end, the photos from each of our family trips all shared the exact same excited smiles. There were the photos of us kids with annoyed expressions crying about something or another and the first day of school photo where we stood dressed up nicely with a backpack in hand. All these photos just seemed so similar, so familiar. In the albums my host mom had made, I saw the exact same care and love my grandmother would put into her albums.

It seemed to me that though we spoke different languages and lived thousands of miles away, if we had lived in the same neighborhood while I was growing up we would have been family friends. I realized that though the life of my own family may have seemed drastically different from the life of my host family when viewed from outside, they were in fact very much the same.