Hosting foreign exchange student Jiwon Yoon is helping Shannon White see her home country through the eyes of someone who she considers a sister.
The two, who live in Flandreau and go to Colman-Egan High School, were born in the same area of Korea. They have similar interests, and they catch either other sharing some of the same mannerisms.
They also share clothes, giggles and similar tastes in music.
“We do everything together, and we go everywhere together,” says Shannon, 15 and a sophomore. Jiwon, at 17, is a junior. “We have three classes together. We giggle in those classes, too,” Shannon says.
Despite their closeness, their lives have been very different up until they met in August. Jiwon grew up in Seoul, the daughter of a banker, and has lived in a high-rise apartment. She attends school from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., including study sessions each evening and must compete to get into the choicest of colleges. “I prepare to go to college when I was in middle school. It’s not really easy.”
Shannon was adopted as a five-month-old infant by her American parents and lives with her mom, Janii White, who is a nurse, on a quiet street in small-town South Dakota, driving in the open prairie each morning to Colman for school.
Yet, for each of them, the other is what they always wished for.
“It’s a really happy thing. I don’t have a sister in Korea,” says Jiwon, who has one younger brother. “I always wanted to have a sister, if dreams come true.”
Shannon – the two are not related by blood -- has an older brother who is grown. “I’ve always wanted a sister, too. Honestly, I didn’t think we would get this close right away.”
Janii White wanted her daughter to have the experience of an exchange student from her birth country. The bond was nearly immediate when the girls first met in August.
Five months later, they sit close together on a loveseat in Shannon’s living room, donned in gaudy holiday sweaters they bought in Brookings to wear to a high school basketball game. They each got a pair of pajamas, too, to wear to school for a special dress-up day.
“I love this life. I just love it. It’s fun,” says Jiwon, one of three foreign exchange students at schools in Moody County. “Here is a lot of fun things compared to my Korean high school.”
She sings in choir, has been to a school dance and attends games. There aren’t sports and activities in her home school, and in general, it is much more stressful.
For Christmas, the two families have different traditions, but both involve family time.
Jiwon’s family drives to her grandparent’s house outside of Seoul to get together with nearly a dozen relatives. They eat traditional foods, including rice cakes made with rice, a bit of meat and vegetables and stay one night. They also play a favorite game, and her grandmother gives her about $50 in pocket change as a gift. The family isn’t Christian so they don’t attend church. But there is a Santa Claus in Korea, complete with red suit and white beard, she says.
This year she has attended Christmas concerts, church programs with the Whites, who have explained the story of Jesus’ birth to her, and family gatherings with food and gifts, which she learned to wrap.
Jiwon has enjoy looking at the red skies at sunrise and sunset this fall and had not really seen stars until her trip to America. They aren’t visible with all the lights of Seoul, she says.
“The sky is really pretty. I really like that.”
This winter, Jiwon will go to Florida and Mexico with the Whites, taking in more travel.
When she attends college, she wants to work toward getting a job with the United Nations.
“We need intelligent people to work for our county. We need intelligent and superior, good people,” she says of Korea’s future. “South Korea is really small, and we are not a really strong country and always worry about North Korea. It’s very sad.”
Jiwon hopes to return to the United States next year to graduate from an American high school. She will need to attend a private school because foreign exchange students can only visit once through a public school. She is hoping to be close to Flandreau and to be accepted at O’Gorman High School or Sioux Falls Christian High School in Sioux Falls.
“We’re happy because we’ll get to see her,” says Janii White. “It’s been good. They do a lot together so it really is not much more work. Jiwon is very adoptable. She’s easy to take places. She willing to do anything.”
For Shannon, Jiwon’s return next school year would extend the time she could spend with a new sister that shares the culture from their mutual home country and spares no giggles.
“We share a lot of our stuff, like clothes because we’re the same size. We’re the only two Asians in our school,” Shannon says.
“I think the hardest part is going to see her leaving in five months,” she says of Jiwon. “She will be gone for a week (for a special exchange student trip). I think I might die.”