I watched our students deftly mix their bibimbap with their chopsticks in the school cafeteria. Ten days ago they would have been eating ham sammies and apples out of their lunchboxes and the prospect of beef, rice, kimchi and soup for lunch would have been completely alien to them.

Not today. As they chirruped “kamsahamnida” (thank you) to the lunch lady, and dipped their heads awkwardly in an unfamiliar bow, I realised what a long way they had come.

By “a long way” I don’t just mean the 10,000km they travelled from Papamoa to Seoul, although that was part of it. Rather, the “long way” was better measured by the journey that got them onto this exchange, from the moment they heard about it and decided to fill in the application form, to right here in a Korean school cafeteria experimenting with food, language and culture.

Giving back

It all started four months ago. Over the past three and half years Tahatai Coast School in Papamoa had been growing its international student programme, with long-term international students attending each year – many from South Korea.

But the school wanted to enter the spirit of international education on a more reciprocal level and expressed an interest in forming a sister school partnership with a school in South Korea.

Principal Matt Skilton and international student manager Rowan Barton worked with Christian Ryu from Vision Consulting to find a Korean school that was a good match for Tahatai. The result was Supsok Elementary School, a school about an hour out of Seoul with a similar “feel” to Tahatai.

Once the sister school partnership was formed, Skilton and Barton worked with the school’s board of trustees to get an exchange partnership off the ground.

“It’s about giving back,” says Barton, who accompanied the students on the exchange.

“The exchange will give domestic students a greater insight into Korean culture. It will help them to make more of a connection with visiting international students, making them feel accepted and included,” she says.

Skilton agrees.

“After hosting international students for the past three years, we are delighted to support our children to be able to experience first-hand learning and life in another country,” he says.

After the two schools had agreed to select eight students from each school, Tahatai invited applications from Year 5 and 6 students to fill the eight slots.

Building community spirit

The selected Tahatai kids and their parents quickly rallied together. A Facebook group was formed. Fundraising activities were discussed. A hoodie design was drafted. And it all started to feel real.

The fundraising was intense, but served a very important role in the process. The parents were all of a similar mindset: they didn’t want their kids to feel that the opportunity was just handed to them and were eager for them to take an active role in the fundraising.

And so for consecutive weekends the group carried out community carwashes, raffle sales at the supermarket, a sausage sizzle, a bake sale, a movie night, and a slam jump party. With every raffle sold and car washed, the kids got to know each other better and the friendships between the families began to really blossom.

The Papamoa community delighted in the cause: local businesses donated generous prizes for the raffles; people asked the kids about the exchange; the local paper ran a story on them. People were genuinely excited about the kids broadening their horizons; others were pleased to see them working towards a goal.

In the end a relatively small financial contribution from each family was needed to top up the fundraising efforts, proving that the exchange could be accessible for any child and family willing to get stuck in.

This was important for Skilton and the Board, who were keen for it not to be seen as an opportunity that was only available to those students whose parents could afford it.

Meanwhile Supsok Elementary placed more emphasis on students’ ability to speak English in their selection of students.  The Korean government has committed funding for the first three years of Supsok’s sister school partnership exchange programme, so their approach was somewhat different to Tahatai’s.

They’re here!

Finally, after all the fundraising, organising and problem-solving, the Supsok students arrived at Tahatai Coast School, travel-weary but excited. The two schools had worked hard to make sure the New Zealand students were well matched with the Korean students, and there was great anticipation about finally meeting their “buddies”.

The Korean students spent ten action-packed days with their New Zealand host families. From climbing Mauao, visiting a local marae, soaking in the Mount hot pools, playing on the beach and in the rock pools and touring Rotorua, they got a real taste of the Bay of Plenty.

But the highlights weren’t limited to the places they visited. The students loved getting together for a beach bonfire and then later in the week for a barbecue. Roasting marshmallows together, playing football together, swimming together, bouncing on the trampoline together, having a giant Nerf gun war together – I suspect that is where the golden memories will truly exist for the Korean students.

Similarly it was the ordinary moments of day-to-day life that would leave an impression; the chatting – despite limited language – about the differences and similarities of their respective homes. It was the laughter about cultural differences that appeared strange, the surprise at unexpectedly liking new and different foods.

Even the occasional bouts of homesickness, or moments of boredom in a classroom when they couldn’t follow what was going on, or dismay that Kiwi kids went to bed so early and with the lights off, all contributed to a deeper understanding of another culture and of themselves.

Our turn

After ten days of soaking up the Kiwi lifestyle and getting to know their Tahatai buddies and their host families, the Korean students returned home. Five days later they were joined by their Kiwi buddies in Seoul.

It was a different sort of welcome – less tentative this time, because the friendships had already taken shape. Buddies hugged each other and then were whisked off by their Korean host families, who were eager to reciprocate the kindness shown to their sons and daughters.

The Kiwi homes with grassy backyards were replaced with high-rise apartments. Knives and forks were replaced with chopsticks. Weetbix and milk with rice and fish. Eight o’clock bedtimes with eleven o’clock bedtimes.

The cultural shock was as real as it was exciting for the nine-, ten- and eleven-year-old Kiwi kids. Most had travelled before, but this wasn’t like going on holiday with Mum and Dad. It was a truly authentic insight into how other people live in a completely different part of the world, an opportunity that seldom presents itself in anyone’s lifetime.

Supsok Elementary and the Korean host families laid on some amazing experiences for our kids. They visited a Korean folk village where they got to dress in traditional Korean clothing called hanbok. They explored Gyeongbok Palace and went to the top of Seoul Tower. Their inner daredevils were satisfied at Lotte Adventure World and Everland.

During the time at school, the Kiwi students learned to write their Korean name in calligraphy, played traditional Korean games, ate in the school cafeteria, took part in after-school jump-rope and art classes.

But, like the Korean kids, their experience was defined largely by the moments of togetherness and time spent with their host families. A movie night, a birthday party, a shared picnic in the park were all memorable occasions.

And also, like the Korean kids’ experience, there were difficult times for our students too. Some of the kids were struck with tiredness and homesickness towards the end. Some – it emerged well into the ten days – weren’t sure how to use the shower and were too embarrassed to ask. Some struggled with the food. But the coping with the not-so-good times was undoubtedly the biggest opportunity for personal growth and discovery.  They knew the concept of resilience; now they knew what it meant to truly be resilient.

Sad goodbyes

After ten days, the New Zealand kids said their goodbyes to their buddies and host families. Tears flowed from both sides as it dawned on everyone that this amazing opportunity was drawing to a close.

Among them was Year 5 student Niko Preston, who says he will really miss his host family and South Korea.

“It’s been like a giant playdate across two countries,” he reflected.

The students were greeted at Auckland Airport by a large contingent of excited family members, with a huge ‘welcome home’ banner and some of the biggest bear hugs imaginable.

The kids were undoubtedly pleased to be home; pleased to see their parents, siblings and pets; pleased to see their beloved beach and expansive lawns; pleased to tuck into some familiar food.

But they’d each changed in small ways, too. The exchange had left its mark on them. Their eyes had been opened to a different way of life, to the possibility of new friendships and new experiences far beyond the familiar.

But greater than that, the partnership has left its mark on Tahatai Coast School. The students, weary with jetlag, returned the next day to school with tales of their adventures, with greater empathy for the international students in their classrooms, and with a contagious thirst to know more about the world.

Global citizenship is one of those nice buzz phrases in education that we love to say, but it takes on a much greater meaning when we see it play out in real school life.

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