When Michael Lee prepared to move to the United States from South Korea two years ago, his dad gave him some advice about American culture. “When you’re talking to someone, look the person in the eye, and when someone sneezes, say, ‘God bless you.’ ”
Lee came to the U.S. to finish his high school education, joining his brother, a student at Eastern Washington University. His father’s advice must have helped. Colleen Thornton, Lee’s counselor at Mead High School, said, “Michael acclimated quickly to the language and the culture.”
Even so, Lee found vast differences between South Korean and American high schools. “In the U.S. they hug and say, ‘What’s up?’ ” he said, laughing.
And the sheer size of Mead amazed him. “It’s a lot of people!”
In addition, the daily class schedule took some adjustment. “In Korea you don’t change classes,” he explained. “You stay in the same room, and different teachers come in.”
Most bewildering to Lee was the variety of activities available to American teens. He said in Korea the focus is on academics, not extracurricular activities.
Lee has excelled academically, especially in math and science. “He’s at the top of his class, despite a demanding college prep program,” Thornton said. “In fact, he arranged to take AP chemistry on his own.”
Because Mead didn’t offer the advanced class, Lee said, “I used the knowledge I had from Korea and read the books, studied on my own and took the tests.”
He traces his fascination for the world of math and science to fifth grade, when he was praised for excellent work. “I heard from my teacher, ‘Good job!’ ” Lee recalled. “And my parents said, ‘Nice work!’ This is the reason I do this – I feel happy when I solve a problem.”
Lee doesn’t get the same thrill from other classes. “I don’t get a feeling of accomplishment from English and history,” he admitted. “AP literature is not something I would have chosen, but I take those classes because I need to, and I need to use English to make friends.”
But language has not been a barrier to connecting with his peers. “I thought it would be hard to make friends because my English isn’t very good,” Lee said. “But the kids were really nice.”
His social success doesn’t surprise Thornton: “He’s a warm, sincere and energetic young man. He’s just a great kid.”
Lee also is extremely focused, and he watches no TV. He plans to attend the University of Washington this fall. “I want to be a professor of mechanical engineering; that’s my final goal. If I can’t do that I’ll be an engineer.”
Despite his demanding academic load, Lee found a way to stay in touch with Korean culture while also giving back to the Spokane community. He said he enjoyed the two hours he spent each week teaching Korean language classes to second-generation immigrants.
Thornton envisions a bright future for Lee. “It will be interesting to follow him over the years,” she said.