There was no wall — just a well-known invisible line. Soldiers wore sunglasses to avoid looking each other in the eyes.
Claire Lopez wasn’t in Southern California anymore.
The Cal State Long Beach senior traveled to South Korea for two weeks this summer as part of the 2010 U.S. Congress-Korean National Assembly Youth Exchange Program. Lopez, a political science major, had heard of the program during her internship in the district office of congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard.
To qualify for the program, students must complete a congressional internship and demonstrate an interest in Korean-U.S Relations. Although Lopez has not developed a liking for Korean cuisine, she feels a great connection to Koreans.
“I grew up in a predominately Korean neighborhood. I felt right at home stepping off the plane and seeing Korean faces and hearing the Korean language. That made it all the more exciting,” Lopez said.
She and 20 other students participated in briefings to learn about South Korean trade with the U.S. and how the political system works. But, she said the most insightful part of her trip was learning from locals.
She and the other students participated in a home stay and came across some interesting questions from their hosts.
“They were up-to-date on so many things going on in America,” Lopez said. “They wanted to know my opinion on things like Guantanamo to the oil spill. They were more up-to-date on events than I am sure a lot of Americans are.”
She said the most surprising question they faced was regarding American culture and diversity.
“They were curious about how our different cultures don’t clash. I tried to explain that we do have racial tension, but you really don’t appreciate how diverse we are here until you go to a homogenous country like Korea,” Lopez said.
Still, Lopez said she would never forget the demilitarized zone.
“It’s a lot of emotion standing at the border, knowing there is another completely closed off world a few feet ahead of you,” she said.
Despite all seriousness and briefings, she described her trip as something more like a vacation. She got a taste of Korean hospitality from lavish dinners, tea with Buddhist monks and guided tours to Korean palaces. But what Lopez really enjoyed was the karaoke.
“That is the fad there,” she said. “You stay up all night singing your heart out in these rented rooms. I really want to do that for my 21st birthday.”
However, that is not to say that Lopez can’t distinguish between work and play. She has a 4.0 GPA and is the first in her family to attend college, which is why the trip to South Korea was so important to her family.
She said, “They don’t have money to spend on trips. As corny as it sounds, I think they associate really closely with the American dream. They worked really hard and were able to help put me through college and look where I got to go.”