'We Have a Lot in Common': The Importance of Cross Cultural Education Beyond the Olympics

Feb 16, 2018

Before the Olympics were announced in PyeongChang, most people associated the word Korea with north and south, the DMZ, and nuclear weaponry. However, Saehee Chang asks that you go beyond the headlines and take a closer look at Korean culture.

As the founder of the company Korea Konnect LLC, she educates people - both young and old - across Milwaukee, the state, and the country about Korean culture and society. Through teaching others traditional drumming and cooking, as well as offering interpreting and translation services, Chang serves as an unofficial Korean ambassador.

The janggu is the most representative drum in traditional Korean music.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

"I chose cooking and music because these are the two most comfortable and fun topics, and they unite people no matter what," she explains.

Chang grew up in South Korea and has lived all over the world, and her experiences have taught her the importance of cross cultural education.

"Many people knew that I was from Korea, possibly, but they always started with the question, 'Are you Chinese?' or 'Are you from China?' And I thought I need to educate people about who I am through my country and my culture," she says.

Chang's family left South Korea when she was 12, and she admits there were difficulties in trying to embrace new cultures, while dealing with inaccurate stereotypes and even racial slurs.

"Asian-Americans are always considered 'the other' or 'the foreigner.' I think things are changing, for sure, but I did have a struggle with my Korean-American identity," she says.

Looking back as an adult on her childhood experiences, Chang notes it's important to teach people, especially children, to embrace their heritage.

"For me, it was just about being grounded with my family and just being comfortable with who you are," she says. "But I think it's hard when you're little, especially when you're in middle school and high school, and you want to be like the American kids."

Despite the difficult space Chang had to navigate, she says that America is so wonderful because of its racial and ethnic diversity.

"I really feel like it's so important to highlight and really take advantage of that diversity, because I think no other country has this sort of beautiful mosaic of diverse people and backgrounds. That's why it's so important for Americans to learn about 'the other.'"

Chang says that in every music or cooking class she leads, the number one lesson she consistently learns is that "we have a lot in common."

With Korea in the global spotlight for the Olympics, the joining of the North and South Korea teams means so much to Chang. Her mother was forced to flee from North to South Korea with her family when she was a child, and her father is from South Korea.

Saehee Chang in the Lake Effect studio.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

"To me that sort of signifies and symbolizes unity and how although we are still divided (geographically)... the Korean people are not divided," says Chang.

So instead of thinking about division and conflict when we think about Korea, she wants people to think about unity, yearning for peace, and “stronger together.”

"I have hope and I wish for that day when we are reunited. Because I think through a people's good will - I think it'll happen," she says. "So when I saw those athletes walking in, oh my gosh, I was tearing up."

In order to keep the Olympic spirit going after the games close, Chang encourages reaching out to a colleague, neighbor, or friend and ask them about their country and heritage.

"Our world is not that huge, so I want people to enjoy the Olympics of course... but think about how does South Korean trade effect U.S. trade if your a business man, right? And think more carefully about cultural nuances, and go beyond that. It's not just only for Korea - it applies to other  countries around the world."