Once upon a time, in 2010, to be exact, my school brought in international students from all around the world. That year, I was a curious and energetic fifth-grader who was just coming into her "social butterfly" tendencies. As such, when two young girls from Seoul, South Korea, joined our class one day, I was filled with excitement at the prospect of making new friends (my school was tiny, and there were only 18 people in my class at that time).
Over the year, I had the joy of becoming really great friends with one of the girls - such good friends, in fact, that my family signed up to be her host family the following year. After returning to Korea at the end of her short exchange, we continued our friendship through letters, packages, email, and KakaoTalk. I learned more about the Korean education system and its incredible differences to that of the United States, and she would poke my brain about the ways that my friends and I would spend time together. Although my friend was unfortunately unable to return to the U.S. the following school year, we continued our long-distance friendship in this way.
When I entered high school, however, my friend and I lost contact with one another due to technical glitches with my phone. After realizing that I no longer had any way to contact her, I wondered how she was and if there were any way for us to get in touch again. After roughly 6 years had passed; however, I figured that my friend and I would likely never talk with one another again.
Fast forward to the fall semester of my senior year. I am now 22 years old and living in Seoul, South Korea, for five months. While thoughts of my long-distance friend have come and, almost as quickly, been brushed off throughout the years, they suddenly rest a little more heavily on my shoulders. I can not help but wonder what had happened to this 11-year-old girl I had met nearly a decade ago. During a casual scroll through my contacts, while sitting in a restaurant one evening, my eyes flicker from name to name, and I pause, a little shocked and slightly confused - the name of my friend was listed in little black letters right there on the screen. After looking at the two numbers attached to her contact, I quickly clicked on her name and decided that these numbers must no longer be in service under her name after 10 years.
Weeks went by and, although I wanted to figure out if the numbers still belonged to my friend, was a little too embarrassed by the almost certain reality that, after a few rings, an older Korean man or woman would answer with "여보세요?" and I would have to stumble through an awkward, American-accented "아 ~ 죄송합니다!"
One evening, however, I decided to get over my nervousness and simply add the number on KakaoTalk and just see what would happen. You would not believe just how excited I was when, after a few moments, the number linked up to its account and, sitting there on the screen in little black Hangeul letters, was my friend's name.
I immediately texted her and was pleasantly surprised when she responded a few moments later, just as excited as I was that we had gotten in touch again! We quickly made plans to meet up in the following weeks and, once we did, I think we both realized how special it was that we were able to find each other ten years later, around the world, and at entirely different points in life.
While reflecting on our first meeting, I realized how important it is to take that time to look back at our lives - especially from when we were young. My friend sparked my first interest in the world outside of my home, my state, and even my country. When she did not come back the following year, my family decided to continue with our plan to host students - and ended up doing so for 9 years. Growing up with students from all around the world shaped me more than I could have ever imagined. I learned how to hold intercultural conversations, work towards peace despite differences, and how to share a bathroom with a girl who was my age. As a result of my experiences growing up, I discovered how much I love meeting, talking, and working with new people from other backgrounds. Consequently, I went to college knowing that whatever career path I find myself on, it must require me to be in community with others different from myself.
So, all that to say, thank you, my fifth-grade friend, for opening the door to the international community to me.