When Hanul Huh's classmates at Viroqua High School are tossing their caps into the air at graduation later this spring, he plans to be in South Korea learning Korean and teaching English.
Huh has planned to graduate a semester early from VHS, for some time, but the possibility of spending a year in South Korea came up in the autumn of 2012.
Hanul's mother, Loma Huh, has coordinated a successful program for visiting South Korean students in Viroqua during each of the past two school years. Hanul's cousin, Sumi Lee, who brought the students here, is an English teacher in Daegu, South Korea, and is helping line up tutoring opportunities for Hanul while he stays in Daegu for the rest of this year into 2014.
The only thing simple about Hanul's planned trip to South Korea is the fact that he wants to learn Korean. After that, Hanul's trip is more complicated.
Hanul has dual United States and South Korean citizenship. His father is a native of South Korea and lives in that country. Because Hanul has South Korean citizenship, he is expected to serve a two-year enlistment in the South Korean Army. Military service is mandatory for males with citizenship in South Korea.
Both Hanul and his mother contacted the South Korean Consulate in Chicago, and eventually the South Korean Military Manpower Administration (MMA) in Seoul, to understand what impact his dual citizenship might have on his trip.
"What we've found out is that, no matter what, I will have to serve my two-year enlistment someday," Hanul said. "That would be a problem right now, because I'm not bilingual. Far from it. That would present me with a lot of problems during basic training."
Hanul plans to leave Viroqua on May 2 to travel to the Twin Cities, where he will take a three-week Oxford Seminars TESOL training for certification in teaching English as a second language. On May 20, he will fly out of Minneapolis, arriving in South Korea on May 21. He's going to have to sleep on the plane, because he's scheduled to begin Korean language classes at Keimyung University in Daegu on the morning of May 22.
When Hanul steps on the plane he will be a United States citizen; when he lands in Seoul, he will be a South Korean citizen. In other words, should he have any difficulties in South Korea, he will get no help from the U.S. Embassy. Not that he plans on having any trouble. He has family members in South Korea who speak both Korean and English.
Despite the logistical and language difficulties and the recent saber rattling between North Korea and South Korea, Hanul said nothing has deterred him from his plans.
"It was kind of intimidating, but I feel like it is going to be a good experience in the long run," he said.
As for the possibility of getting drafted into the military, he's likely to get summoned for a physical exam after he stays three consecutive months in South Korea. However, the MMA official said he can probably postpone the exam and his service requirement until he's 22.
"I think they'll know the language barrier is such a problem that I won't be drafted," he said.
His weekdays in South Korea will consist of four hours of Korean classes each morning at Keimyung University, followed by three English tutoring sessions in the afternoon. Hanul knows what to expect as a tutor, because in 2010 he visited South Korea and tutored some of Sumi's students in English.
After spending a year in South Korea — if it doesn't turn into three years due to a military enlistment — Hanul would like to return to the United States to attend university. Right now he doesn't quite know what he'd like to study.
"Hopefully my year abroad will give me perspective with what I want to do," he said.
About graduating early from high school, Hanul said he's "thrilled." Is he disappointed that he'll miss the graduation ceremony?
"Actually, graduating early saved me $40 on a cap and gown," he said.