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The heart and Seoul of a chemist: A family man packs up his home to research abroad

Editor’s note: About 50,000 students, staff, faculty members and visitors converge on the University’s Twin Cities campus everyday. In the midst of this sea of people, it’s easy to think of the strangers passing by as just anonymous faces.
Every Monday during spring quarter the Daily will peek inside the lives of some of the strangers you see everyday. Randomly chosen from the University phone book, those profiled could sit in your class, ride your bus or pass you on the sidewalk someday. They share the University with you, and now they won’t be strangers.

Though Taihyun Chang seems like a fixture in his chemistry building group office, he has only been here eight months, and will only stay four more.
Chang, a South Korean native, is at the University on a year-long sabbatical to research polymers.
After a year at the University –his older brother’s alma mater — Chang will return to Pohang University of Science and Technology. There, he is a professor and a researcher of chemistry.
Joining him in Minnesota are his wife, Sinjo, and his youngest son, Wonsoo. Chang’s eldest son, Younsoo, is living with relatives in Korea. At Korea University in Seoul, where Younsoo is a sophomore, he studies business and works at the school’s newspaper.

Wood, fire, soil, metal, water
If Chang’s sons’ names sound similar, it’s due to a Korean tradition dating back for centuries.
Family members born of the same generation share one of the same characters of their first names. Taihyun Chang shares his last character, the phonetic sound “hyun” with about 100 siblings, cousins and second cousins. Wansoo, 13, and Younsoo, 19, share their character, “soo,” with children in their generation of the Chang family.
The characters also have meaning and follow a cyclical order. The order: wood, fire, soil, metal, water, and then back to wood again. “Hyun” means metal, and the sons’ names, in part, mean water.
Chang’s family roots date back about 1,000 years. He can trace back a family member’s generation by using this traditional cycle.
The Chang family is large, with many extended relatives. Unlike many families in both Korea and the United States, Chang is close to most of his relatives. On an average Lunar New Year, an important holiday in Korea, more than 100 relatives gather in a house, though this is not uncommon for Korean families on this holiday.
Chang’s wife, Sinjo, said the women typically stay in the kitchen, cooking and catching up on family affairs while the men sit and drink, including her husband.
Shaking his head, Chang protests that he helped out with chores and did not just drink.
“Oh, you were having a good time. You were drinking with the other men,” Sinjo said smiling and nodding to Wansoo that she’s right.
“No, no, no, you are exaggerating,” Chang laughs with a hint of seriousness.
Wonsoo laughs the whole time, obviously entertained with his parents’ conversation.
“I once got drunk,” Wonsoo said. His parents stopped their conversation listening to Wonsoo talk about the time he drank too much champagne at a family gathering. Wonsoo’s friendly, energetic personality often finds its way into his parents’ discussions.

Traditional family man
Chang entered the ancestral tree the same day the Korean War ended in 1953. He was born into a household with two older siblings: his brother, Jaikhyun; his sister, Paikkyung; a mother, a father and his grandparents. His younger sister, Sokkyung, was born a few years later.
Life in Korea in the 1950s and 1960s had similarities to life in the United States. The roles of men and women were very different, but were beginning to change. Families were important and children respected their parents a little more than today, Chang said.
But many traditional values set the Korean childhood apart from that of their American counterparts.
Traditional custom in Korea obligates the eldest son to move back home with his parents after completing his education. The son usually takes care of his parents and raises his own family.
Chang’s father, the eldest of his siblings, lived with his parents. Chang said there were two extra adults in the home to help with homework and share stories of times gone by.
His grandfather, a Korean linguistics professor during the Japanese occupation of Korea, told stories about getting arrested. In an effort to force the Japanese language and culture on Korean citizens, the Japanese government forbade anybody to teach Korean or write official government documents in Korean. His grandfather, however, taught his skills to those willing to learn, despite the new laws imposed upon them. For this, he was arrested several times.
Chang said he remembers his father being strict and more distant than his mother. But that was the way households worked at that time. Fathers spent their days out of the home, going to work and earning money. Mothers raised children and involved themselves with the day-to-day activities of the youngsters.
“My father always knew what was going on,” Taihyun said. His mother, a non-practicing physician, filled her husband in on the daily details of the household. He said he knew his father always loved his children and cared very deeply for them.
Now his father lives with his eldest brother’s family in Korea and as the grandfather in the household, he is always spoiling the children and having fun with them, Chang said. Quite different from the man Chang remembers.
Chang’s mother died of pancreatic cancer about eight years ago. During the last moments of her life, family members were gathered around her bed. Tired and not totally conscious, she couldn’t recognize people or voices and showed no emotion.
Chang’s youngest son, Wonsoo, was just a little boy then. He leaned in toward his grandmother, held her hand and kissed her. She smiled. She knew it was Wonsoo. Soon after, she was gone.
“She loved Wonsoo so much. I’ll never forget that smile as long as I live,” Taihyun said.

A life in academia
Much like Korean values today, education was the key to an individual’s and a family’s future when Chang grew up. This was especially true in Chang’s family, where his father and grandfather were professors.
In fact, Chang’s whole family is involved with university education in some way. His father was a chemist and taught at a university. His brother, a computer science major, teaches at a private university in Seoul. His older sister is a nutrition professor, his younger sister was a librarian at a university, and his wife taught Korean history at a junior college.
“A king, a father and a teacher; all of them have the same respect,” Chang said.
Chang said he remembers going weeks without seeing his father while studying for his entrance examinations. All Korean students must take these examinations. When Chang went to school, examinations were every three years before junior high school, high school and college. Now they are only before high school and college.
He would get up early in the morning, go to school and not get home until midnight. The tests determine what kind of middle school, high school and college a student is eligible for. Students take the process seriously.
The exams are taken three years apart and Chang’s siblings are all three years apart. This created a situation where every three years, most of the children in the household studied for different tests at the same time.
He said the house got very quiet in preparation for these exams.
Now, with sons of his owns, he watches them go through the same process. His eldest son, Younsoo, has already completed his exams. But Wansoo, the younger son, has one coming up next year.
Since the education system in the United States is different from the one Wansoo would normally attend in Korea, his mom mentioned he might consider repeating seventh grade when he gets home.
“No way,” Wansoo said, thoroughly disgusted.
Sinjo made it clear, however, that he would have to study extra hard when he got back. He will already be behind his Korean classmates in some of the basics, like Korean history and linguistics.
The expectations of kids in the United States are not as high as those in Korea. Wansoo is getting straight A’s in his subjects. He said the seventh-grade level of math and science is easy compared to his school back home.
Chang and his wife joke that Wansoo is getting a little too accustomed to American lifestyle and won’t want to leave when their time living in the University community is over.
A bubbly personality and a sense of humor like his father’s, along with Wansoo’s love of video games and sports, makes him fit right in with the other seventh graders at his American school.

Building a family
After Chang finished high school, he attended Seoul National University where he studied chemistry. It was here he met his wife.
She and some old high school friends planned a day of activities together. They wanted some lasting memories before going their separate ways in life. They decided to pair up boys and girls and go to an old palace in Korea to have some fun and play games.
Since she didn’t have a boyfriend, she asked a friend who knew Chang’s older brother. They had never met before, but were paired up for the day’s festivities.
After a day at the palace, the two were inseparable. They dated for the next seven years before getting married in 1978, when Chang was in the Korean Air Force.
Sinjo said she remembered how she practiced the correct way to use chopsticks when she and Chang started dating. She said she didn’t want to embarrass herself when they went out to eat.
It usually takes the first 10 years of life to perfect the use of chopsticks correctly, but sometimes it can take longer, she said.
Taihyun’s family shared laughs over the different ways they used to hold chopsticks when they were young. Wansoo grabbed his chopsticks and demonstrated how he used to grip them like holding a shovel. Sinjo showed her childhood technique next.
“You used to hold it like that?” Wansoo said, reeling in the joy that his mother’s style was just as laughable as his own.
The family still uses chopsticks in America, and Chang says they are the best eating tools. He listed all the different uses, such as grabbing at small pieces of food, like rice, or breaking up bigger pieces.
In 1979, while Chang was still in the military, Younsoo was born. In 1980, after completing his mandatory service, the family moved to Madison, Wis., so Chang could get his doctorate degree in chemistry.
This was the family’s first visit to the states. Chang said he remembers his father’s academic trips to the states, but he could never accompany him. Now he was following the same path.
While in Madison, Wonsoo was born and the family was complete. At first the two boys, six years apart, didn’t get along so well. Younsoo was jealous of the attention his new brother took away from him and didn’t want much to do with the new baby.
Chang remembers the day when that all changed. When living near Washington, D.C., for Chang’s post-doctorate work, Wansoo was about six months old. Chang’s friend was over with his baby, who was Wonsoo’s age. The two were on the floor with each other playing and Younsoo was off by himself.
Suddenly, Younsoo heard crying. When he went to see what was wrong, he saw the two babies next to each other and only his brother crying. Assuming it must’ve been the other baby’s fault, Younsoo gave a good kick to the other baby.
“I felt so embarrassed, but I was also proud of Younsoo,” Chang said. Younsoo had finally taken the role of big brother, and since then the two are like best friends. They still talk on the phone in an effort to bridge the continents.
After getting his master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin- Madison and a brief stint doing post-doctorate work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology outside of Washington, D.C., the family moved back to Korea.

Preparing to go home
A close-knit family, the Changs enjoy their time together. They like playing badminton on nice days. From the reaction of his wife and son, Taihyun is hard to beat, if not impossible.
His wife laughed when she described that even with the rest of the family on one team against Chang, he would still beat them. He smiled modestly but did not disagree.
Here in Minnesota, the Changs live in a modest apartment near the St. Paul campus. Except for the 10-pound bag of rice in the pantry and the sushi on the counter, their home looks just like any other apartment in the complex.
Back in Korea, beautiful foothills surround Chang’s home where they used to go for walks. Though hiking is not much part of their routine anymore, Chang remembers taking his sons when they were younger.
But fishing is a hobby the family still enjoys. A peninsula, Korea is surrounded by water and is an excellent place to go fishing. And since there are not many freshwater fish, Chang usually catches fish from the sea.
A change of pace, Chang got his first chance to go ice fishing here in the states this winter. While he enjoyed the experience, he said he does not think he will do it when he goes home.
“It does not get cold enough in Pohang to ice fish,” Chang said, although further north waters can freeze over during the winter.
The family also keeps a small garden in a rented plot near their home where they grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and other vegetables. It is common for families in Korea to rent vegetable plots from people who cultivate the land.
Their home in the foothills is university housing for faculty. It is a 20-minute walk to work from where Chang lives in Korea, but here he must take the bus.
Worried about a lack of exercise from bussing, Chang is active at the University’s Recreation Center. On most mornings, he can be seen beating his opponent at racquetball. Sometimes on Sunday mornings, Wansoo joins him, too.
His regular morning opponent, however, is Chang Ryu, who laughs at how many times he is beaten. “He’s been playing tennis for 20 years. He’s a good player.”
Ryu, also from Korea, works with Chang in the chemistry building. Although he is a graduate student in chemical engineering — not Chang’s field — he said he gets a lot of help from his racquet ball opponent off the court.
“I ask a lot of questions of him. He’s got a good perspective and answers questions from many angles,” Ryu said.
He will take time to discuss not only science-related subjects, but takes time to explain cultural differences between his home and host countries, said Terry Morkved, a post doctorate in chemical engineering.
Smiling, Morkved described the little tune Chang’s computer makes whenever he receives an e-mail from one of his students back in Korea.
“His lap-top beeps about every hour from e-mail. He seems to keep in real good communication with his students,” Morkved said.
Chang is described by people in his office as good-natured, intelligent and a hard worker. He is called a “mentor” by both Ryu and Morkved. Morkved also takes advantage of Chang’s advice in not only chemistry, but in life in general. He has met Chang’s family and said he sees his compassion and care.
“I always think of him being in good spirits and he laughs easily. I remember him as laughing,” Morkved said.
Chang seems to enjoy his time at the University and said he will miss it when he leaves. Coming here to further enhance his research of polymers and revisit the Midwest, he has received far more than what he came for.
His son will take back to Korea his mastery of the English language as well as a profound understanding of the American youth culture.
His wife will not only take back the delicious maple sugar bar recipe she got from an American friend, but also her memories of her newfound friends.
And Chang will take back with him a family who seems to have benefited greatly from the choices he made. Although the education system is less structured at his son’s level, Chang said American universities are much the same as those in Korea.
His work here is challenging and rewarding, and the atmosphere is accommodating to his needs, he said. When Chang goes back to Pohang University of Science and Technology he will bring back with him another cultural experience to broaden his horizons and further bridge the gap between two very different, but very similar, peoples.

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