Korea comes to Chico
For 20 years, the ‘Chico Family’ has been the community’s most successful cultural-exchange program
When Barry Bonds slammed his record-breaking 756th home run into the bleachers on Aug. 7, nobody was more excited than a dozen Korean school teachers who were in San Francisco’s AT&T Park at the time. Cell-phone photos snapped at the moment show them jumping and waving their arms just as exuberantly as everyone else in the stands.
And why not? Korea may be famous as the home of taekwondo, but baseball is the most popular spectator sport there, and the teachers were thrilled to be witnessing sports history in the making.
It was sheer coincidence, of course. Their trip had been scheduled weeks before. But such serendipity was in keeping with the nature of their visit to California—and, more specifically, to Chico.
For 20 years now, groups of primary- and secondary-school English teachers from Chungbuk Province in the Republic of Korea—or, as we know it, South Korea—have been coming to Chico State University each summer for the month-long Korean English Summer Institute. Altogether, nearly 1,000 teachers in the province have been to Chico. Talk to an English teacher in Chungbuk Province, and chances are good that he or she has spent a month in Chico.
“Basically, the province has entrusted its English education to Chico,” said Dr. Charles Zartman, a professor in the university’s Center for Bilingual and Multicultural Studies and the program’s director. And not just to the university, he stressed: The community plays an equally important role.
The program, Zartman explained, “presents the best of the university in terms of methodology—and the best of Chico in terms of warm-heartedness.”
This good-vibe summer experience began in 1988, when Chungbuk Department of Education officials contacted Jesus Cortez, director of the Center for Bilingual and Multicultural Studies at Chico State. They had created a teacher-training program at another American university, but the teachers were unhappy with it. They had heard positive things about Chico’s program and were interested in setting up an arrangement.
Zartman was involved from the beginning, serving for the first nine years as the program’s curriculum director. In those days, the Korean teachers lived in the campus dorms. Classes were held in the mornings, so they had plenty of time to explore the town, and organizers arranged numerous field trips—to San Francisco, Lassen Park, the redwoods and so forty—so make their stay more enjoyable and educational.
The teachers were happy with the program from the beginning and quickly renamed it the “Chico Family.” But many of them said they’d rather stay with local families than in the dorms. Finally, in 1998, Zartman’s wife, Tencia (short for Hortencia), offered to give him an unusual anniversary present: She said she’d organize host families for the teachers. She’s been doing it ever since.
Since then, nearly 80 Chico families have hosted Korean teachers in their homes, some many times over, and it’s safe to say that the community’s collective knowledge and understanding of South Korea has increased greatly—along with the number of transoceanic friendships.
“In those 11 years, we’ve never had a single issue come up with the host families,” Zartman said. “That part of the program has taken it to a completely different level.”
Others have gotten to know the Koreans well, too, especially their teachers and tutors. Most of the teachers are area high-school English teachers, and the tutors are primarily college students who work one-on-one with the Korean teachers.
The training methodology focuses on listening and speaking, Zartman said. The students have extensive book learning of English when they arrive, so what they need most is to use English in conversation and learn the nuances of the language.
Following four hours of classroom work in the morning, they are sent out in small groups each afternoon to visit various sites—Bidwell Park, Oroville Dam, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.—and mingle with the locals. On weekends they travel to such places as the Mendocino coast, the State Capitol in Sacramento, and San Francisco.
Almost once a week, they attend a dinner party. This summer, Gary and Judy Sitton, owners of Sungard Bi-Tech software company, hosted a gathering at their home in Butte Creek Canyon. For the 13th year in a row, Bob and Babs Donoho and the Kiwanis Club put on a barbecue at the Donohos’ south Chico home, and the Zartmans hosted a bash in their back yard. Host families were invited to attend, and each time the Korean teachers provided entertainment, in the form of traditional Korean music.
This year was especially memorable for Zartman and the rest of his crew, as well as several longtime hosts. That’s because, in celebration of the program’s 20th anniversary, Chungbuk Province invited them to come to Korea for a week in early July.
They were given “the royal treatment,” Zartman said, cared for “as leading government officials would be treated.”
Chungbuk officials are extremely happy with the Chico program, he said, and several times suggested that it could go on indefinitely, and that they would see each other again “on the 30th anniversary, and the 40th, the 50th, even the 100th.”
The 46 teachers in this year’s program went home to Korea last week, but not before holding a touching graduation ceremony Wednesday (Aug. 15) in the Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall on campus.
The event began with a slide show, set to music, that had been put together by some of the Korean teachers. Shots of them in the classroom were interspersed among travel photos taken on the various forays. As mentioned, the teachers got around Chico a lot and also saw much of Northern California, including the historic Giants game. But a few—no doubt figuring they’d come this far so why not go farther?—went all the way to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Niagara Falls.
But the most poignant part of the ceremony was when participants took turns stepping to the front of the room to talk about their experiences. Koreans are culturally shy by nature, but several of them talked about how much they enjoyed being in Chico, getting to know their host families and being inspired by their teachers.
Host families talked of Korean teachers who had become like family to them and of sitting up half the night talking about their countries and international relations.
As one man put it, “the porch light will always be on” for his teachers. Tears were shed, and hugging—an American custom many of the Koreans seem to have adopted—as rampant.
Speaking of international relations, Doug and Hyun Jin Charmley take the cake—the wedding cake. They met in 2001, when she came to Chico to learn English; now they are married and she works for the program as an instructional assistant. They stood up to talk about their cross-cultural bonding and the gratitude they felt to the program that had brought them together—until Hyun Jin broke down in happy tears and had to sit down.
That’s why they call it the