For the three oldest Harper brothers, finding time to spend together is rare. Tony ’02 is a data engineering manager at Facebook living in Foster City, Calif., Paul ’07 is a reconnaissance system trainer for Raytheon in Honolulu, Hawaii, after recently leaving a six-year career in the U.S. Air Force – most recently as an imagery intelligence analyst stationed at Osan Air Base near Seoul, South Korea – and Stephen ’13 is an English teacher at a private academy in Seoul. This past spring as Paul was considering leaving the military, Tony decided it was a good time to travel to Asia and see the sites with his brothers as his guides. They spent a week traveling, sightseeing, and enjoying time with each other, and all three treasure the experience.
“It’s sometimes difficult to get together, and we never know when our next chance will be, so I’m happy we had the opportunity,” Stephen said.
Stephen and Paul also enjoyed sharing their love of Seoul with their brother. They took Tony to the main tourist sites, from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea and the Korean War Museum to the Lotte World Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, and Olympic Park, home to the 1988 Summer Olympics.
Tony said he enjoyed the sights, meeting Stephen’s friends, taking photos around the city, and eating at many different restaurants.
“One of my favorite experiences was walking into an off-the-beaten path restaurant and the owner asking Paul and me if we were twins,” Tony said. “He was so amused to have three American brothers in his store and was amazed that Stephen spoke Korean so well!”
Stephen and Paul said they love Seoul because despite its size and population of 11 million people, the city is safe, the people are polite, and transportation is affordable and efficient, allowing them to easily travel from one area of the city to another. They also enjoy the metropolitan feel, which offers a varieties of cultures, food, and people.
“One of the best parts of living in Seoul is the food,” Paul said. “You can get anything ranging from Outback Steakhouse all the way to grilled squid the length of your arm from a street vendor, all of which is very delicious, although the more exotic dishes can be a little shocking for the uninitiated.”
Stephen said he likes meeting people from many cultures.
“Aside from all the Korean friends that I’ve made here, I’ve also had the chance to meet and work with people from all over Europe, and through some of my Korean classes, I’ve been able to meet people from Vietnam, Myanmar, Russia, China, Mongolia, and even North Korea,” Stephen said. “Seoul is a hub for a lot of East Asian business and immigration, and the pop culture pulls a lot of exchange students and tourists who I get to meet sometimes.”
For the past two years, he has taught English as a foreign language (EFL), working in an English academy that the students attend for three to four hours a day after their regular school day, a job he really enjoys, he said. The South Korean school system is more intense than the traditional American system, and the students attend such academies several days a week, whether the English academy to improve their conversational skills or ones that offer math, computer coding, Chinese, and science.
“My job isn’t so much to teach them as it is to try and get them to talk, help them with their pronunciation and word usage, and most importantly get them to feel comfortable speaking English,” Stephen said. “A lot of them are very shy.”
He does share some of the same struggles that American teachers have in trying to interest his middle-school aged students in learning a foreign language.
“For the most part though, they’re very sweet and excited to be talking to someone from a different country, and they’re amazingly smart and talented,” Stephen said. “It’s truly amazing that I can have a near fluent conversation in English with a 12-year-old Korean student. They work very hard, and it definitely shows. They’re some of the smartest kids I’ve ever met.”
Stephen himself is a student of language, having been taking classes on how to speak Korean, giving him an insight into his students’ experience with him – and bringing amusement to his students when he practices on them.
“It’s fun to see myself going through the same mistakes and difficulties as my students go through while learning English, even though their English is way better than my Korean,” Stephen said. “Sometimes I’ll try to speak Korean to them, and they either laugh at me because of my accent or are totally amazed to hear a foreigner speaking their language. They’re also amazed that American students don’t have to go to after school academies every day and they’re very jealous.”
Stephen and Paul will miss living an hour away and being able to visit once a month, but Paul is glad to be back living in the United States if just for the option of being able to drive a car.
“Military personnel for the most part are not allowed to drive cars in Korea,” Paul said. “I missed the ability to jump in my car and go anywhere I want instead of having to wait for a train and stand amongst hundreds of people to get where I need to go.”
For Paul, moving to Hawaii and leaving the military brings mixed feelings. As an officer, he had a sense of security knowing that his health insurance, housing, and ability to support himself were covered. He won’t have to miss the sense of community, though. Before his most recent stint in South Korea, he was stationed in Hawaii and worked at Hickam Air Force Base at Pearl Harbor, where he will now work as a civilian.
“Many of my old friends and co-workers will be once again working with me,” Paul said. “The biggest difference will be that I will be wearing a Hawaiian shirt on Friday’s instead of my military uniform.”
The people of Hawaii also have a sense of community that Paul felt a part of while he lived there previously. The awe of the beauty of the island may wear off over time, but the real reason to love living there does not, he said.
“What truly made me fall in love with Hawaii is the ‘Ohana’ culture,” Paul said. “Once you are welcomed into a community here, you are family. Life in Hawaii can be challenging, but people reach out to support each other with everything they have, even if they themselves don’t have very much to offer. This is a true definition of community, and it has captured my heart.”
Tony is back in California with his wife, Anastasia. He moved to California last year, having been recruited by Facebook via LinkedIn. He previously served as data engineer for Humana in Louisville for 11 years, including modernizing its analytics systems. During that time, he had built up a network in Silicon Valley while learning a lot about software engineering and data warehousing practices, he said.
He likes the Facebook corporate culture, which encourages innovation, and is inspired by the opportunity to “work to solve problems that affect billions of people,” he said. The mild, sunny weather is great too, and he appreciates the abundance of opportunities in the STEM fields, but living in the San Francisco area where so many people have transferred in from somewhere he hasn’t quite found what Paul has in Hawaii.
“I still miss home a lot,” Tony said, noting that he’s able to visit about two or three times a year. “There’s something to be said for the close-knit community that I grew up in.”
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