Utah had very little Korean presence when Sun Choi moved to Utah in 2004 to attend BYU. But little by little, Sun hopes to change that.
Step one was opening up Utah's first all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ, Yummy's Korean BBQ, in Orem. Then came a second location in West Valley. Three years ago, Sun also began offering Korean classes out of the restaurants and he's currently organizing his first group trip to South Korea later this year.
"When I first came in 2004, there was nothing like that here. So that's kind of my goal is to bring that here," Sun said. "Especially with the craze with like Korean culture, K-pop and movies and all that stuff — it's just been fun sharing our culture."
Sun, whose parents are from Korea, grew up speaking Korean at home. He went on to minor in Korean at BYU and serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South Korea. He got the idea to start offering Korean classes in Utah after realizing that there weren't places in the state for beginners to learn the language.
"More than just teaching, it's also helping our students experience that culture," Sun said.
His passion for sharing the culture is apparent during the classes, where he throws in tips about slang, currency exchange, food and more. In between learning about grammar, one student says the recipe Sun shared with her for seawood soup, known as miyeok guk, turned out great.
"It's just fun being able to share with them my background, even though I'm Korean American and I was born and raised here," Sun said. "It's just me being able to know the language, the culture and being able to share that with everybody else. I think it's the best thing."
Sun has worked with dozens of students, including a handful of Korean adoptees. Sun said the program is a chance for them to regain the culture and language with the ultimate goal of returning to Korea and finding their biological parents. He currently has about 50 students between Orem and West Valley. The Korean classes are $150 per month, and tuition includes weekly lessons and a Korean lunch with Sun, a monthly one-on-one tutoring session with a teacher in Korea and access to recordings of all the classes.
For Katie Lens, a Draper middle schooler who is half Korean, the program has been an opportunity to experience her culture in a new way.
"My mom is Korean and I just wanted to learn it so I could talk to her and the rest of my family as well," Lens said. "Plus I love the culture."
Lens's mother, Carol Lens, said it's been exciting to watch her daughter learn the language.
"To see her pick up interest in the language and a have such an incredible resource here with Sun and just his passion to share the Korean culture and language — it's amazing," she said. "If you really just want to throw yourself in and be committed to learning the Korean language, this is incredible. I just feel so lucky that we found Sun and to know that he does this makes me so happy."
Kim Spencer-Thomas, another one of Sun's students, said her interest in Korean language and culture snowballed after she fell in love with K-pop. She began classes in July in preparation for a trip to South Korea later this year.
"I've put a lot of work into it. It's not the easiest language. I've taken French, Spanish and sign language and Korean is by far a very difficult language," she said. "But I do feel like it's quite fun. Taking Korean is one of the funnest things I've ever done."
Jodee Steffensen, 70, has been taking classes since August after trying to learn Korean on her own with online courses for a few months. She's planning her second trip to South Korea later this year and hopes to use the country as a base to visit other countries in the region as well.
"Asia in general is something that, as I was growing up, really wasn't in the spotlight. So it's like this whole new world that's new, different, beautiful and exciting," she said. "I would say don't think of age as a barrier if you want to go out and try something new. It's amazing how much enriched my life is because I found something new to experience."
More information about the Korean classes is available at connect2korea.subkit.com.