09/24/06 — Student combines love of music with zest for life

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Student combines love of music with zest for life

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 24, 2006 2:05 AM

Music used to be the focus of 18-year-old Joseph Cha's life.

At home in Korea, he devoted up to 15 hours a day to the cello.

And he was good at it, earning many prestigious awards for his talent.

But now, although music is still important to Joseph, he has found balance, too, as a student at Wayne Country Day in Wayne County.

And it is his new life -- full of soccer, learning English, classes and the fun of exploring new career possibilities -- that keeps him focused not only on the music he loves, but the life he can have someday.

By the time he arrived in the United States last year, Joseph had been experiencing headaches and other symptoms from the stress of being hunched down around the cello to practice.

"We took him to a chiropractor. They were appalled," said Todd Anderson, headmaster at Wayne Country Day, where Cha is now a junior.

"He's got such concentration, but the body isn't meant to sit still that long."

Cha's health improved after being treated for nearly a semester. And now he plays more for enjoyment, his and other people's. In fact, when he does practice, it's to help with his concentration. Playing, he says, helps reduce stress.

Joseph started playing cello at 7 years old because the music inspired him. Realizing the career opportunities for a cello player might be limited, he has narrowed his vocational choices to business or dentistry.

His journey to Wayne Country Day School was paved by his brother, now a student at Wake Forest University who completed his education in Asheville, where Anderson was then headmaster at a private school.

"My parents liked that. They trusted him," Cha says of the principal who also serves as landlord and friend.

Cha and two other Korean students live in Anderson's home, two juniors and a sophomore. Even though they share the same culture, they are encouraged to speak English to develop their language skills.

"I studied English in Korea, but I didn't work hard because I played cello all the time," Cha said.

The language barrier has been a challenge, he admits. But he said he learns by choosing to mostly listen when his peers talk to one another.

When asked what he would like to impart to American youths, Cha said it would be "respect for older people. That's really important in our country."

There are other differences between his homeland and his new home, Cha said.

"In Korea, for school, students just sit there listening from teacher. Here, there's more participation," he said. "I think I like this more."

Academics are stressed more in the Asian culture, Anderson said. And, unlike this country where students engage in extracurricular activities like sports and music, Cha's pursuit of music was uncommon.

"It depends on the parents," Cha said, crediting his own with supporting his talent. He says he misses his family, which also includes younger twin sisters still at home. He gets to reunite with them twice year, during the summer and sometimes during the winter break.

He says he is like any other teenager, except a little shy. Anderson takes it a step further, saying the youth is very humble.

"He really downplays his talents and abilities," the headmaster said. "He's done very well. He's won many awards, like the Young Tchaikovsky competition. Pretty much in the world of music, that's by invitation only. It's held infrequently, only when the Soviet Academy decides to hold it, so it's a gigantic honor to be asked."

In fact, Cha's talent was so lauded that, Anderson said, "He had a difficult time deciding what to do, pursue music, because he was at an international level where he could pursue that, or he could pursue a normal life."

Joseph opted for a more balanced life. Today he mostly plays cello on the weekends. During the week, he enjoys playing sports -- currently he is on the soccer team, but says he also hopes to play baseball -- as well as playing games and watching TV.

He also took an art class at the school last year. While he says he likes "drawing just for fun," he proved to be good enough at it to receive an award for a paper mosaic he entered in a school competition last spring.

The opportunity to receive an education in the United States is one Joseph says he is enjoying. Anderson said it is reciprocal, as the students benefit from the exchange of cultures and it adds another dimension to their education.

"It's not just what America is to the international kids. The international kids bring so much to our kids," he said. "They're going to be lifelong friends. They're going to understand other cultures."

It is not, however, something that can be taken for granted. Since 9/11, he said, things have changed across the board, with education among the areas affected.

"It makes me nervous for the future of international education," he said. He said he has already run into obstacles as the result of the changing tide.

"We almost couldn't get a student visa (for Cha) and thanks to Sen. (John) Kerr, Rep. (Bob) Etheridge and Sen. (Richard) Burr, they helped us with that," he said.

For Anderson, the father of a son who is a third-year law student, he said that taking in students from other countries means he gets to be forever young.

"I always have kids that I'm raising," he said, adding that it's also "an awesome responsibility -- the sacrifices that the parents make.

"I get to a part of their family and that's something that's absolutely marvelous. It's like I have got kids all over the world."