Columbia, Mo., isn't much like Daegu, Korea. Daegu is an ancient city, with settlements dating from 1,500 BC, but the post-Korean War boom made it a major industrial hub and that country's third largest metro area. Lately, it's an Asian fashion mecca.
With five million people, crowded highways and skyscrapers blotting out the sun.
Chae Lan Lee, a diminutive, 22-year-old junior from Daegu who attended Kongju National University (KNU), with whom Columbia College has a reciprocal agreement, appreciates the change.
"I can see nature [in Columbia], she says. "In Daegu, it's all buildings and cars and people everywhere. I am more comfortable here. I can rest, relax."
Lee's English is superb and modulated by a ready laugh, a constant smile and a firm timbre. Lee, a soprano studying under Columbia College music maestro Nollie Moore, is also a member of the college's Jane Froman Singers. She is the 2010-11 recipient of the Jane Froman Smith Memorial Scholarship, presented annually to one outstanding music student.
When she came here, Moore pushed and prodded her, but she appreciates it now. "When I first came here, I didn't really like my voice," she admits. "Nollie isn't just a great teacher, he's a great singer, and he shares what he knows. Music education in Korea was not what I wanted."
Moore persuaded her to compete with hundreds of students at the state-level National Association of Teachers of Singing vocal competition, held on the campus of Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Mo. Lee performed an arduous program consisting of a lieder, a German art song and Moore specialty, in German; an aria from Madame Butterfly in Italian; and "Do Not Go My Love," a translation of a lieder, in English.
Lee placed fourth among junior women and received an honorable mention.
"All the girls in my group were very, very good," she says. "Nollie said I was in the wrong group. 'You were robbed!' he said. It's okay. I will kill them next year."
Lee's bravura will be on full display Nov. 11 on the Columbia College main campus in Columbia, Mo., as she performs the Mozart aria "Come Scoglio" from Cosi fan Tutte. She will perform at the annual Jane Froman birthday concert. Froman, a 1926 alumna who called Columbia home, was a TV, Hollywood and recording star.
Lee relishes the challenges, academic and personal freedom of Columbia College. At KNU, she was a music major with a minor in tourism, a somewhat odd combination but no odder than what can be found walking around on U.S. campuses every day. She says her fellow music students and professors didn't understand her and even sometimes ostracized her.
"The group life in Korea is so important," she says. "You have to behave just so with professors, and I'm outgoing. I like to talk to all kinds of people, not just music majors."
Lee now lives in a Columbia College residence hall and has a non-music major roommate from Springfield, Mo. The two have become close friends and call to each other with "Hey Ugly!" (which both are quite far from). She's seen Springfield and liked it. She's also been to New York, where she didn't go to the Metropolitan Opera ("Too expensive!"), but did take in The Lion King, Mamma Mia and the perennial piano man Billy Joel.
When Lee graduates, she says she may enroll in a master's program in music therapy from a university back East or the University of Kansas. Music teaching or therapist positions are coveted but available in Korea but quite scarce in the U.S., she says. "The other Singers are very supportive but very jealous of me!" she says.
And her excellent English? "From watching movies and TV," she admits. "While You Were Sleeping, Home Alone, Pirates of the Caribbean, I must have watched those movies 20 times, I love Johnny Depp!, The Nanny..."
She still gets homesick, but that's assuaged by attending the Columbia Korean Baptist Church just off I-70 west of Columbia. "My pastor, other members invite me home to talk and eat. We have a nice little Korean community here."