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Everyday Math for Everyday People: Stephen Johnson of Hyesun House

Everyday Math for Everyday People: Stephen Johnson of Hyesun House

Tell me about yourself, your business, and what you do.

I am a reunited Korean adoptee, husband, friend, and entrepreneur currently living in Austin, Texas. During the day, I work full-time in people operations for a large technology company. In my spare time, I focus on a number of other things: running a small e-commerce business, supporting an independent presidential campaign, volunteering with KAAN, and slowly remodeling a 50-year-old house. 

Stephen speaking at the KAAN conference in 2018. 

Why do you like what you do?

My mission in life is to bring people together from different backgrounds. I also find joy in helping people, learning new things, and exploring what it means to be a Korean-born person living in America. Life is incredibly short, and I’m trying to find the balance between doing what’s right (justice), staying healthy (self-care), and focusing on what’s most important to me (relationships).

What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone visiting Korea for the first time?

I guess it depends on the person, but I’ll focus on the advice I’d give to another Korean adoptee from the US. Think really hard about what type of experience you’re looking for, focusing on what’s most important to you while also leaving room for the unexpected. For me, Korea will forever be a place of hope and heartache, a source of great pride and profound loss. The Land of the Morning Calm will always give me warmth and nightmares. Here are a few practical things to remember: Connect with as many other adoptees as you can. I learned a great amount from others who had similar experiences. Exchange some money ahead of time. Learn how to read hangul. It’s very logical, and you can learn it over a weekend. It will help tremendously if you can read signs and menus in Korean. Stay at Koroot. Eat everything you can. Don’t worry about a phone plan. Wifi is relatively easy to find, and you can download parts of the country in Google Maps to use offline. Bring a journal and be prepared to feel things deep inside you that you didn’t know existed.

Stephen with his Korean family, taken the first time they met in 2014. 

What is your favorite memory of mathematics? It could be a story about your favorite teacher or activity you remember doing growing up.

Unfortunately, I don’t have fond memories of mathematics. Growing up, it was my favorite subject because I was good at it. I love the consistency of numbers. Once I got to junior high and high school, I still enjoyed math, but I hated the stereotypical racial teasing that comes with being Asian in America. For those reasons, I often shied away from math and computers and anything that reminded me I was different from my mostly white peers. Sometimes I think about actually taking a math class at my local community college to reclaim that part of my story.

How do you use mathematics in your everyday life and as part of your business? It could be calculating business costs, distances, or time to get from one place or another, from angles to something else.

I use basic math often now while trying to get my finances in order, both in my personal life and in running my business. I use accounting software to run basic reports, but I also like to build spreadsheets to keep track of things and forecast where I need to allocate my resources (time + money). Right now, my wife and I are trying to decide whether or not it makes sense to refinance our mortgage while interest rates are low. We’re calculating various scenarios and factoring in things like our total closing costs, current interest rates, and the anticipated time we’ll own the home.

Where can people find out more about you and your business?

I built and launched a makgeolli homebrew kit earlier this year. You might be wondering, What is makgeolli

Makgeolli (pronounced like broccoli, with an m) is a raw, minimally filtered rice-based alcohol. It is bright, effervescent, and deeply connected to Korean culture—from kingdoms to Kpop. While makgeolli is the oldest alcoholic beverage in Korea, it is largely unknown and unavailable in Western markets. Our homebrew kit includes everything you need to make a 1.5-liter batch. I named the company after my birth sister (Hyesun) who passed away by suicide a few years ago. A portion of our profit goes to organizations dedicated to suicide prevention and mental health issues in the global Korean community.

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