Catching up: Jeju, awesome students, and limited time

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For those celebrating, Happy Easter!

I don’t consider myself very religious, but at home my family celebrates Easter with church and a big brunch that is always a great time. My “celebration” this year is far from typical—after waking up very early to a Korean breakfast of rice, side dishes, and tofu stew, my host family headed to a wedding out-of-town. Instead of brunch, I found myself trudging out of the apartment earlier today in search of some tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes). My cravings satisfied, I’m now writing and lesson planning in Ochang’s Starbucks. While I feel like I’m cheating on Korea choosing Starbucks over one of the four or five Korean coffee shops immediately adjacent, this is the only one that offers actual brewed coffee in lieu of the Americano.

Last post I was getting ready to head off to Jeju Island for the Spring Fulbright Conference. It was an absolute whirlwind of a weekend, marked by lots of presentations, successful workshops, and catching up with friends. Unfortunately, the logistics of the conference were as such that we didn’t get much time to see the actual Jeju landscape. Besides a tour on Sunday, we were in the conference room almost the entire weekend. To add insult to injury, the room had giant windows in the back that view the beach, but the curtains were drawn for all of our sessions. Nevertheless, the island was beautiful.

The conference itself was quite different from the Fall conference—there was far less of a focus on teaching tips and many sessions focused on end-of-grant logistics: how to keep our schools happy, when our final gala dinner would be, and what to plan for the departure process. A few highlights from conference:

-A video put together by the Fulbright office staff of former grantees saying what they missed most about Korea.

-Jaunting around Jeju with our program coordinator, the Office’s executive assistant, and about 45 other grantees.

-Leading a group discussion on Fulbright and non-teaching career paths with two fellow grantees to large groups of ETAs.

-Cramming a bunch of ETAs in pajamas into one hotel room for a late-night pizza party.

Overall, it was a weekend of positive people doing positive things. However, Jeju conference was also a significant reminder that my time here is limited.

On July 4, 2013, I started my Fulbright journey to South Korea, flying from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Seoul, and finally a bus from Incheon airport to Jungwon University in Goesan. On July 16, 2014, my grant year officially ends.

87 days. That’s how long I have to make a direct impact on my host family, Gakri Middle School, and overall community. I’m not sure if it’s something about springtime, or that I’m a more seasoned teacher (or both!), but the last few weeks my students have been particularly wonderful. Last Monday, I came down with a nasty cold; my voice was pretty much gone and I couldn’t sleep. During one of my 3rd grade (freshmen year of high school in America) boys’ classes, one student in the back row silently held up a makeshift sign:

“BE HAPPY JON ☺”

Moments like that, while irrelevant to my kids improving their English, are what make this experience. I know that even though I feel ready for the next opportunity ahead, it’s not going to be easy to leave this community and the relationships that are gaining strength daily.

In preparation, I’ve been thinking more about my personal goals for school life—what kind of legacy do I want to leave with my students? Leaving something tangible isn’t so much an option, so that legacy must be what stays in the minds of my students. Of course, I want some of that to be an improved command of the English language. On the cultural side, I also want some of that to be positive impressions of Americans and foreigners. Something that one of my co-teachers said the other day has stuck with me, though—he said that I am an “actor” teacher. He said that when my students interact with me in class, they usually laugh and look entertained.

There are some who think that there is no need to make education entertaining—I remember an instance of Noam Chomsky defending his unenthusiastic style of public speaking. However, for me, the teachers that I remember best were the ones that had enthusiasm and made learning an entertaining venture. While I may not remember all of the content that they taught, it was those teachers (thank you, Mr. Alleyne from WES, among others), who cultivated my love for learning and curiosity. The Korean education system is notorious for both its success and its brutality—I want to leave my students with the view that education, and specifically learning English, is entertaining and, ultimately, fun. I like to use a lot of physical comedy, big gestures, and facial expressions. Some of my students may never gain a deep interest in English, but at least they can associate their middle school conversation class as a positive experience.

So, 87 days. A few of my Fulbright friends react pretty negatively when I bring up this countdown. In the end, though, it’s not a demonstration of our limited time—it’s a time for uninhibited possibilities.

Happy Easter!

(On a not so happy note, I’d ask everyone to keep the students and families affected by the ferry sinking tragedy in Korea this past week in your thoughts. As a teacher in Korea, I can’t imagine if that were my students. I am not exaggerating when I say that the entire country is in mourning. Korea needs hope and support right now from all of us around the world.)

#SaveFulbright on HuffPost | Jeju Conference Time!

The movement to #SaveFulbright from the proposed $30 million budget cut is spreading across the world!

We’ve been sharing the story of Fulbright everywhere and the media is starting to take notice. In the past few days, there have been pieces published in Slate, the New Republic, Inside Higher Ed, and the Washington Post. Today, the Huffington Post published my piece on the cuts.

You can read it here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-rice/savefulbright-america-can_b_5072546.html

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be heading off to Jeju island for Fulbright Korea’s spring conference. Beyond being a chance to reconnect with my fellow ETAs and a break from my new students, it’s also a time to find real inspiration. ETAs are involved in cultural diplomacy of all kinds, from producing a Black History Month event in Daegu to tutoring North Korean defectors across the country–it’s amazing what many have begun during their relatively short time here. I’m also excited to co-present on job skills and live post-Fulbright with two other ETAs. There’s a lot to translate and draw out from this experience, even (or especially) if you one doesn’t plan to go into a teaching career.

Conference is a reminder of the remarkably talented and driven community we have in the Fulbright Korea family. That, and heading to an island is always nice!

The Blessing of Korea’s Busses

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Ready for Seoul!

I have spent the majority of my life with the worst traffic in America.

Growing up in the Washington, DC area, I remember turning on NBC4 news each morning and hearing about the slow commute on the beltway and in the city itself. Today, I do everything I can to avoid driving in the city, especially during rush hour. Unfortunately, Washington does not make that easy with the notoriously unreliable-but-good-looking-to-tourists Metro system that charges insane rates for extremely poor and slow service.

Naturally, after wanting a change from DC, I moved to a place with even worse traffic: Los Angeles. I still don’t understand how the 10-something lane highways always manage to be packed no matter time of day or night. Public transit in Los Angeles is in its infantile stages, with an ineffective subway system, an expensive and somewhat intimidating commuter rail (Yes, Mr. Police Officer, here’s my ticket, now please don’t shoot me!), and an unclear bus system.

The world once envied the United States for its cross-country rail, effective inter-state highways, and reputable air transit industry. Today, it’s all pretty much the worst. While I love Amtrak, Congress’ fear to subsidize it fully leads to ridiculously high prices compared to the rest of the world. The cheap busses between NYC and DC are one of the better options; however, numerous sketchy operators with questionable safety records sully their appeal. The highway system is still impressive, but the planners didn’t design for the number of cars they must now carry. Air transit quality is dropping rapidly–I was a frequent flier throughout college and have come to expect misery when flying.

That brings me to South Korea. As my time here whittles away, I find myself often reflecting on what it is going to be like to go back to America and how the reverse-culture shock will affect me. Sure, I’ll miss the no-tipping policy, incredible cuisine, and my effervescent students. But, one thing that will leave a void, and I’m almost remiss to say this, is the Korean intercity and express bus system.

Am I really going to wax poetic about a bus? Yup.

Public transportation in Korea is great. City busses can be a bit jarring, but they are frequent and fast.  The Seoul subway system is a modern marvel in terms of getting around safely, quickly, and on the cheap. However, the best parts of Korea’s public transit system are the intercity and express busses.

In Korea, there is no stigma towards taking a bus; everybody rides them. There aren’t horror stories like there are about Greyhound in the USA. Busses here are cheap, frequent, and easy to use. My town is about 1-½ hours from Seoul and there are busses on the hour everyday. Not only that, but the busses are inexpensive, about $7.50 one-way to Seoul. You get all of the service too, as the busses leave on the dot, seats are assigned so there’s no scramble, and there’s plenty of luggage room.

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English makes it easy

Even for foreigners, using the bus is easy. You show up at the local bus terminal, go to the window, ask for a bus to X location at Y time, and pay. The end. No figuring out specific bus companies, as long as you can mumble the name of your destination and date, you’re in the clear. Not only that, but the tickets themselves have English to tell you the platform, time, and seat number. If Korea became a more popular tourist destination in Asia, travelers would consider it one of the easiest countries to get around.

Comparing Korea and the USA in terms of an intercity bus system is a little bit unfair–Korea is a much smaller country. The longest bus in Korea would probably be about 7 hours, while in the U.S. busses could take days to travel cross-country. Still, there’s a lot we can learn from Korea to make busses a more attractive option to Americans, which could ultimately have a positive effect on the environment and overall congestion on our roads. In Korea, there are designated bus lanes, so that even during the busiest traffic busses stay on schedule. The rest stops are palaces to motorists. Most cities have both express and inter-city bus terminals, the former serving all of the major routes non-stop, the latter hitting all of the smaller towns.

Pundits often suggest, as I have, that America should step up in creating a world-class rail system; perhaps encouraging public transportation through busses would be a good place to start. For now, I’m going to continue to enjoy exploring Korea with inexpensive fares and in relative comfort!

Winter Fulbright Korea Infusion Published!

Volume 7, Issue 1

Volume 7, Issue 1

While the Fulbright Korea ETA Orientation back in July was certainly hectic and stressful, one of the opportunities that the Orientation team offered new ETAs was the chance to work on the Fulbright Korea Infusion. Infusion, the Korean-American Educational Commission’s (Fulbright Commission in Korea) official publication, is a collaborative magazine of literature, analysis, and art from current and past Fulbright grantees. It’s something unique to Korea’s Fulbright program, as a staff of dedicated ETAs works to cull through and produce a quality publication highlighting the experiences of grantees. It’s also been one of my primary extracurricular activities this year, as I have been privileged to serve as a staff editor for the magazine.

While the magazine is definitely not representative of everyone in Fulbright, it does paint a picture in words and images of what life is like for some grantees during their time here. From inspired poems to beautiful photographs, Infusion documents just a little bit about life through the lens of a grantee here. As a staff editor, I was extremely pleased that one of the pieces that I helped edit (“The Korea Question”) made the Management’s final cut and into the magazine.

While others and I blog frequently about our time on Fulbright, I definitely recommend checking out the Infusion for a curated selection of experiences and reflections, as they are well worth your time. Not to mention, there’s an awesome city guide for those of you that might visit or already be in Korea.

The Infusion publishes in print two times each year. You can check out the latest issue of the Infusion here: http://infusion.fulbright.or.kr. Also, be sure to like the Facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/FulbrightKoreaInfusion. Infusion posts exclusive web-content, photos from current ETAs, and selections from across the Internet throughout the week on the page.

Enjoy reading!

P.S. Have you signed the #SaveFulbright petition yet? Remember, $30 million in funding for the Fulbright Program is on the line. Please, sign now: www.SaveFulbright.org and tell your friends using the #SaveFulbright hashtag. Congressional deliberations start April 4th!

 

#SaveFulbright: America, don’t cut Fulbright!

UPDATE: There is now a movement and petition to #SaveFulbright. Visit SaveFulbright.org now to do your part! Thank you!

For some of the Korean students I teach, I am the first American they have ever met in person, let alone interacted with on a regular basis. From  convincing my students that some Americans indeed do like spicy food to larger discussions about diversity and equality, I’ve been able to engage in ways that offer a critical and complex view of the world around us. I’ve learned a lot about Korea and Korean culture and have been able to share my knowledge with friends, family, and acquaintances back in the USA thanks to Fulbright.

The Fulbright Program is one of the best opportunities that America has to improve its relationship with the rest of the world. Instead of being bogged down in high-level diplomatic talks and lofty statements by politicians, Fulbrighters work to make a direct person-to-person impact. While there are other educational exchange programs that exist, Fulbright’s rich history and success has left an important mark with people around the world.

That’s why I want to talk to you about the recent budget proposal by the Obama administration to cut the Fulbright Program by $30 million.

The Fulbright Program’s current budget is $235 million per year. The proposed cuts represent 13% of the budget for the program. Worse, the administration has provided no plan for how the cuts would be implemented and which countries that they would impact.

We can’t afford to cut the Fulbright Program. No other program has such an established worldwide reputation; it is the gold standard in international educational exchange. It’s not just for Americans; the Fulbright program offers thousands of people from foreign countries the chance to teach and research in the United States each year.

Please, write Congress now and tell them that the impact of Fulbrighters around the world. Tell Congress that a $30 million cut is not acceptable.

Over 300,000 people have been able to learn about other cultures and exchange knowledge around the world because of the Fulbright Program. By allowing these massive cuts, we’re starting a down a slippery slope that leads towards more cuts in the future and ultimately threatens the existence of Fulbright as we know it.

Senator J. William Fulbright said that “educational exchange is not merely one of those nice but marginal activities in which we engage in international affairs, but rather, from the standpoint of future world peace and order, probably the most important and potentially rewarding of our foreign-policy activities.”

Together, we can send a strong message to Congress that the American people support the ideals of Senator Fulbright. In just 5 minutes, you can tell our elected officials that international educational exchange is vital to America’s foreign policy.

I’ve got about four months left in my grant year and I’m savoring every moment. Let’s make sure that the same number of people get this opportunity next year. Please, show your support for the Fulbright Program by tweeting or posting on Facebook using the hashtag #SaveFulbright.

Most sincerely,

Jonathan Rice
Fulbright ETA, South Korea 2013-14

If you want to learn the details about the proposed cuts, check out more information courtesy of the Austrian Fulbright Commission: http://www.fulbright.at/save-fulbright-lobby-2015.html

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