Goodbye Gakri Middle School

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Today was my last day of teaching as a Fulbright ETA and at Gakri Middle School. I feel so grateful for this experience–trying to process the end of this chapter and the beginning of the next. Thank you, Ochang. Thank you Korea. Most of all, thank you students. You’re kind, enthusiastic, and unforgettable.

Fulbright Korea Infusion 2014: Authenticity and Social Media

From the moment I arrived in Korea, the nation’s social media and Internet culture has fascinated me. As someone who was already quite interested in the changing dynamics of media consumption in the United States, experiencing Korea’s variation on this trend has been thought-provoking, especially when considering my own role as an expat, teacher, and Fulbrighter.

Wanting to stay involved with media creation during my time abroad, I applied for and was subsequently accepted to a staff editor position for Infusion, the official publication of the Korean-American Educational Commission and Fulbright Korea. Infusion treats the selection process for pieces in a very sensitive manner, carefully performing a blind review for all pieces so as to eliminate some personal bias and select what is considered to be the best fit for the volume. This round, I was excited to hear that along with a humorous piece that I had the pleasure of editing, Gabrielle Nygaard’s “Spit,” my piece on the role of social media for ETAs in Korea was selected for publication in the final edition. The final magazine is a beautiful publication with stunning photographs and compelling stories, if I do say so myself. It truly captures a slice of what living and working in Korea is like. For a good read, I particularly recommend my friend Cameron Demetre’s piece on going to the bathhouse with his students, “Bare-ly Cultured.”

As I count down my final days of my grant year, I hope you’ll take a moment to check out the spring 2014 volume of Infusion. 

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Click to Read Volume 7!

A few of my favorite eats

I love eating and I’m a firm believer that one of the best ways to experience a new locale is to eat your way through it. Somewhat miraculously, even with seemingly endless varieties of food to try, I’m about 15 lbs lighter than when I first came to Korea. I digress, but to me it’s somewhat further proof that the American food system relies on crazy additives/chemicals/added sugars and salts.

Anyways, my students, host family, family, and friends always ask me what the best (or strangest) foods are that I’ve had here. It’d be impossible to pick just one. Inspired by the awesome food posts by fellow Korea ETA Gabi on her blog, here are just a few of the amazing things I’ve eaten over the past year in Korea and Asia overall. I’ve tried to keep it more limited to things that you probably would have a harder time finding in the West, but I did also have some amazing Western/fusion food as well.

I’m notoriously bad at bringing out my camera at the right moments, but here’s a sample of what I did capture.

One Year Later: My First Anniversary as an Expat

The sign on my dorm room door at Orientation one year ago!

The sign on my dorm room door at Orientation one year ago!

On July 6, 2013, I arrived at Incheon International Airport in Seoul with 80 other Fulbright English Teaching Assistants to begin our grant year. Today marks one-year of my being abroad and on the Fulbright grant.

For me, this is an important milestone. When I was a first-year in college, I made up my mind that I wanted to spend a significant portion of time outside of the United States. While significant means many different things to different people, for me I figured that after having only spent about 2 weeks at a time out of the country before, it should be longer than that. My junior year, I had the opportunity to study abroad in China for a little less than four months and, while challenging, that experience convinced me that I needed more. From that point onward, I decided that I wanted to spend at least a full year without returning to the United States. It seemed like both a personal challenge and a necessary experience as someone who hopes to make an international impact throughout their life.

Inevitably, reaching this milestone makes me reflect back on the person I was and the person I am. It’s cliché to say that this year has changed me; I think that anyone anywhere would say his/her/their first year out of college was a year of change. What I can say is that I feel, more than anything else, grateful. I’m grateful that Fulbright gave me the opportunity to live abroad, to entrust me with the minds of 100s of students, and to connect me with some of the best friends and colleagues I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I’m thankful for my introduction to tteokbokki, the Seoul subway system, and a culture of saving face. Even towards the end of the year, I’m still having new experiences, from going to my first teacher’s dinner last week to getting juice with a faculty member I hadn’t previously known. This year abroad is less about whether or not I’ve changed and more about what kind of change I’ve experienced.

In my blog post on departure day last year, I posed some apprehensive questions:

1. As someone who considers himself a bit foreign-language challenged, just how am I going to learn Korean?

Honestly, I can say that after barely passing the language class during Orientation, I am pleased with my language progress. While studying Korean wasn’t a key aspect of my grant year, I feel comfortable interacting in service situations (transportation, restaurants) and I can use enough Korean combined with pantomime to get through conversations. I’m definitely still a beginner, but that I can now read Korean language and operate comfortably is a real change from when I first arrived.

2. How am I going to manage to come up with lesson plans for my students every week and teach them multiple times?

Somewhat luckily, I was placed into a school with a textbook, so for many weeks my lesson plans were more about finding ways to ingrain the proscribed content into their heads rather than come up with what to teach. That content structure also made it easy to think of things to teach when I did have the rare textbook-free week, covering everything from American high school life to nutrition.

Teaching the same lesson over and over again remains one of the most difficult parts of teaching. Keeping yourself excited about a lesson, especially when it’s the 20th time doing it, can be hard. Looking to the kids for inspiration always helps; their sense of humor kept me going!

3. What’s it going to be like being so far from friends and family for this long?

This past year has simultaneously felt very fast and slow at the same time. There were moments where being away from my parents, friends, and girlfriend made me feel like I would never see them again. At other times, I was so busy that it felt as if I hadn’t been away for long at all. I also feel like I didn’t always do the best job keeping up with friends and their lives. I know that I have a lot of work to do when I get back to the States. Thanks to Skype, KakaoTalk, LINE, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and endless other technological advances, I didn’t feel quite as disconnected as I thought I might have. It’s strange being gone for a year, but it also reinforces my belief that today we never have to say “goodbye,” but rather just “see you when I see you!” The 21st century is a great time to be living abroad.

Today, as I write this post, 76 new ETAs are at Jungwon University in Goesan for Orientation fighting jet lag and preparing to begin their adventure in Korea. As they begin, I have 10 days left in my grant and only 4 at my school. This Friday, I’ll have the opportunity to meet and present to the new grantees on teaching with a Korean English textbook. I can’t wait to see them after being in their seats (shout out to whatever new ETA gets #61!)

On the Fourth of July, I hung out with some of my friends at the Fulbright Building in Seoul. Being there, I can say it was one of the best ways I can think of to celebrate America’s birthday and my first anniversary living outside of the USA.

Happy 1st Anniversary Korea. Happy Birthday America. You’re both pretty great.

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All of the 2013-14 ETAs at Fulbright Final Dinner in Seoul last weekend. This was the last time we were all together before the end of the grant year.

A brief political digression

One of the less fulfilling parts about being abroad is that I’ve had few opportunities to engage in American politics. I absolutely love being in Korea, but as a political studies major, born Washingtonian, and all-around politics junkie, sometimes I feel pretty withdrawn from my passion here. While I’ve done my best to engage in the international politics side of things and follow American policymaking from Korea*, it’s much harder to gauge the political sentiment towards candidates and policies when your many miles and timezones away.

Honestly, when I think about my impending return to the USA, I’m a little apprehensive about the culture shock and the whole process of figuring out what’s next. Sure, I’m excited to see my family and friends, but America, as exceptional as it can be, just seems a little bit less exciting than living as an expat. However, since Rep. Eric Cantor’s loss the other night, my view is changing.

When I saw the notification on my twitter account, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; such was the reaction of every pundit. To quote the DNC fundraising email I received shortly after the loss:

“Eric. Freaking. Cantor.”

For those outside of politics, I equate Cantor’s loss to CalTech’s basketball team, a team that lost every game for 21-years straight, making it to the Final Four. As has been reported on extensively, Cantor raised over five million dollars for the campaign while his opponent Dave Brat, a Economics professor from tiny Randolph-Macon College, spent $200,000. Folks, the House Majority Leader just got primaried in a big way. Even Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight didn’t call this one.

So, in some ways, now feels like the perfect time to be preparing to head back to the States. Although Cantor’s loss means an all but indefinite hold on comprehensive immigration reform and is perhaps a sign that the Tea Party is rising again, it’s a reminder that there’s a lot of policy on the line this election season. No time to wait in the wings.

*I still haven’t fully accepted the routine of receiving the POLITICO Playbook at night.
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