It’s been a while since you and I have seen each other or, at least, truly interacted. Over a year, as it seems. To fall into a clichés or standard reflection, the truth that time moves as you get older faster definitely seems to be true.
So, what’s happened?
- I’ve now been living in San Francisco for a little over a year and a half now. It took a little while for this place to feel like home. While I still feel like I will always be a Washingtonian and Marylander deep down, I love the variety and culture that SF offers. SF has all the best parts of a great city, but also access to California nature. I’m definitely spoiled by the climate here, though perhaps the grass is always greener on the other side–I somewhat miss those hot and muggy DC summers. Still, this 7×7 city offers more than I can even begin to explore. My last post with a focus on permanence is a little comical given…
- I traveled all over the USA. When I got back from Korea in 2014, I reflected on how I was able to see so much of that country and how I would love to be able to do the same in the States. My job made this possible–as an admission officer, for the 2015-16 recruitment cycle I travelled over 25,000 miles by plane and drove over 4,000 miles around the country, all over the East Coast and California. In the end, I spent 50+ nights on the road. Can anyone say rent money going to waste? But, I digress. Visiting so many different communities exposed me to the lives of many Americans and gives me a further appreciation for this nation’s diversity of experience. On a different note, after reading this Rolling Stone article, I’ve also become a little obsessive over hotel points and miles–gotta get those perks.
- I saw the variety of American secondary education on the ground. In the past year, I’ve visited over 100 high schools across the USA for admission. From expensive boarding schools to religious schools to public schools of all sorts, I’ve seen a partial breadth of the types of schools in this country. Beyond the obvious inequalities in our educational system, perhaps the most stunning thing is the lack of standardization. Seeing how every state, county, and town handles high school education is a poignant reminder of how far our educational system has to improve and, most importantly, how the system entrenches social stratification even while promising social mobility.
- I’m starting graduate school! Earlier this spring, I was thrilled to find out that I had been accepted to the University of San Francisco’s MA in Professional Communication program. I’ll be concentrating in Strategic Communications, examining how organizations can strengthen their narrative and compel others to action. I’m particularly looking forward to finding ways to connect with my prospective students interested in social justice education. It’s going to be a very intense two years, as I’ll still be working as an admission counselor at the same time as graduate school. Goodbye Wednesday and Thursday nights, hello knowledge. I’m also pumped about the program because it’s located at the University’s Downtown campus at 101 Howard St, so I’ll actually get to interact with the city-esque part of SF more frequently.
- #adulting. Yeah, I’m still figuring this part out. Navigating the ins and outs of life and the constant little fires that seem to always need to be put out (no, not literally, though yes, my smoke alarm is going off again from cooking in my apartment with no ventilation…). At least there is finally some decoration on the walls of my
- I took my first real vacation. If there’s one thing full-time regular employment has taught me, it’s the importance of reflecting and recharging. So, after a very intense year and a half, I packed my backpack and headed to Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan for two weeks. What I had planned to be a somewhat solitary and reflective solo trip turned into just about the opposite–I met more interesting people from around the world than I eve could have planned (not to mention drank lots of cheap beer and delicious noodles). However, during my trip some pretty troubling world events occurred, from the shooting in Orlando to the Brexit vote. In the aftermath of these events, the travelers I met gave me more hope that in fact our world is becoming better, safer, and more connected. Even in the face of such pain, the reality is that people are good. It’s also a reminder that even when you’re alone 12,000 miles away from home, good people are never far.
So, there’s what’s new. Now, what’s next?
It is a little bit strange for me to realize that the last time I’d written anything for public consumption was in 2014. My time in South Korea now feels ever more like a distant memory or dream, even while so many parts of that year remain vivid and influential on my current experience (the occasional Facebook chats from former Korean students are a helpful and welcome reminder)! As I’ve been told tends to happen while in your 20s, a lot can change in a few months.
As of mid-December, I find myself residing in the Inner Richmond neighborhood of the self-proclaimed #bestcityever of San Francisco. For those that don’t know it, the Richmond district is also home to some of the best Asian fare in the city—endless options for dim sum, bahn mi, pho, and, yes, kimchi. Needless to say, I feel right at home here. Transitioning back to the lifestyle of the west coast and NorCal has been a bit of a challenge. Prior to moving, I was working on an election project on K St. in Washington, DC, and going from a campaign-style level of work-life balance to a position where everyone is out the door at 5 pm on the dot is unsettling. The bottom line is this: I love my work and my new city. My new position, as an undergraduate college admission officer, gives me the opportunity to travel around the country, meet and learn about talented students, champion education, and think creatively about how to differentiate and communicate about our institution within a sea of great colleges and universities.
San Francisco itself is a treat. I had only been to the city twice before moving here. The first time I visited was as a child with my family, and I remember being thrilled to see the standard touristy things like the cable cars going up and down the extremely steep streets of Nob Hill, but didn’t have a sense for a spirit of SF. My second visit was while in college during spring break, a particularly rainy excursion of finding cheap dumplings and exquisite coffee from a then-less well-known Blue Bottle. While I think Washington, DC will always remain my favorite American city and I hope to move back there someday, SF’s unique neighborhoods and inherent progressive spirit make it a wonderful place to live, even if the rent is too damn high. My apartment itself is just a 20-minute walk from Baker Beach and a 30-minute walk to work, so I’m enjoying not having to deal with Metrorail, even if MUNI sometimes has its own challenges.
This past week, my good friend Jordan visited from NYC and I got the chance to really explore the city anew, walking almost every major neighborhood and visiting such sights as the makers of Anchor Steam beer, the Anchor Brewing Co, and La Taqueria, the home of FiveThirtyEight’s Burrito Bracket Challenge “Best Burrito in America.” Having a friend visit is a great excuse to be a tourist in your own city.
Now, I also have a strange sense of permanence. For the first time in many years, I’m not constantly wondering and asking what’s next. There’s not an inevitable graduation or move-out date the way there was with high school, college, or even my Fulbright grant. While I still relish thinking about what’s next to come, it’s also encouraging to settle in a little bit and get to know the people and the place. And, being in admission, I still get to leave pretty often (hello San Diego and OC this weekend, NYC next month!). Instead of “what’s next” being about a new job or position or city, it’s about finding strong community—now that’s a long-term project.
When heading abroad, you are inevitably warned of the coming culture shock. However, I’ve found the reverse culture shock of returning “home” far more difficult than that of when I first arrived in Korea.
Here’s 13 things I’ve noticed, some good, some bad and some whatever, since I’ve been back:
1. Portions are really big. Which would be OK, except that most of the food in America is, compared to Asian food, a) flavorless and b) unhealthy.
2. There is so much diversity. It literally makes me want to cry tears of joy. Walking around Washington, DC and seeing people who speak different languages and look different from another all in one glorious city is a beautiful thing. The diverse cultures and experiences of America are truly one of its most important assets.
3. Craft Beer. ‘Nuff said.
4. I still have the instinctive urge to bow when I meet new people and take off my shoes when I go inside. I make a great houseguest.
5. On the subway, I am shocked when I can actually understand people’s conversations. It’s nice to be blissfully unaware of what people are talking about because you can’t speak their language.
6. Public transportation is expensive and extremely sub-par. I really knew I was back in DC when the Metrorail operator started screaming over the microphone for people to move away from the doors so they would close—perhaps we need a more effective system.
7. On that topic, busses. $40 for a four-hour one-way trip from DC to NYC? Really!?
8. In the office, people make jokes and interact beyond their age/position in the hierarchy. What.
9. Skype calls are so much clearer when compared to Korea. It sounds like the person on the other end is right next to me.
10. Most people don’t really go out late on work nights. What’s a guy to do?
11. Everything is oh-so-expensive. Especially things that shouldn’t be. Value is relative.
12. Apple Products. Everywhere. Speaking of: Apple Watch, anyone?
13. Stall doors in bathrooms leave about six-inches or so between the bottom of the door and the floor. This is compared to Korean stalls and doors, which go all the way down to the floor. Infinitely more private in Korea.
14. American supermarkets are huge and have a ton of variety. While Korean supermarkets (here’s looking at you, HomePlus) are also big, sometimes an entire aisle would be dedicated to one kind of product. Who could ever forget the instant ramen or instant coffee aisles?
This list is pretty Korea-centric. For those of you who’ve left your home country and returned, what were the things you found interesting or strange while experiencing reverse culture shock? Did you experience it at all?
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.