Back in the game: Korea, Part II

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Hello 2014. Hello Ochang. Hello second semester of teaching at Gakri Middle School.

The past 2 months have flown by. Since finishing my semester right before Christmas, I celebrated New Year’s with a wonderful group of Fulbright friends and taught a remarkably fun English winter camp at my school. While the attendance fluctuated from a maximum of eight and a minimum of three, it was a great way to connect with some students on a more personal level before starting the winter break proper.

Whereas other Fulbright ETA programs run between 8 and 10 months straight through, Fulbright Korea is one of the few to offer the opportunity of a break in between teaching. Officially, I was relieved from teaching duties, save one week of winter camp, from Dec. 24 to today, March 3. So, what did I do with all that time?

The idea of the break is to use it as a time to recharge, think about your reasons for undertaking the Fulbright, and travel. I took advantage of my placement in Asia to explore the region further. Our contract specifies that ETAs are allowed up to 28 days outside of Korea during the Winter Break and I’m happy to say that I used every one of them. From January 11 to February 7, I traveled to Thailand, India, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was the most incredible trip of my life, getting to experience so many different cultures, sites, and, of course, cuisines. The trip is going to give me material to write and think about for many years to come.

Some highlights:

-Eating Bun Bo Nam Bo, a kind of rice vermicelli and beef noodle bowl, at an awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam.

-Hot Air Ballooning over Vang Vieng, Laos.

-Learning to cook Tom Kha Gai (chicken coconut soup) as part of a daylong cooking class in Chiang Mai

-Following the path of Gandhi’s final steps in Delhi.

-Discovering Khao Tom, the most amazing lemongrass/poached egg rice porridge, in Koh Samui, Thailand.

-Walking the Killing Fields and S-21 secret prison in Cambodia.

-Rope-swinging into the clear blue water of Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang, Laos with fellow Fulbrighters.

-Sailing on a junk boat through Halong Bay, Vietnam

TL;DR I could really go for some Vietnamese Pho Bo right now with a glass of fresh bia hoi, a kind of fresh beer brewed daily in Hanoi. Think global, drink local, my friends.

After traveling, I moved into a studio apartment in Hongdae. Hongdae is where a lot of students hangout in Seoul, and it also happens to be my favorite neighborhood in the city. Endless cafes, fun restaurants, and quite the nightlife make it an amazing place to live and relax in. The time went by faster than I could imagine. After moving out of the apartment, my parents came to Korea (my father’s second time, my mother’s first) to see what my Fulbright is all about. It was refreshing to see my parents after 7 ½ months, and somewhat reassuring that I have come so far since Orientation. I can comfortably communicate and get around both Seoul and Korea as whole—that alone is a huge confidence booster. I couldn’t be happier sharing this country, my home away from home, with my family. For my final week, I made a quick trip down to Jeonju to stay with my friend Jemarley’s host family and check out a different part of Korea. Jeonju is also the hometown of bibimbap, one of the best Korean dishes around.

I know that 2 months is perhaps the longest official vacation I may ever have in my life. However, with that comes the responsibility to my students and host community.

Today was my first day back at Gakri Middle School. Armed with a scarf from Cambodia as a gift to my co-teacher and a pound cake from a Korean bakery for the other teachers in my office, I headed up. Upon arriving, I found that two of the teachers from my office had changed schools. In Korea, teachers must change schools every 5 years to maintain educational equality across the system (somewhat logical, I must admit). I wasn’t very close with these teachers, but it was still a surprise to have them somewhat disappear without much adieu. I didn’t have any classes today, but this semester I will be teaching the school’s second and third graders, which means that I will have some of the same students from last semester. A bigger change came during the morning teacher’s meeting: I have a new principal.

The principal at a Korean school is generally more of a figurehead than anything else; the vice principal is in charge of day-to-day operations. However, this new principal is interesting because he himself used to be an English teacher. As I was leaving, he was in the lobby so I gave him a greeting in Korean. He ended up stopping me and we chatted in English for a few minutes about his visits to Washington and California. Considering that my last principal spoke no English, this is a positive change.

According to my co-teacher, I won’t have my first day of classes with my students until next week, so now is time to prepare, make connections, and get ready for the final 4 ½ months of my Fulbright grant. It’s time to get back in the game.

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About Jonathan Rice

Fulbright Fellow, Pitzer College alum, and communicator passionate about telling stories that make an impact.

Posted on 03/03/2014, in Fulbright South Korea 2013-14 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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