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2015 and beyond? A bit of permanence

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Not a bad spot for a quick photo

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.

The “Wow, I’ve Changed ” Post

Well, I’m back in the USA. After 13 months abroad and time spent in South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia, India, and Cambodia, I’m right back at home where I started and working full-time in DC on a midterm election-related job (talk about getting right back into the game). And the past year feels like something out of the movie “Inception.”

We don’t often talk about it, especially in developed countries, but there’s still something quite remarkable about modern air travel. While the long-range jet has opened destinations globally that were previously near inaccessible, it has also somewhat made small our world. Thanks to a stroke of good luck, my American Airlines flight to Washington, DC by way of a layover in Dallas, Texas transformed into a direct 13 1/2 hour flight from Incheon to Washington Dulles International Airport. And it was incredibly anticlimactic. After finishing the grant year and spending August gallivanting around Southeast Asia with my old college suitemate Mac, I stepped onto a plane and, before I knew it, was back on American soil. Whereas traveling by train and bus in Asia provided a sense of the vast unknown, my trip halfway around the world amounted to little more experientially than sitting in a long, crowded, and big room that shook around once in a while. Clearing immigration and customs, while taking forever (because it totally makes sense to have only one agent checking all 300+ passengers customs forms, CBP), was easy. Almost too quickly, I was being picked up by my parents—home. And my first thought upon setting my bags down in the living room was this:

Did the past year even happen?

After reading many Fulbright blogs, it seems as if a lot of them end with the big “change” post at the end. It’s also a pretty fair thing to do—a year abroad, living in a host community and working in a school will inevitably change you. That change has been particularly noticeable after almost two weeks home, but also already feels distant.

I don’t know how to sum up the grant year. I feel as if I can’t, frankly—how does one take inventory of the new experiences and knowledge gained (and lost) throughout a year abroad? I hadn’t given the change much thought until I finished teaching.

My official last day at Gakri Middle School didn’t feel all that different for the most part. While the teachers gave me a really nice goodbye lunch the previous day and some of my favorite teachers (thank you P.E. department!) stopped by to say their goodbyes and wish me luck, school went on as normal. My kids, however, were cuter than ever. One of my favorite students gave me a delicious package of ramen and we took more group selfies than I could count. I had long conversations with my teachers who spoke English and shared smiles with those who did not. When the end of the day came, I went to my homestay, said my final goodbye to my host mom, and started my two-hour journey back to Jungwon University, the site of my own Orientation, to impart my experience with the new class of ETAs.

Over my final weeks in Korea, I visited the new group of ETAs three separate times to give presentations on things that might help them during their own grant years. It was that bookend of returning to the place my adventure began that truly demonstrated my personal growth. One year ago, I knew no Korean. I had never ridden a public long-distance bus. And I certainly had never been to a public bathhouse, let alone enjoyed or craved the experience. Yet, a year later, returning to the countryside town of Goesan, I felt a sense of confidence. While my Korean was nowhere near fluent, I could comfortable interact with the taxi driver and local townspeople. On arrival, I instantly craved a dish of naengmyeon, Korean cold buckwheat noodles, to cut the heat and satisfy my hunger—a food I hadn’t even heard of a year ago. And, instead of being the apprehensive new ETA, I felt confident speaking to a new group of 50 about my experience teaching and their own impending grant years.

So, yes, I’ve changed. How that will play out in my new professional and personal life in the United States, I really don’t know. I can’t even begin to claim that I truly “know” Korea. Even with a full year under my belt, I can’t even say that I’m anywhere near an experienced classroom teacher, although I’m loads further along than I was when I began. I can’t even begin to count the number of cultural faux pas’ I continue to make.

The hardest part of these kinds of wrap-up blog posts is just that: the wrap-up. It’s hard to make it satisfying. However, I don’t really want to close my experience. While my grant year is formally over, my contract has lapsed, and my fellow Fulbrighters have dissipated across the globe, the experience, in many ways, has just begun. While the mission of the Fulbright Program is lofty, to be sure, the creation of “mutual understanding” does not come full circle without engagement upon return. I’ve had my experience as a Fulbrighter in South Korea, but now the responsibility of being a returned Fulbrighter kicks in. While I tried to both directly and indirectly teach my Korean students, host family, and community about America, to bring things full circle, I must do the same for people here at home. I can’t claim to know Korea, but if I can share anything that makes people think about the world a bit more critically (or even at all), I’ve started to do my job well.

I miss my Fulbright friends, expat community, and Korean students dearly. Going through the trove of Facebook photographs and students’ goodbye book instantly gets me feeling sentimental. All I can say is thank you, to everyone. Thank you to friends, family, and colleagues at home for supporting me in going abroad. Thank you to the people I met abroad for becoming some of the best friends and social support group ever. Thank you, South Korea, for showing me the best and worst of times. And thank you, “dear reader” (I’ve always wanted to say that, in homage to my favorite writer and public intellectual, Christopher Hitchens), for joining me on the first part of this adventure—there’s always more to come.

Hanging out with 2013-14 Korea Fulbrighters Allison, Kristine, Taylor, and Dan on a Metro-North Platform in Bronxville, NY a week after returning home

Hanging out with 2013-14 Korea Fulbright ETAs Allison, Kristine, Taylor, and Dan on a Metro-North Platform in Bronxville, NY a week after returning home. Hello America.

 

 

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!

#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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