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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.

Korean-American Reverse Culture Shock: A Listicle

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?

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!

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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