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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.

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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.

 

 

One Month!

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A little language exchange with my host brother and sister

Today marks one month into my placement and my home stay.

It’s a good feeling to have that time under my belt. Everything is definitely getting more normal, even as the challenges shift and, in some cases, grow. Each day of teaching leads to new revelations and difficulties. My students are wonderful, from the lowest-level classes to the highest. For middle school students, many have acted quite older than their age in adjusting to my foreign teaching style and sometimes goofy energy. I’m finding that even when a student is interrupting or not paying attention, just joking right back at them neutralizes the situation. My host family has graciously made me one of their own, to the point that I feel more like another family member than a guest.

Beyond teaching, the highlight of this week was that I ventured out to meet the local foreigners group. Since I’ve arrived in Ochang, I’ve spent pretty most of my free time with my students, Korean teachers, and home stay family. Meeting fellow foreigners was a great way to destress and take a little break from cultural adjustment. I couldn’t help but notice that my conversational English has changed since I arrived in Korea–I’m enunciating words more, not using contractions, and my vocabulary is a little simplistic.

As a group, most of the fellow foreigners in Ochang are Canadian and British. Also, most of them are teachers not at public schools, but at hagwons. Hagwons, also known as academies or “cram schools,” are privately run educational institutions where students go for additional instruction after school. Many students will be at hagwon until 9:30 or 10:00 pm studying. Most of the other foreigners work on a night schedule–wake up at noon, work from 1:00-9:30, then go out or relax until early in the morning. When I walked in the bar, many of the other teachers said they had already heard of me–it turns out that many of  my 700 or so students attend hagwon. And..the students already have a nickname for me.

“Oh yeah, we hear about all of the new teachers. There’s this one that wears a suit to school sometimes..,” said one teacher from the UK.

“That’s me,” I replied.

“Ahhhh, I thought so!,” he said. “The students call you the business teacher.” 

Not sure how that whole “dressing up to gain respect” thing actually worked out.

Today, my co-teachers took me out to lunch to celebrate and welcome me to the school and Ochang. My Korean is still terrible, even if I can get by, and I still haven’t mastered any form of public transit, but the learning experiences are very real.

Next week is Korean Thanksgiving. I have to assume that things will only get even more interesting as I go!

___

P.S. Also, the Fulbright application season is upon us! If you think that you might want to undertake a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Korea, check out the information here;  http://www.us.fulbrightonline.org/countries/selectedcountry/66

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