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.
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