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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.

 

 

A few of my favorite eats

I love eating and I’m a firm believer that one of the best ways to experience a new locale is to eat your way through it. Somewhat miraculously, even with seemingly endless varieties of food to try, I’m about 15 lbs lighter than when I first came to Korea. I digress, but to me it’s somewhat further proof that the American food system relies on crazy additives/chemicals/added sugars and salts.

Anyways, my students, host family, family, and friends always ask me what the best (or strangest) foods are that I’ve had here. It’d be impossible to pick just one. Inspired by the awesome food posts by fellow Korea ETA Gabi on her blog, here are just a few of the amazing things I’ve eaten over the past year in Korea and Asia overall. I’ve tried to keep it more limited to things that you probably would have a harder time finding in the West, but I did also have some amazing Western/fusion food as well.

I’m notoriously bad at bringing out my camera at the right moments, but here’s a sample of what I did capture.

One Year Later: My First Anniversary as an Expat

The sign on my dorm room door at Orientation one year ago!

The sign on my dorm room door at Orientation one year ago!

On July 6, 2013, I arrived at Incheon International Airport in Seoul with 80 other Fulbright English Teaching Assistants to begin our grant year. Today marks one-year of my being abroad and on the Fulbright grant.

For me, this is an important milestone. When I was a first-year in college, I made up my mind that I wanted to spend a significant portion of time outside of the United States. While significant means many different things to different people, for me I figured that after having only spent about 2 weeks at a time out of the country before, it should be longer than that. My junior year, I had the opportunity to study abroad in China for a little less than four months and, while challenging, that experience convinced me that I needed more. From that point onward, I decided that I wanted to spend at least a full year without returning to the United States. It seemed like both a personal challenge and a necessary experience as someone who hopes to make an international impact throughout their life.

Inevitably, reaching this milestone makes me reflect back on the person I was and the person I am. It’s cliché to say that this year has changed me; I think that anyone anywhere would say his/her/their first year out of college was a year of change. What I can say is that I feel, more than anything else, grateful. I’m grateful that Fulbright gave me the opportunity to live abroad, to entrust me with the minds of 100s of students, and to connect me with some of the best friends and colleagues I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I’m thankful for my introduction to tteokbokki, the Seoul subway system, and a culture of saving face. Even towards the end of the year, I’m still having new experiences, from going to my first teacher’s dinner last week to getting juice with a faculty member I hadn’t previously known. This year abroad is less about whether or not I’ve changed and more about what kind of change I’ve experienced.

In my blog post on departure day last year, I posed some apprehensive questions:

1. As someone who considers himself a bit foreign-language challenged, just how am I going to learn Korean?

Honestly, I can say that after barely passing the language class during Orientation, I am pleased with my language progress. While studying Korean wasn’t a key aspect of my grant year, I feel comfortable interacting in service situations (transportation, restaurants) and I can use enough Korean combined with pantomime to get through conversations. I’m definitely still a beginner, but that I can now read Korean language and operate comfortably is a real change from when I first arrived.

2. How am I going to manage to come up with lesson plans for my students every week and teach them multiple times?

Somewhat luckily, I was placed into a school with a textbook, so for many weeks my lesson plans were more about finding ways to ingrain the proscribed content into their heads rather than come up with what to teach. That content structure also made it easy to think of things to teach when I did have the rare textbook-free week, covering everything from American high school life to nutrition.

Teaching the same lesson over and over again remains one of the most difficult parts of teaching. Keeping yourself excited about a lesson, especially when it’s the 20th time doing it, can be hard. Looking to the kids for inspiration always helps; their sense of humor kept me going!

3. What’s it going to be like being so far from friends and family for this long?

This past year has simultaneously felt very fast and slow at the same time. There were moments where being away from my parents, friends, and girlfriend made me feel like I would never see them again. At other times, I was so busy that it felt as if I hadn’t been away for long at all. I also feel like I didn’t always do the best job keeping up with friends and their lives. I know that I have a lot of work to do when I get back to the States. Thanks to Skype, KakaoTalk, LINE, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and endless other technological advances, I didn’t feel quite as disconnected as I thought I might have. It’s strange being gone for a year, but it also reinforces my belief that today we never have to say “goodbye,” but rather just “see you when I see you!” The 21st century is a great time to be living abroad.

Today, as I write this post, 76 new ETAs are at Jungwon University in Goesan for Orientation fighting jet lag and preparing to begin their adventure in Korea. As they begin, I have 10 days left in my grant and only 4 at my school. This Friday, I’ll have the opportunity to meet and present to the new grantees on teaching with a Korean English textbook. I can’t wait to see them after being in their seats (shout out to whatever new ETA gets #61!)

On the Fourth of July, I hung out with some of my friends at the Fulbright Building in Seoul. Being there, I can say it was one of the best ways I can think of to celebrate America’s birthday and my first anniversary living outside of the USA.

Happy 1st Anniversary Korea. Happy Birthday America. You’re both pretty great.

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All of the 2013-14 ETAs at Fulbright Final Dinner in Seoul last weekend. This was the last time we were all together before the end of the grant year.

A brief political digression

One of the less fulfilling parts about being abroad is that I’ve had few opportunities to engage in American politics. I absolutely love being in Korea, but as a political studies major, born Washingtonian, and all-around politics junkie, sometimes I feel pretty withdrawn from my passion here. While I’ve done my best to engage in the international politics side of things and follow American policymaking from Korea*, it’s much harder to gauge the political sentiment towards candidates and policies when your many miles and timezones away.

Honestly, when I think about my impending return to the USA, I’m a little apprehensive about the culture shock and the whole process of figuring out what’s next. Sure, I’m excited to see my family and friends, but America, as exceptional as it can be, just seems a little bit less exciting than living as an expat. However, since Rep. Eric Cantor’s loss the other night, my view is changing.

When I saw the notification on my twitter account, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; such was the reaction of every pundit. To quote the DNC fundraising email I received shortly after the loss:

“Eric. Freaking. Cantor.”

For those outside of politics, I equate Cantor’s loss to CalTech’s basketball team, a team that lost every game for 21-years straight, making it to the Final Four. As has been reported on extensively, Cantor raised over five million dollars for the campaign while his opponent Dave Brat, a Economics professor from tiny Randolph-Macon College, spent $200,000. Folks, the House Majority Leader just got primaried in a big way. Even Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight didn’t call this one.

So, in some ways, now feels like the perfect time to be preparing to head back to the States. Although Cantor’s loss means an all but indefinite hold on comprehensive immigration reform and is perhaps a sign that the Tea Party is rising again, it’s a reminder that there’s a lot of policy on the line this election season. No time to wait in the wings.

*I still haven’t fully accepted the routine of receiving the POLITICO Playbook at night.
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