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What’s New?

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Hello, Internet!

It’s been a while since you and I have seen each other or, at least, truly interacted. Over a year, as it seems. To fall into a clichés or standard reflection, the truth that time moves as you get older faster definitely seems to be true.

So, what’s happened?

  • I’ve now been living in San Francisco for a little over a year and a half now. It took a little while for this place to feel like home. While I still feel like I will always be a Washingtonian and Marylander deep down, I love the variety and culture that SF offers. SF has all the best parts of a great city, but also access to California nature. I’m definitely spoiled by the climate here, though perhaps the grass is always greener on the other side–I somewhat miss those hot and muggy DC summers. Still, this 7×7 city offers more than I can even begin to explore. My last post with a focus on permanence is a little comical given…
  • I traveled all over the USA. When I got back from Korea in 2014, I reflected on how I was able to see so much of that country and how I would love to be able to do the same in the States. My job made this possible–as an admission officer, for the 2015-16 recruitment cycle I travelled over 25,000 miles by plane and drove over 4,000 miles around the country, all over the East Coast and California. In the end, I spent 50+ nights on the road. Can anyone say rent money going to waste? But, I digress. Visiting so many different communities exposed me to the lives of many Americans and gives me a further appreciation for this nation’s diversity of experience. On a different note, after reading this Rolling Stone article, I’ve also become a little obsessive over hotel points and miles–gotta get those perks.
  • I saw the variety of American secondary education on the ground. In the past year, I’ve visited over 100 high schools across the USA for admission. From expensive boarding schools to religious schools to public schools of all sorts, I’ve seen a partial breadth of the types of schools in this country. Beyond the obvious inequalities in our educational system, perhaps the most stunning thing is the lack of standardization. Seeing how every state, county, and town handles high school education is a poignant reminder of how far our educational system has to improve and, most importantly, how the system entrenches social stratification even while promising social mobility.
  • I’m starting graduate school! Earlier this spring, I was thrilled to find out that I had been accepted to the University of San Francisco’s MA in Professional Communication program. I’ll be concentrating in Strategic Communications, examining how organizations can strengthen their narrative and compel others to action.  I’m particularly looking forward to finding ways to connect with my prospective students interested in social justice education. It’s going to be a very intense two years, as I’ll still be working as an admission counselor at the same time as graduate school. Goodbye Wednesday and Thursday nights, hello knowledge. I’m also pumped about the program because it’s located at the University’s Downtown campus at 101 Howard St, so I’ll actually get to interact with the city-esque part of SF more frequently.
  • #adulting. Yeah, I’m still figuring this part out. Navigating the ins and outs of life and the constant little fires that seem to always need to be put out (no, not literally, though yes, my smoke alarm is going off again from cooking in my apartment with no ventilation…). At least there is finally some decoration on the walls of my
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    Bun Cha, Hanoi’s most famous dish and dinner of choice for Anthony Bourdain and President Obama. Good enough for me!

    apartment?

  • I took my first real vacation. If there’s one thing full-time regular employment has taught me, it’s the importance of reflecting and recharging. So, after a very intense year and a half, I packed my backpack and headed to Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan for two weeks. What I had planned to be a somewhat solitary and reflective solo trip turned into just about the opposite–I met more interesting people from around the world than I eve could have planned (not to mention drank lots of cheap beer and delicious noodles). However, during my trip some pretty troubling world events occurred, from the shooting in Orlando to the Brexit vote. In the aftermath of these events, the travelers I met gave me more hope that in fact our world is becoming better, safer, and more connected. Even in the face of such pain, the reality is that people are good. It’s also a reminder that even when you’re alone 12,000 miles away from home, good people are never far.

So, there’s what’s new. Now, what’s next?

 

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.

 

 

Goodbye Gakri Middle School

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Today was my last day of teaching as a Fulbright ETA and at Gakri Middle School. I feel so grateful for this experience–trying to process the end of this chapter and the beginning of the next. Thank you, Ochang. Thank you Korea. Most of all, thank you students. You’re kind, enthusiastic, and unforgettable.

Catching up: Jeju, awesome students, and limited time

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For those celebrating, Happy Easter!

I don’t consider myself very religious, but at home my family celebrates Easter with church and a big brunch that is always a great time. My “celebration” this year is far from typical—after waking up very early to a Korean breakfast of rice, side dishes, and tofu stew, my host family headed to a wedding out-of-town. Instead of brunch, I found myself trudging out of the apartment earlier today in search of some tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes). My cravings satisfied, I’m now writing and lesson planning in Ochang’s Starbucks. While I feel like I’m cheating on Korea choosing Starbucks over one of the four or five Korean coffee shops immediately adjacent, this is the only one that offers actual brewed coffee in lieu of the Americano.

Last post I was getting ready to head off to Jeju Island for the Spring Fulbright Conference. It was an absolute whirlwind of a weekend, marked by lots of presentations, successful workshops, and catching up with friends. Unfortunately, the logistics of the conference were as such that we didn’t get much time to see the actual Jeju landscape. Besides a tour on Sunday, we were in the conference room almost the entire weekend. To add insult to injury, the room had giant windows in the back that view the beach, but the curtains were drawn for all of our sessions. Nevertheless, the island was beautiful.

The conference itself was quite different from the Fall conference—there was far less of a focus on teaching tips and many sessions focused on end-of-grant logistics: how to keep our schools happy, when our final gala dinner would be, and what to plan for the departure process. A few highlights from conference:

-A video put together by the Fulbright office staff of former grantees saying what they missed most about Korea.

-Jaunting around Jeju with our program coordinator, the Office’s executive assistant, and about 45 other grantees.

-Leading a group discussion on Fulbright and non-teaching career paths with two fellow grantees to large groups of ETAs.

-Cramming a bunch of ETAs in pajamas into one hotel room for a late-night pizza party.

Overall, it was a weekend of positive people doing positive things. However, Jeju conference was also a significant reminder that my time here is limited.

On July 4, 2013, I started my Fulbright journey to South Korea, flying from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Seoul, and finally a bus from Incheon airport to Jungwon University in Goesan. On July 16, 2014, my grant year officially ends.

87 days. That’s how long I have to make a direct impact on my host family, Gakri Middle School, and overall community. I’m not sure if it’s something about springtime, or that I’m a more seasoned teacher (or both!), but the last few weeks my students have been particularly wonderful. Last Monday, I came down with a nasty cold; my voice was pretty much gone and I couldn’t sleep. During one of my 3rd grade (freshmen year of high school in America) boys’ classes, one student in the back row silently held up a makeshift sign:

“BE HAPPY JON ☺”

Moments like that, while irrelevant to my kids improving their English, are what make this experience. I know that even though I feel ready for the next opportunity ahead, it’s not going to be easy to leave this community and the relationships that are gaining strength daily.

In preparation, I’ve been thinking more about my personal goals for school life—what kind of legacy do I want to leave with my students? Leaving something tangible isn’t so much an option, so that legacy must be what stays in the minds of my students. Of course, I want some of that to be an improved command of the English language. On the cultural side, I also want some of that to be positive impressions of Americans and foreigners. Something that one of my co-teachers said the other day has stuck with me, though—he said that I am an “actor” teacher. He said that when my students interact with me in class, they usually laugh and look entertained.

There are some who think that there is no need to make education entertaining—I remember an instance of Noam Chomsky defending his unenthusiastic style of public speaking. However, for me, the teachers that I remember best were the ones that had enthusiasm and made learning an entertaining venture. While I may not remember all of the content that they taught, it was those teachers (thank you, Mr. Alleyne from WES, among others), who cultivated my love for learning and curiosity. The Korean education system is notorious for both its success and its brutality—I want to leave my students with the view that education, and specifically learning English, is entertaining and, ultimately, fun. I like to use a lot of physical comedy, big gestures, and facial expressions. Some of my students may never gain a deep interest in English, but at least they can associate their middle school conversation class as a positive experience.

So, 87 days. A few of my Fulbright friends react pretty negatively when I bring up this countdown. In the end, though, it’s not a demonstration of our limited time—it’s a time for uninhibited possibilities.

Happy Easter!

(On a not so happy note, I’d ask everyone to keep the students and families affected by the ferry sinking tragedy in Korea this past week in your thoughts. As a teacher in Korea, I can’t imagine if that were my students. I am not exaggerating when I say that the entire country is in mourning. Korea needs hope and support right now from all of us around the world.)

A Day in the Life of a Fulbright Korea ETA

CAM00099I often write about my experiences in Korea, especially the more remarkable or personally noteworthy moments. However, I don’t often share the realities of life as an ETA—my daily routines, work, and recreation. It’s important to realize that although there are English Teaching Assistantships around the world under the Fulbright moniker, each is administered independently by one of 50 bi-national commissions or, in countries with a smaller program presence, by the Public Affairs section of the respective U.S. Embassy. In Korea, the Korean-American Educational Commission coordinates all aspects of the Fulbright Program in concert with the individual provincial offices of education. Across the world, we may all be Fulbright ETAs, but in practice that makes for very different experiences.

For Fulbright Korea, the ETA program is split into two groups: Elementary English Teaching Assistant, which means that you work in an elementary school, and Secondary English Teaching Assistant, which means that you work in either a high or middle school–I teach in a middle school.

While Fulbright refers to us as English Teaching “Assistants,” most of us in Korea, including myself, are in charge of our own classrooms. In most cases, we have Korean co-teachers, but they are mostly there to observe and step in if something gets out of hand—this, of course, depends on the school.

What follows is a timeline of my average day at school, though it often changes!

7:00 am – My alarm goes off. If that doesn’t get me out of bed, my host mom’s struggle to get my brother up usually does.

7:10 am – My host mother, brother, sister, and I eat breakfast. On some days, it’s as extensive as rice, kimchi, and dok-mandu-guk, a kind of rice cake and dumpling soup, while others it’s as simple as a few steamed rice cakes served with sesame oil to dip them in.

7:40 am – My host mother drives my host sister to her high school, which is on the other side of town. My host brother usually tries to sneak in a few extra minutes of sleep.

8:00-8:15 am – I go through my lessons one more time after getting dressed, making sure that all of my PowerPoints, worksheets, and other documents are on my flash drive and ready to go.

8:15 am – My host brother and I leave for school. High-rise apartment buildings surround Gakri Middle School and I live in one them. It’s just a short 5-minute walk to school—I’m lucky in this regard, as I probably have one of the shortest commutes of any ETA in Korea.

8:20ish – I join the sea of students and teachers heading towards the school gates. Once inside, I change into my slippers (we don’t wear shoes inside school) and head up to my office in the fourth floor gyomushil (teacher’s room). I share this teacher’s room with five other teachers, one of which is my Fulbright co-teacher.

8:30 am – Students at Gakri Middle School have 30 minutes of homeroom. During this time, I make my final preparations for the day, usually checking messages and printing out worksheets, as well as setting up the projector in my classroom.

9:00 am-12:30 pm – Now come the first four periods of the day, each running 45 minutes long with a ten-minute break in between. I generally teach 4 to 6 classes a day, so how busy my morning is varies. My classes range from between 15 to 35 students, while I act as the primary instructor. My pedagogy varies from using PowerPoint, worksheets, activities, and, of course, playing lots of games to keep my students speaking English. If I’m not teaching, I’m either setting up my classroom for my next group of students or in the gyomushil. If I have all my lessons planned, I might work on a blog post, talk with my co-teachers, do some reading or studying, or catch up with fellow ETAs online. I usually drink an absurd amount of green tea or Korean instant coffee during this time, too.

12:30-1:45 pm – Lunch! Compared to the 30-minutes I had during middle and high school, the 1-hour and 15 minutes of freedom that students have hear seems insane. Then again, this is the only free time that the students have. All members of the school community eat in one large cafeteria, although the teachers get a separate food line from the students. The meal generally consists of rice, kimchi, some kind of meat, pickled vegetable, stew, and sometimes dessert. Taste depends on the day, but generally, it’s pretty good and much more varied than American school lunches. Teachers all eat together, although it’s a time more for eating than conversation.

After eating, students usually go play outside. Occasionally I’ll play basketball with some of my students, practice volleyball with the teachers (do not underestimate the abilities of 60-year old Korean men!), and walk around campus interacting with students.

1:45-3:25 pm – Two more class periods!

3:25-3:45 pm – Cleaning time! At Korean schools, the students act as the janitors. During this 20-minute period, students clean the classrooms, bathrooms, and teacher’s rooms. It was strange at first, but now I’m surprisingly used to it. Moreover, it gives some ownership of the school to the students.

3:45-4:30 pm – Final regular class period of the day!

5:00 pm – If there’s no after-school class, I head back to my home stay. On Thursdays, I stop by the market in the apartment complex and chat with students or buy them some snacks, ranging from tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) to bungeoppang (fish-shaped bread filled with red bean paste).

7:30 pm – Dinner with my host family, although usually my host sister is still at school studying. My host father lives in Seoul during the week because of his job.

8:30 pm-12:30 am – Downtime. Studying Korean, planning lessons reading, skyping with friends and family back home, editing and reviewing pieces for the Fulbright Korea Infusion (the official publication of the Korean-American Educational Commission), blogging, researching graduate programs, and, when the kids aren’t studying, hanging out with my host family!

12:30 am – Finally time to get some sleep. Meanwhile, my host siblings are generally studying until 1 or 2 am!

Obviously, even with my details, this is just one possible schedule. Korean schools are notorious for last-minute schedule changes, so ETAs have to be flexible.

On weekends, I often travel to Seoul, which is only 1 ½ hours by bus, go hiking in the foothills nearby, meet up with other Fulbright fellows across Korea, and occasionally volunteer with an orphanage in nearby Cheongju.

While there are good days and bad days, ultimately daily life at a Fulbright ETA in Korea is a rewarding and challenging experience. We stay busy!

Do you have questions about being an ETA in Korea? Post in the comments!

Photo by one of my students during Winter Camp!

Photo by one of my students during Winter Camp!

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