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?
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.
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.
Wow, I can’t believe it’s been over a month since I’ve written. I’m currently enjoying a few days off from school. Wednesday was the day for local elections, which they treat as a holiday (are you listening, America? Election day as a holiday, anyone?), and Friday is another national holiday, so in a rare moment my school opted to give us Thursday off as well. In a few hours, I’ll be heading back to Busan, one of my favorite cities in Korea and the host of the Busan International Film Festival, on the KTX high-speed train. Looking forward to a weekend with good friends, food, and drinks.
Beyond this weekend, I was doing a bit of reflecting on why the last month went by so fast. As much as my blog is a collection of favorite or insightful or interesting moments in Korea, and as much as this year has been a positive and transformative experience, there are a lot of days in Korea that don’t meet my lofty expectations.
Ever since making the decision not to renew my grant for another year, I’ve tried to be acutely aware of the limited time that I have left in this country. Each day here is also one less day to spend with my students, my host family, and my Fulbright friends.
However, it’s not always easy to appreciate the limited time left. Frankly, there are a lot of days that go by in a blur. As incredible as the Fulbright ETA position is, it’s not just a free license to spend time exploring culture—it’s a job. Especially towards the end of a week, when I’ve taught the same lesson 9 or 10 times already and it’s hot and my kids are rowdy or talkative, teaching can lose its shine. But on bad days, one benefit of the teaching profession is how emotionally flexible it can be. With one interaction, my day can go from bad to good (or vice versa.)
One day in the beginning of May, I was teaching a particularly difficult class of boys. They were talking a lot while literally tearing up their textbooks and I was trying to get through my lecture portion of the lesson so we could move on to the activity. While I tried to keep my energy up, at times the boys started speaking so loudly to each other that I had to scream. While most of my students couldn’t sense it, I felt dejected and disrespected as a teacher. As I looked out to the back right side of the classroom one of the boys, in a moment taken straight out of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, held up a makeshift sign on his notebook which said “BE HAPPY JON” I tried not to break composure, but it brought a smile and made the rest of the class much better.
Often, I’ll walk into my gyomushil in the morning and immediately be confronted with multiple schedule changes, most of which I have no power to control. While this craziness makes me feel pretty cranky and isn’t the most positive way to start the day, a few students running up to me in the hall, hands waving, and saying “HELLO TEACHER” is a quick fix.
Many days here go by fast. Five 45-minute classes can feel like five minutes. A weekend can feel like a few hours. But, looking back on the past 11 months or so, even those blurry days have their highlights.
On a very different note, next week is the 5K I’m running in Seoul. I’m running to fundraise for North Korean Defectors and I would very much appreciate your support. Can you chip in $5 or $10? Every gift, even $1, would make a difference!