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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.

 

 

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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.

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.

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.)

The Blessing of Korea’s Busses

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Ready for Seoul!

I have spent the majority of my life with the worst traffic in America.

Growing up in the Washington, DC area, I remember turning on NBC4 news each morning and hearing about the slow commute on the beltway and in the city itself. Today, I do everything I can to avoid driving in the city, especially during rush hour. Unfortunately, Washington does not make that easy with the notoriously unreliable-but-good-looking-to-tourists Metro system that charges insane rates for extremely poor and slow service.

Naturally, after wanting a change from DC, I moved to a place with even worse traffic: Los Angeles. I still don’t understand how the 10-something lane highways always manage to be packed no matter time of day or night. Public transit in Los Angeles is in its infantile stages, with an ineffective subway system, an expensive and somewhat intimidating commuter rail (Yes, Mr. Police Officer, here’s my ticket, now please don’t shoot me!), and an unclear bus system.

The world once envied the United States for its cross-country rail, effective inter-state highways, and reputable air transit industry. Today, it’s all pretty much the worst. While I love Amtrak, Congress’ fear to subsidize it fully leads to ridiculously high prices compared to the rest of the world. The cheap busses between NYC and DC are one of the better options; however, numerous sketchy operators with questionable safety records sully their appeal. The highway system is still impressive, but the planners didn’t design for the number of cars they must now carry. Air transit quality is dropping rapidly–I was a frequent flier throughout college and have come to expect misery when flying.

That brings me to South Korea. As my time here whittles away, I find myself often reflecting on what it is going to be like to go back to America and how the reverse-culture shock will affect me. Sure, I’ll miss the no-tipping policy, incredible cuisine, and my effervescent students. But, one thing that will leave a void, and I’m almost remiss to say this, is the Korean intercity and express bus system.

Am I really going to wax poetic about a bus? Yup.

Public transportation in Korea is great. City busses can be a bit jarring, but they are frequent and fast.  The Seoul subway system is a modern marvel in terms of getting around safely, quickly, and on the cheap. However, the best parts of Korea’s public transit system are the intercity and express busses.

In Korea, there is no stigma towards taking a bus; everybody rides them. There aren’t horror stories like there are about Greyhound in the USA. Busses here are cheap, frequent, and easy to use. My town is about 1-½ hours from Seoul and there are busses on the hour everyday. Not only that, but the busses are inexpensive, about $7.50 one-way to Seoul. You get all of the service too, as the busses leave on the dot, seats are assigned so there’s no scramble, and there’s plenty of luggage room.

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English makes it easy

Even for foreigners, using the bus is easy. You show up at the local bus terminal, go to the window, ask for a bus to X location at Y time, and pay. The end. No figuring out specific bus companies, as long as you can mumble the name of your destination and date, you’re in the clear. Not only that, but the tickets themselves have English to tell you the platform, time, and seat number. If Korea became a more popular tourist destination in Asia, travelers would consider it one of the easiest countries to get around.

Comparing Korea and the USA in terms of an intercity bus system is a little bit unfair–Korea is a much smaller country. The longest bus in Korea would probably be about 7 hours, while in the U.S. busses could take days to travel cross-country. Still, there’s a lot we can learn from Korea to make busses a more attractive option to Americans, which could ultimately have a positive effect on the environment and overall congestion on our roads. In Korea, there are designated bus lanes, so that even during the busiest traffic busses stay on schedule. The rest stops are palaces to motorists. Most cities have both express and inter-city bus terminals, the former serving all of the major routes non-stop, the latter hitting all of the smaller towns.

Pundits often suggest, as I have, that America should step up in creating a world-class rail system; perhaps encouraging public transportation through busses would be a good place to start. For now, I’m going to continue to enjoy exploring Korea with inexpensive fares and in relative comfort!

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