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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?

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.)

Christmas: Seoul Expat Edition

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This was my first Christmas away from my family. It was strange not following the usual Christmas morning routine of waking up early to open presents and then flying from DC to Massachusetts. This holiday season, as cheesy as it might seem, was a very pure example of how the people who you are with change everything. Even as I was away from home and my family, new friends made it a very special Christmas.

My final day of teaching for the semester, December 23, was somewhat anti-climactic. Out of my four scheduled classes for the day, two were cancelled. That was a trend in my final week, and I’m still a little sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye to a few of my third grade classes who will be moving onto high school next semester. I did get a chance to share “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with my final class of third grade boys, thanks to the wonderful Fulbrighter who found a copy with Korean subtitles. Of course, they too appreciated the antics of Snoopy. After sharing Christmas cards and giving insa to the other teachers in my office, the head teacher, principal, and vice principal, I went back to my host family’s apartment to pack.

For Christmas Eve, I headed to Seoul. Two of my Fulbright friends got an apartment and decided to host a Christmas Eve party, including a full Western-style Christmas feast with a turkey, mulled wine, and homemade cookies. That night was truly the first time it felt like Christmas since I’ve been in Korea. Eating a delicious meal and sharing Secret Santa gifts while commiserating with chingus (Korean for friends) in a cozy apartment made Seoul feel like home. More than a few people exclaimed that it was perhaps one of the best Christmases they had ever had.

I did Christmas day in a much more Korean fashion. Waking up at our hostel in Hongdae, a few friends and I headed to a small Korean restaurant to eat different types of jeon, savory pancakes made from things like kimchi and green onions, and to drink makgeolli, a rice/wheat wine found only in Korea. While this was definitely different from the Western-style routine, it was extremely satisfying sharing time with each other.

One of the benefits of the Fulbright Korea ETA program is the long winter break. Beyond a one-week Winter Camp from January 6 to 10, I don’t teach until March 1. Over my break, I plan to explore Korea as much as possible. The highlight, however, is going to be a 28-day adventure to Thailand, India, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia!

It’s crazy to think that I’ve been in Korea for almost six months. The first half was an endless series of ups and downs; indeed, I only felt like I was coming into my own as a teacher the last two or three weeks of the semester. Now that I have one semester under my belt, I know that after my winter break I’ll be ready to take my new batch of students and give them the best English conversation class experience I can.

To everyone back in the USA, my friends in Korea, and all the other people in my life around the world, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Social Media and the Manicured Life

“Don’t compare”

Mrs. Shim, the director of Fulbright Korea, uses “don’t compare” as key advice on having a successful grant year. Her logic is that comparison leads to a fear of missing out, which leads to unhappiness.  Yet, I am in a country that embraces social media and smartphones, arguably even more than America does. The tools for comparison are everywhere. The kids that I teach have newer and nicer mobile devices than the teachers do. The social media culture in South Korea abounds—even my host family has their own private social network, called a BAND, to share each day’s best moments with each other. What this culture of social creates, to borrow from Walter Issacson, is a reality-distortion field. Life becomes manicured moments weaved together into a seemingly flawless narrative.

A few days ago, I was reading a short interview with Randi Zuckerberg in the New York Times. Zuckerberg, as you might have figured out by the last name, is the older sister of Mark and the former Chief Marketing Officer for Facebook. The most revealing line of her conversation comes when she notes how Facebook influences the way that people perceive her:

“I’m a marketer; I’m only posting the moments that are amazing”

The interviewer argues that Facebook is making us all marketers. Zuckerberg shoots back that she thinks social media is making us better storytellers. Nevertheless, if she’s right, just what kind of stories are we telling?

Judging from my experiences while in Korea and elsewhere, the stories we “write” are about entertaining. That’s logical, too—who wants to broadcast their complaints about the day? However, for people outside of our close friend groups who consume our social media content, for those that don’t have the chance to have a long phone conversation with you at the end of a stressful day, life takes on an alternate reality. Like television, our lives are then seemingly only made of our best moments or grandest failures, as the case might be.

We’re becoming better storytellers. However, as Jon Lovett emphasized in his speech at my graduation from Pitzer College, we need to reclaim authenticity in that process. We need to realize that a textured life can be just as, if not more, insightful as a manicured one.

I often don’t post about my struggles, partly because they are what I feel every new teacher or expat (or both) go through. But even if I don’t put them out to the world, my personal battles exist.

There are days when lessons feel like a complete failure, when I wonder if they left the class with more knowledge or less.

There’s the frustration  when the circular-communication model of using “maybe” and “possibly” endlessly to save face is too much and incites a burst of anger inside.

That moment when, even in a new experience filled with fresh faces, I feel very alone.

We don’t necessarily have to be all about doom and gloom. It’s important to entertain and to share the best moments, but sometimes those lesser times matter too. The rough times are when our commonality shines through–we need both to make a connection.

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