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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?

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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.

Fulbright Korea Infusion 2014: Authenticity and Social Media

From the moment I arrived in Korea, the nation’s social media and Internet culture has fascinated me. As someone who was already quite interested in the changing dynamics of media consumption in the United States, experiencing Korea’s variation on this trend has been thought-provoking, especially when considering my own role as an expat, teacher, and Fulbrighter.

Wanting to stay involved with media creation during my time abroad, I applied for and was subsequently accepted to a staff editor position for Infusion, the official publication of the Korean-American Educational Commission and Fulbright Korea. Infusion treats the selection process for pieces in a very sensitive manner, carefully performing a blind review for all pieces so as to eliminate some personal bias and select what is considered to be the best fit for the volume. This round, I was excited to hear that along with a humorous piece that I had the pleasure of editing, Gabrielle Nygaard’s “Spit,” my piece on the role of social media for ETAs in Korea was selected for publication in the final edition. The final magazine is a beautiful publication with stunning photographs and compelling stories, if I do say so myself. It truly captures a slice of what living and working in Korea is like. For a good read, I particularly recommend my friend Cameron Demetre’s piece on going to the bathhouse with his students, “Bare-ly Cultured.”

As I count down my final days of my grant year, I hope you’ll take a moment to check out the spring 2014 volume of Infusion. 

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Click to Read Volume 7!

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.

A month of blurry days

IMG_4089Wow, 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!

Will you donate $10 or more right now to support resettlement for NKDs? 

Thanks!

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