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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.

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!

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.

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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