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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.

A Day in the Life of a Fulbright Korea ETA

CAM00099I often write about my experiences in Korea, especially the more remarkable or personally noteworthy moments. However, I don’t often share the realities of life as an ETA—my daily routines, work, and recreation. It’s important to realize that although there are English Teaching Assistantships around the world under the Fulbright moniker, each is administered independently by one of 50 bi-national commissions or, in countries with a smaller program presence, by the Public Affairs section of the respective U.S. Embassy. In Korea, the Korean-American Educational Commission coordinates all aspects of the Fulbright Program in concert with the individual provincial offices of education. Across the world, we may all be Fulbright ETAs, but in practice that makes for very different experiences.

For Fulbright Korea, the ETA program is split into two groups: Elementary English Teaching Assistant, which means that you work in an elementary school, and Secondary English Teaching Assistant, which means that you work in either a high or middle school–I teach in a middle school.

While Fulbright refers to us as English Teaching “Assistants,” most of us in Korea, including myself, are in charge of our own classrooms. In most cases, we have Korean co-teachers, but they are mostly there to observe and step in if something gets out of hand—this, of course, depends on the school.

What follows is a timeline of my average day at school, though it often changes!

7:00 am – My alarm goes off. If that doesn’t get me out of bed, my host mom’s struggle to get my brother up usually does.

7:10 am – My host mother, brother, sister, and I eat breakfast. On some days, it’s as extensive as rice, kimchi, and dok-mandu-guk, a kind of rice cake and dumpling soup, while others it’s as simple as a few steamed rice cakes served with sesame oil to dip them in.

7:40 am – My host mother drives my host sister to her high school, which is on the other side of town. My host brother usually tries to sneak in a few extra minutes of sleep.

8:00-8:15 am – I go through my lessons one more time after getting dressed, making sure that all of my PowerPoints, worksheets, and other documents are on my flash drive and ready to go.

8:15 am – My host brother and I leave for school. High-rise apartment buildings surround Gakri Middle School and I live in one them. It’s just a short 5-minute walk to school—I’m lucky in this regard, as I probably have one of the shortest commutes of any ETA in Korea.

8:20ish – I join the sea of students and teachers heading towards the school gates. Once inside, I change into my slippers (we don’t wear shoes inside school) and head up to my office in the fourth floor gyomushil (teacher’s room). I share this teacher’s room with five other teachers, one of which is my Fulbright co-teacher.

8:30 am – Students at Gakri Middle School have 30 minutes of homeroom. During this time, I make my final preparations for the day, usually checking messages and printing out worksheets, as well as setting up the projector in my classroom.

9:00 am-12:30 pm – Now come the first four periods of the day, each running 45 minutes long with a ten-minute break in between. I generally teach 4 to 6 classes a day, so how busy my morning is varies. My classes range from between 15 to 35 students, while I act as the primary instructor. My pedagogy varies from using PowerPoint, worksheets, activities, and, of course, playing lots of games to keep my students speaking English. If I’m not teaching, I’m either setting up my classroom for my next group of students or in the gyomushil. If I have all my lessons planned, I might work on a blog post, talk with my co-teachers, do some reading or studying, or catch up with fellow ETAs online. I usually drink an absurd amount of green tea or Korean instant coffee during this time, too.

12:30-1:45 pm – Lunch! Compared to the 30-minutes I had during middle and high school, the 1-hour and 15 minutes of freedom that students have hear seems insane. Then again, this is the only free time that the students have. All members of the school community eat in one large cafeteria, although the teachers get a separate food line from the students. The meal generally consists of rice, kimchi, some kind of meat, pickled vegetable, stew, and sometimes dessert. Taste depends on the day, but generally, it’s pretty good and much more varied than American school lunches. Teachers all eat together, although it’s a time more for eating than conversation.

After eating, students usually go play outside. Occasionally I’ll play basketball with some of my students, practice volleyball with the teachers (do not underestimate the abilities of 60-year old Korean men!), and walk around campus interacting with students.

1:45-3:25 pm – Two more class periods!

3:25-3:45 pm – Cleaning time! At Korean schools, the students act as the janitors. During this 20-minute period, students clean the classrooms, bathrooms, and teacher’s rooms. It was strange at first, but now I’m surprisingly used to it. Moreover, it gives some ownership of the school to the students.

3:45-4:30 pm – Final regular class period of the day!

5:00 pm – If there’s no after-school class, I head back to my home stay. On Thursdays, I stop by the market in the apartment complex and chat with students or buy them some snacks, ranging from tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) to bungeoppang (fish-shaped bread filled with red bean paste).

7:30 pm – Dinner with my host family, although usually my host sister is still at school studying. My host father lives in Seoul during the week because of his job.

8:30 pm-12:30 am – Downtime. Studying Korean, planning lessons reading, skyping with friends and family back home, editing and reviewing pieces for the Fulbright Korea Infusion (the official publication of the Korean-American Educational Commission), blogging, researching graduate programs, and, when the kids aren’t studying, hanging out with my host family!

12:30 am – Finally time to get some sleep. Meanwhile, my host siblings are generally studying until 1 or 2 am!

Obviously, even with my details, this is just one possible schedule. Korean schools are notorious for last-minute schedule changes, so ETAs have to be flexible.

On weekends, I often travel to Seoul, which is only 1 ½ hours by bus, go hiking in the foothills nearby, meet up with other Fulbright fellows across Korea, and occasionally volunteer with an orphanage in nearby Cheongju.

While there are good days and bad days, ultimately daily life at a Fulbright ETA in Korea is a rewarding and challenging experience. We stay busy!

Do you have questions about being an ETA in Korea? Post in the comments!

Photo by one of my students during Winter Camp!

Photo by one of my students during Winter Camp!

Back in the game: Korea, Part II

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Hello 2014. Hello Ochang. Hello second semester of teaching at Gakri Middle School.

The past 2 months have flown by. Since finishing my semester right before Christmas, I celebrated New Year’s with a wonderful group of Fulbright friends and taught a remarkably fun English winter camp at my school. While the attendance fluctuated from a maximum of eight and a minimum of three, it was a great way to connect with some students on a more personal level before starting the winter break proper.

Whereas other Fulbright ETA programs run between 8 and 10 months straight through, Fulbright Korea is one of the few to offer the opportunity of a break in between teaching. Officially, I was relieved from teaching duties, save one week of winter camp, from Dec. 24 to today, March 3. So, what did I do with all that time?

The idea of the break is to use it as a time to recharge, think about your reasons for undertaking the Fulbright, and travel. I took advantage of my placement in Asia to explore the region further. Our contract specifies that ETAs are allowed up to 28 days outside of Korea during the Winter Break and I’m happy to say that I used every one of them. From January 11 to February 7, I traveled to Thailand, India, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was the most incredible trip of my life, getting to experience so many different cultures, sites, and, of course, cuisines. The trip is going to give me material to write and think about for many years to come.

Some highlights:

-Eating Bun Bo Nam Bo, a kind of rice vermicelli and beef noodle bowl, at an awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam.

-Hot Air Ballooning over Vang Vieng, Laos.

-Learning to cook Tom Kha Gai (chicken coconut soup) as part of a daylong cooking class in Chiang Mai

-Following the path of Gandhi’s final steps in Delhi.

-Discovering Khao Tom, the most amazing lemongrass/poached egg rice porridge, in Koh Samui, Thailand.

-Walking the Killing Fields and S-21 secret prison in Cambodia.

-Rope-swinging into the clear blue water of Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang, Laos with fellow Fulbrighters.

-Sailing on a junk boat through Halong Bay, Vietnam

TL;DR I could really go for some Vietnamese Pho Bo right now with a glass of fresh bia hoi, a kind of fresh beer brewed daily in Hanoi. Think global, drink local, my friends.

After traveling, I moved into a studio apartment in Hongdae. Hongdae is where a lot of students hangout in Seoul, and it also happens to be my favorite neighborhood in the city. Endless cafes, fun restaurants, and quite the nightlife make it an amazing place to live and relax in. The time went by faster than I could imagine. After moving out of the apartment, my parents came to Korea (my father’s second time, my mother’s first) to see what my Fulbright is all about. It was refreshing to see my parents after 7 ½ months, and somewhat reassuring that I have come so far since Orientation. I can comfortably communicate and get around both Seoul and Korea as whole—that alone is a huge confidence booster. I couldn’t be happier sharing this country, my home away from home, with my family. For my final week, I made a quick trip down to Jeonju to stay with my friend Jemarley’s host family and check out a different part of Korea. Jeonju is also the hometown of bibimbap, one of the best Korean dishes around.

I know that 2 months is perhaps the longest official vacation I may ever have in my life. However, with that comes the responsibility to my students and host community.

Today was my first day back at Gakri Middle School. Armed with a scarf from Cambodia as a gift to my co-teacher and a pound cake from a Korean bakery for the other teachers in my office, I headed up. Upon arriving, I found that two of the teachers from my office had changed schools. In Korea, teachers must change schools every 5 years to maintain educational equality across the system (somewhat logical, I must admit). I wasn’t very close with these teachers, but it was still a surprise to have them somewhat disappear without much adieu. I didn’t have any classes today, but this semester I will be teaching the school’s second and third graders, which means that I will have some of the same students from last semester. A bigger change came during the morning teacher’s meeting: I have a new principal.

The principal at a Korean school is generally more of a figurehead than anything else; the vice principal is in charge of day-to-day operations. However, this new principal is interesting because he himself used to be an English teacher. As I was leaving, he was in the lobby so I gave him a greeting in Korean. He ended up stopping me and we chatted in English for a few minutes about his visits to Washington and California. Considering that my last principal spoke no English, this is a positive change.

According to my co-teacher, I won’t have my first day of classes with my students until next week, so now is time to prepare, make connections, and get ready for the final 4 ½ months of my Fulbright grant. It’s time to get back in the game.

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