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What’s New?

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Hello, Internet!

It’s been a while since you and I have seen each other or, at least, truly interacted. Over a year, as it seems. To fall into a clichés or standard reflection, the truth that time moves as you get older faster definitely seems to be true.

So, what’s happened?

  • I’ve now been living in San Francisco for a little over a year and a half now. It took a little while for this place to feel like home. While I still feel like I will always be a Washingtonian and Marylander deep down, I love the variety and culture that SF offers. SF has all the best parts of a great city, but also access to California nature. I’m definitely spoiled by the climate here, though perhaps the grass is always greener on the other side–I somewhat miss those hot and muggy DC summers. Still, this 7×7 city offers more than I can even begin to explore. My last post with a focus on permanence is a little comical given…
  • I traveled all over the USA. When I got back from Korea in 2014, I reflected on how I was able to see so much of that country and how I would love to be able to do the same in the States. My job made this possible–as an admission officer, for the 2015-16 recruitment cycle I travelled over 25,000 miles by plane and drove over 4,000 miles around the country, all over the East Coast and California. In the end, I spent 50+ nights on the road. Can anyone say rent money going to waste? But, I digress. Visiting so many different communities exposed me to the lives of many Americans and gives me a further appreciation for this nation’s diversity of experience. On a different note, after reading this Rolling Stone article, I’ve also become a little obsessive over hotel points and miles–gotta get those perks.
  • I saw the variety of American secondary education on the ground. In the past year, I’ve visited over 100 high schools across the USA for admission. From expensive boarding schools to religious schools to public schools of all sorts, I’ve seen a partial breadth of the types of schools in this country. Beyond the obvious inequalities in our educational system, perhaps the most stunning thing is the lack of standardization. Seeing how every state, county, and town handles high school education is a poignant reminder of how far our educational system has to improve and, most importantly, how the system entrenches social stratification even while promising social mobility.
  • I’m starting graduate school! Earlier this spring, I was thrilled to find out that I had been accepted to the University of San Francisco’s MA in Professional Communication program. I’ll be concentrating in Strategic Communications, examining how organizations can strengthen their narrative and compel others to action.  I’m particularly looking forward to finding ways to connect with my prospective students interested in social justice education. It’s going to be a very intense two years, as I’ll still be working as an admission counselor at the same time as graduate school. Goodbye Wednesday and Thursday nights, hello knowledge. I’m also pumped about the program because it’s located at the University’s Downtown campus at 101 Howard St, so I’ll actually get to interact with the city-esque part of SF more frequently.
  • #adulting. Yeah, I’m still figuring this part out. Navigating the ins and outs of life and the constant little fires that seem to always need to be put out (no, not literally, though yes, my smoke alarm is going off again from cooking in my apartment with no ventilation…). At least there is finally some decoration on the walls of my
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    Bun Cha, Hanoi’s most famous dish and dinner of choice for Anthony Bourdain and President Obama. Good enough for me!

    apartment?

  • I took my first real vacation. If there’s one thing full-time regular employment has taught me, it’s the importance of reflecting and recharging. So, after a very intense year and a half, I packed my backpack and headed to Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan for two weeks. What I had planned to be a somewhat solitary and reflective solo trip turned into just about the opposite–I met more interesting people from around the world than I eve could have planned (not to mention drank lots of cheap beer and delicious noodles). However, during my trip some pretty troubling world events occurred, from the shooting in Orlando to the Brexit vote. In the aftermath of these events, the travelers I met gave me more hope that in fact our world is becoming better, safer, and more connected. Even in the face of such pain, the reality is that people are good. It’s also a reminder that even when you’re alone 12,000 miles away from home, good people are never far.

So, there’s what’s new. Now, what’s next?

 

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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?

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.

 

 

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 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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