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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.

 

 

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.

Countdown to Departure Day

The ETAs in Chungbuk

The ETAs in Chungbuk

Orientation is over?

That’s the overwhelming question that I’m repeating in my head right now. Just a few weeks ago, I arrived in Korea to have this new experience, unsure of what to expect and how I would react. 5 weeks later, I have come through a few personal milestones:

– I passed my Korean Language class. Learning Korean (and doing so in the Korean-style) has been one of the more difficult academic endeavors I have encountered. After around 100 hour of class and many more spent writing out vocabulary in Hangul, it was a tremendous feeling to gain my language certificate from the Korean Language and Culture Center at Korea University this past weekend in Seoul. Even through the day-to-day struggles and frustrations, my main language teachers offered a lot of support (and even took us out in Seoul for drinks and bubble tea) that kept me pushing through.

– I’ve developed and taught three lessons. I first started teaching when I worked at Mystery Academy, an amazing performance art camp focused on teaching magic performance and variety arts to children. It was there that I gained a basic “teaching persona,” and it was definitely one of the best jobs that I’ve ever had in both a personal and professional sense. Thanks to Orientation, I was able to apply that experience to teaching English to Korean students at Camp Fulbright. While I had my ups and downs, it gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to manage the 20+ hours of teaching each week that my placement will require. I taught about different tones of voice through examples of acting, how different approaches to problem solving can find the best solutions, and how our memories are what provide context for our lives. Being able to wrap up these lessons within the English language is rewarding–and seeing a student breakthrough and say something profound never ceases to amaze me.

– I’ve met and connected with an incredible peer group. The ETA program in Korea pulls from a wide variety of perspectives and hometowns. Together, we pulled through a rigorous schedule. While the Fulbright grant is obviously a personal and individual experience, I feel sad that our group is dividing across the country. During a recent workshop, we stood in a circle and shared our hopes and fears for the grant year–among the many things that were said, I added my fear of losing touch with everyone. While we aren’t perfect, the perspectives, talent, and support that I’ve seen my fellow ETAs bring daily is going to be hard to lose. I also feel that it’s important to recognize our OCT, or Orientation Coordinator Team, which is staffed only by former and current ETAs. They’ve worked tirelessly to plan the program, and I have to give them tons of credit for pulling it off so successfully. Thank you, Elaine, Anthony, Hemma, Tracey, Ashlee, Andrew, and Leslie, for everything!

– I found honeybread. Seriously, it’s this delicious combination of bread, honey, cinnamon, and more that is a mix between a cinnamon bun and french toad. It’s up there as being one of the best things ever.

Now that Orientation is over, I head to my placement in the morning. A few weeks ago, we experienced our placement ceremony, where each ETA was told both where in Korea they would be and what kind of school they’d be at.

I will be spending my grant in Ochang, Korea, a small suburb just outside of Cheongju, South Korea. Cheongju is home to Korea’s second largest airport. While Lonely Planet doesn’t think much of it, Cheongju is smack dab in the center of Korea, making many areas of the country accessible. I will be teaching at Gakri Middle School, a co-ed middle school in Ochang. Today, I also found out the basic information about my homestay. My host father is an office worker (no elaboration on that yet…), my host mother is a stay-at-home mom, and I will have two siblings, a girl in high school and a boy in middle school. Luckily, they also informed me that I will be just a short 5 minute walk from my school.

While I was in Seoul this past weekend, I was able to meet the ETA that was previously at my school. As someone who spent three years teaching there, he offered me a lot of information about what to expect. Tomorrow, I will meet my Fulbright Co-Teacher (who acts as the liaison between me and the Fulbright office) and my school’s Vice Principal. The range of emotions is hard to convey effectively. Even after spending 5 weeks in Korea, I know that the Orientation “bubble” is about to break, and that this is all going to get very real, very quickly.

My bags are packed, the dorm room is clean, and my suit is ready to go. Now, my year in Korea begins.

NOTE: I tried to add some pictures here to illustrate things further, but WordPress’ Image Uploader isn’t being so cooperative at the moment.

Korean, Teach, Lesson Plan, Repeat

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26 pages of hangul

I think this photo sums up the way I’m spending most of my time at Fulbright Orientation quite well. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Korean language. Lesson planning. Teaching.

It’s amazing how full the schedule is each day (or, if it’s not full, we still have a lot of responsibilities. Orientation is, without a doubt, one of the hardest things that I’ve done. I’ve taught two lessons so far and teach once more on Friday. These lessons have been invaluable in developing my teaching persona and ensuring that, yes, I can really teach. But, importantly, they’ve led me to a few things I can improve on in the way I run my classroom. Our Korean language final is next week. Truthfully, I’m finding language class quite difficult, but the Orientation Coordinator Team is offering a lot of support to ETAs who are struggling. I’m hopeful that the class will finish well.

Today, we have our placement ceremony to find out what school and location in Korea that each of us will spend our grant year in. I didn’t have any really specific preferences for location, but I’m still nervous! I do look forward to getting out of the Jungwon University bubble (80 Americans stuffed into a college campus in rural Korea) and into Korean society. Here’s hoping for a great placement, wherever that might be.

Last weekend, we went to the beach town of Donghae City for some so-called rest and relaxation. Right now, I wish I was still on the beach.

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I’m in Korea!

After a 12 hour and 40 minute flight (I slept 9 hours, so it was bearable), I arrived on July 6th and have spent the last few days fighting jet lag and settling into Korea. We arrived a little after 5 am and went straight to Jungwon University, our orientation site, in Goesan for a full day of activities. Since then, I’ve had almost no free time, but it’s been great. Here are some pictures from my first days in-country:

Here’s how it works: After six weeks of Orientation, we are placed into a Korean school. The destination is unknown; first-year ETAs can be placed anywhere in Korea except Seoul. We also spend the year in a homestay organized by our Fulbright Co-Teacher, a regular teacher at our host school who acts as a liaison. Orientation is intense, but it’s also necessary to have a successful year in what will be a very independent environment.

We have activities from 9:00 to 5:00 pm, not including extra activities and homework. Tomorrow we have our first day of Korean language classes, which is giving me simultaneous feelings of dread and excitement; I don’t have the best track record for foreign language learning, but in this situation it is a survival skill.

In many ways, even with being thrown into the Orientation process, I am still in disbelief that I am in Korea and that my fellowship has begun. With a visit to a Korean school under my belt and teaching workshops about to start, it’s going to get real very quickly! I’m still very jetlagged and haven’t had a lot of time to reflect, so here’s just a few of the most striking things so far:

-the etiquette of bowing as an everyday greeting and the hierarchy of head nods, 45 degree, and 90 degree bows based on status

-the presence of kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage) at every meal

-my amazing fellow ETAs–they come from all different backgrounds, universities, and states!

-the test-centric nature of Korean society and education. As someone who has long detested standardized tests and coming from a pretty far-left liberal arts school, it’s an adjustment!

-A Harry Potter-inspired sorting hat ceremony by the Orientation Coordinator Team, complete with music and lighting, to put us into our 5 houses for Orientation.

…and the realization that in just a few weeks I will have an English class of my own.

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