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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.




Goodbye Gakri Middle School


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.

Running 4 Resettlement: Support North Korean Defectors!

I’ve been in South Korea since July 2013 on a Fulbright Fellowship with the U.S. Department of State. Throughout, I’ve been exposed to enlightening cultural experiences and challenges. However, perhaps some of the most compelling stories I’ve heard deal with North Korean defectors or NKDs.

While all of us, especially in the United States, hear a lot about North Korea in the news, the stories of NKDs put a human face on the abuses and political theater of the North. North Korean defectors are lucky if they get out of NK, let alone finally make it to the South. However, defectors face numerous challenges once arriving in South Korea. After going through an intense orientation process, NKDs must attempt to assimilate in a capitalistic and democratic South Korea. They must adjust to a very different culture, economy, and educational environment.

While I haven’t been able to directly volunteer with NKDs this year like many of my Fulbright counterparts, I do believe it’s vital that I offer my support in any way possible to these individuals and families. As I’ve learned this year, South Korea has numerous cultural norms and high expectations–how difficult they must be to attain after coming out of such an oppressive regime.

In support of NKDs struggle to resettle in the South, I am participating in Running 4 Resettlement, an initiative affiliated with the excellent group Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). On June 15th, as part of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Marathon in Seoul, I will be running a 5k to fundraise for Running 4 Resettlement and to show my support for NKDs.

I’m not in racing condition yet, but over the next month or so I will train and prepare for the race. However, my running alone is not going to make a difference for North Korean defectors–that’s where you come in!

You can make a difference in the adjustment process for NKDs who have made it to the South.

WIll you donate $10 or more right now to support resettlement for NKDs? Your donations will go directly to Liberty in North Korea’s resettlement program in South Korea and provide much needed funds for North Korean Defectors. I’ve paid all of my race fees already, so again, every dollar you chip in goes straight to supporting the LiNK’s fund.

These individuals deserve a fair shot at a successful life in the South. NKDs, especially after all they have been through, should be able to thrive in their new lives. As a global community, I believe that we owe them that opportunity.

Can you spare $25, $15, or even $10 to support North Korean defectors in their new lives? Every donation makes a real impact on these individuals. North Korea dominates the news cycle; you can make a positive contribution.

I hope that you will join me in supporting North Korean defectors as I run my 5K on June 15, 2014. Please, donate now and stay in touch as I participate in Running 4 Resettlement! Please let me know if you have any questions, and I hope that you’ll consider chipping in a few dollars for a great cause!

**as my computer is currently in limbo, and having a Mac in the land of Samsung can make things more difficult, please forgive typos etc. I’m hopeful it’ll be back to normal soon.**

American Thanksgiving in Ochang


Fulbright Thanksgiving Dinner! Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy Seoul

It’s American Thanksgiving and I’m in a small town in South Korea. I can honestly say that throughout the now over 4 months that I’ve been in Korea, I have felt far less homesickness than I expected. While there have been occasional bouts of loneliness and isolation, both mentally from culture shock and physically from being far from ETA friends and family, the majority of my time here has been stimulating and enjoyable.

Mulling over the past year, without any cheesiness implied, there is a lot to be thankful for. Over my final year at Pitzer I forged a wonderful group of friends. I graduated from college. And, of course, I was given the opportunity to teach Korean students conversational English and American culture on this Fulbright Fellowship.

Today is bittersweet. While there is a lot for me to be grateful for, it is moments like this when I want to share my experience with family and friends. Luckily, Fulbright did offer us a good opportunity to celebrate 2 weeks ago, when they hosted the ETA Thanksgiving dinner. Bringing all of the Fulbright ETAs together with the Fulbright office, American Embassy staff, and U.S. Ambassador in Seoul was a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday. However, that event still left me wanting and waiting for my family’s thanksgiving traditions—meeting up with old friends for drinks on Thanksgiving eve, waking up to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the morning, and finally tucking in to an epic feast at the end of the day.

This week, I tried to share Thanksgiving with my students. I taught them about thanksgiving traditions and foods. I reviewed the history of thanksgiving and, like a good Pitzer alumnus, covered the true history of ghost suppers and the Native American Indian influence. After teaching over 10 hours about thanksgiving, and as excited I was to share this holiday (perhaps even more so than my students), I am missing friends and family a lot.

Wherever you are in the world right now, I hope that you have a wonderful and fulfilling Thanksgiving Day. Eat delicious food, celebrate, and stay in touch.

Happy Thanksgiving from Korea!

Social Media and the Manicured Life

“Don’t compare”

Mrs. Shim, the director of Fulbright Korea, uses “don’t compare” as key advice on having a successful grant year. Her logic is that comparison leads to a fear of missing out, which leads to unhappiness.  Yet, I am in a country that embraces social media and smartphones, arguably even more than America does. The tools for comparison are everywhere. The kids that I teach have newer and nicer mobile devices than the teachers do. The social media culture in South Korea abounds—even my host family has their own private social network, called a BAND, to share each day’s best moments with each other. What this culture of social creates, to borrow from Walter Issacson, is a reality-distortion field. Life becomes manicured moments weaved together into a seemingly flawless narrative.

A few days ago, I was reading a short interview with Randi Zuckerberg in the New York Times. Zuckerberg, as you might have figured out by the last name, is the older sister of Mark and the former Chief Marketing Officer for Facebook. The most revealing line of her conversation comes when she notes how Facebook influences the way that people perceive her:

“I’m a marketer; I’m only posting the moments that are amazing”

The interviewer argues that Facebook is making us all marketers. Zuckerberg shoots back that she thinks social media is making us better storytellers. Nevertheless, if she’s right, just what kind of stories are we telling?

Judging from my experiences while in Korea and elsewhere, the stories we “write” are about entertaining. That’s logical, too—who wants to broadcast their complaints about the day? However, for people outside of our close friend groups who consume our social media content, for those that don’t have the chance to have a long phone conversation with you at the end of a stressful day, life takes on an alternate reality. Like television, our lives are then seemingly only made of our best moments or grandest failures, as the case might be.

We’re becoming better storytellers. However, as Jon Lovett emphasized in his speech at my graduation from Pitzer College, we need to reclaim authenticity in that process. We need to realize that a textured life can be just as, if not more, insightful as a manicured one.

I often don’t post about my struggles, partly because they are what I feel every new teacher or expat (or both) go through. But even if I don’t put them out to the world, my personal battles exist.

There are days when lessons feel like a complete failure, when I wonder if they left the class with more knowledge or less.

There’s the frustration  when the circular-communication model of using “maybe” and “possibly” endlessly to save face is too much and incites a burst of anger inside.

That moment when, even in a new experience filled with fresh faces, I feel very alone.

We don’t necessarily have to be all about doom and gloom. It’s important to entertain and to share the best moments, but sometimes those lesser times matter too. The rough times are when our commonality shines through–we need both to make a connection.

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