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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.




A brief political digression

One of the less fulfilling parts about being abroad is that I’ve had few opportunities to engage in American politics. I absolutely love being in Korea, but as a political studies major, born Washingtonian, and all-around politics junkie, sometimes I feel pretty withdrawn from my passion here. While I’ve done my best to engage in the international politics side of things and follow American policymaking from Korea*, it’s much harder to gauge the political sentiment towards candidates and policies when your many miles and timezones away.

Honestly, when I think about my impending return to the USA, I’m a little apprehensive about the culture shock and the whole process of figuring out what’s next. Sure, I’m excited to see my family and friends, but America, as exceptional as it can be, just seems a little bit less exciting than living as an expat. However, since Rep. Eric Cantor’s loss the other night, my view is changing.

When I saw the notification on my twitter account, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; such was the reaction of every pundit. To quote the DNC fundraising email I received shortly after the loss:

“Eric. Freaking. Cantor.”

For those outside of politics, I equate Cantor’s loss to CalTech’s basketball team, a team that lost every game for 21-years straight, making it to the Final Four. As has been reported on extensively, Cantor raised over five million dollars for the campaign while his opponent Dave Brat, a Economics professor from tiny Randolph-Macon College, spent $200,000. Folks, the House Majority Leader just got primaried in a big way. Even Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight didn’t call this one.

So, in some ways, now feels like the perfect time to be preparing to head back to the States. Although Cantor’s loss means an all but indefinite hold on comprehensive immigration reform and is perhaps a sign that the Tea Party is rising again, it’s a reminder that there’s a lot of policy on the line this election season. No time to wait in the wings.

*I still haven’t fully accepted the routine of receiving the POLITICO Playbook at night.

What’s next?

IMG_2452Well, it happened: I’ve graduated from college!

After four years of wonderful friends, fantastic professors, caring administrators, and a ton of new/fun/challenging experiences, on May 18 I graduated from Pitzer. Like others in the Class of 2013, I moved home to pursue job opportunities in DC.

So much for job searching. Last friday, I received notification from the Institute of International Education that I had been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to South Korea to teach English for 2013-2014!

I leave the U.S. the first week of July, so I plan to spend the next month catching up with friends, savoring DC, and mentally preparing myself for the experience ahead. Just as I did during my study abroad experience in China, I plan to blog and capture as much of my year as possible right here. I’ll categorize the posts under a Fulbright or South Korea label, so they’re easy to find.

Many thanks to the friends, family, colleagues, and social media peoples who have offered support over the past few years. Being a college graduate is better than I expected.

The role of the SAT for small liberal arts colleges

The CMC Admission Office in the Kravis Center

I think the SAT is a pretty horrible metric. With the rise of the test prep industry and income inequality, more and more the SAT has become a laughable way to decide if students are intelligent or prepared enough to attend various institutions.

Recently, Claremont McKenna College’s lawyers released their independent investigation of the admission, or SAT, scandal. As a Pitzer College student, I have taken a number of courses at CMC and work with a number of their students, so one of my editors at the Claremont Port Side asked me to give my take, a Pitzer perspective, on the issue.

Something I touch on in the piece is that especially for small liberal arts colleges the SAT is a terrible criteria to use for admission. In small community driven institutions, a holistic admission process is key to ensure a diversity of students –not simply in the racial sense, but also making sure there are enough athletes, artists, activists, and researchers on campus. Assuming that institutions use the Common Application and a supplement, the amount of information that admission officers have access to should be more than enough to decide whether or not to admit an applicant. SATs should be irrelvent.

At this point, SATs are just one more bragging right for prestigious colleges, not a measure of the quality of the student body.

You can read my entire piece, “The Scandal from Across the Street,” on the Claremont Port Side website.

I also rather like the research done by FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, if you’re interested in more about SAT/ACT use.

Why the Supreme Court really doesn’t allow cameras

Squeaky chairs and all...

All of this recent talk about the Supreme Court and Obamacare has reminded me of my experience at the Supreme Court.

In Fall of 2010, I took “Introduction to Constitutional Law: Civil Liberties,” at Claremont McKenna College with Professor Ralph Rossum. While I had always been somewhat interested in the Supreme Court of the United States, or SCOTUS, I had never spent so much time intensely focusing on its procedure and casework.

After listening to quite a few hours of oral arguments, reading a number of amicus curiae briefs, and even doing a “moot court” session in the class, I felt that it was time for me to actually see an argument. I’ve been the court before, as have many who grew up in the DC area with an interest in politics, but I had never seen it in session. So, I decided to wake up early and check it out.

I won’t go into tons of details about waiting around to get in, but I’ll say this: It’s cold, and it feels like forever.

When I finally got into the courtroom, seated towards the back, the arguments had already begun. Seeing the courtroom full of people and in session is quite different from viewing it on other days; a sort of tension exists in the room, and it becomes much more solemn (that is, except for when Scalia acts the comic).

Beyond the high ceilings, the lawyers, and the imposing number of legal minds in the room, the most striking thing I found was the posture of the Justices. While the room and the name of SCOTUS creates an air of pomp and circumstance, the Justices themselves do not.

You see, the chairs that the Justices sit in lean back very far. So far, in fact, that for a few moments I thought Clarence Thomas was going to fall out of his seat. While leaning back in the squeaky chairs, many of the Justices seemed bored to death, rubbing their eyes, covering their faces, and twiddling their thumbs.

Did I mention that those chairs lean really far back?

Although I’m sure that the Justices were closely paying attention to the arguments, especially based on the questions they asked of the lawyers, it wouldn’t make for good TV.

So while I would love to have video to capture the reactions of boredom that I saw in that chamber, it now makes a lot of sense why the arguments aren’t televised. Claim all you want that it’s protect the institution from being a spectacle, but this might be another reason. It could have just been a really boring case, but it certainly wouldn’t play well to the public.

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