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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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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.

Wo xi huan Xi’an!

Xi’an is an incredible city. With a population of about 6 million people, it is considerably smaller than Beijing, but it more than makes up for that in character.

The connection to the past combined with its modern pulse make it an incredible place to visit. Peking University, where my program is based out of, is far from the center of Beijing. Sometimes, this can make life feel quite isolated. We are surrounded by students and academics 24/7, and I would venture that they are not fully representative of the rest of China’s population.

Last weekend, we took a group trip to Xi’an, a once capital of China. Although now mostly known as the city to stay in if one wishes to see the terra-cotta warriors (often referred to by our tour-guide as the eighth wonder of the world), it is an amazing place within itself. Our hotel was blocks away from the center of the city, and it afforded us some amazing opportunities to explore.

If there was one thing that stuck out about Xi’an, it was the food. While there, we did try the city’s famous yangrou pao mo, which consists of small pieces of heavy bread torn into small pieces with lamb meat and broth ladled on top, but it wasn’t very tasty. The consistency was glue-like and the meat was minimal. What made up for this was the street food: walking along one of the market streets in the Muslim quarter, I was surrounded by amazing different dishes being prepared. From the Chinese sandwich, a piece of heavy pita-like bread split open and filled with cooked beef, to the chinese tostada, fried in a giant pan of oil filled with pork and vegetables, it more than met expectations of how amazing Chinese food can be.

Across the street from our hotel was a small restaurant which was quiet during the day. At night, however, the sidewalk filled up with tables, where one could order a number of different dishes: delicious meat skewers, very spicy noodles, and a type of fried eggplant. The variety and quality (especially for the price) could not be beat.

The rest of our time in the city was spent touring around the famous sites. Our excursion was led by the most tactless tour guide I have ever encountered: although polite at the beginning of the tour, within no time at all she was very disagreeable and just overall seemed to dislike the group. Nevertheless, we saw some pretty amazing things.

The Terra-cotta warriors

I won’t give you the entire history, as wikipedia does a much better job, but these stone guards for the Emperor are a sight. It’s almost eerie as they stand in their rows, life-size, all with different facial expressions. We didn’t spend a ton of time at the site, but enough to see how extensive the set-up is. There are approximately 6,000 terracotta warriors, ready for battle.

We also spent some time checking out the city wall. Built as protection for the city, the wall is about 15 miles long and well-preserved. Within the city, there are many large skyscrapers, shopping malls, and other buildings, most of which light up at night.

Xi’an was a vibrant and exciting place, and definitely my favorite place I’ve visited in China thus far! It was also nice to sleep in a bed with real pillows and just be in the center of things for a change.

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Tomorrow, I’m heading to Shanghai with my friend Mitchell on the high-speed rail, the second-fastest train on earth, for national day. We have a week off from classes, so it’s going to be a nice change. Now, off to prepare an essay and study for a Chinese quiz…

Coming up next…

Just wanted to drop a quick note on what’s coming up in the next few days!

-The program is flying to Xi’an for the weekend to see the terra-cotta warriors and experience the old city. It should be pretty remarkable. We leave campus in about 45 minutes, and I won’t have any access to internet until I’m back late Sunday. It’s about a two-hour flight, and I’m excited to get out of Beijing for a little bit to experience a different part of China.

-My directed independent study project, China’s Strangers, will be launching next week. And yes, it involves you, dear readers!

-Just made plans for National Day/Week in China. It’s a huge holiday, so we have a whole WEEK off from classes. I’ll be headed to Shanghai, and I’ll tell you more about that trip as the itinerary gets confirmed.

On a personal note, we had our first quiz in Chinese language class today and it was a bloodbath. I was destroyed. Just had to throw that in there.

Now, I’m off to pack, find my passport, and get ready.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions, cool blogs/sites for me to check out, questions, or just about anything else, leave a comment!  I’ll talk to you all again on sunday or monday.

To play us out (what does that mean, to play us out!?), here’s a picture of the pagoda and lake on the Beida campus:

A lesson learned

This picture will make sense in a minute...

I learned a lesson today, not the hard way, but it was nevertheless a reminder. This is China. Even with its often Western trappings, this country and culture can come and metaphorically stab you from behind at any minute.

One of my best memories from when I first started listening to the Harry Potter books on tape (now there’s a dated reference!) was the narration and voice work by Jim Dale. A talented actor, he absolutely spoiled the movies for me, as he made the books come alive in my imagination.

One of his best voices was that of Mad-Eye Moody, the slightly off-kilter auror. The characters most memorable quote, a phrase that the character repeated endlessly and Dale practically screamed, was this:

CONSTANT VIGILANCE.

It’s a very apt mantra to keep in mind while in China. After dinner today, I went to one of the on-campus convenience stores where I regretfully buy my bottled water. After purchasing the bottle, I noticed that it was a bit dusty. Thinking this was not a big deal, as it is an open-air convenience store, I started to open the bottle.

But it was already open.

I said last post that 50% of the bottled water here is contaminated, and here’s a real example. The bottle had been refilled and then sold on campus. I know, this is a long post for such a short anecdote, but it threw me off guard because, well, it was on campus. But you can’t trust any product here. Anything could be fake. It shouldn’t have surprised me, as all of the drink sellers at the Great Wall collected our old bottles, most likely selling them refilled to unsuspecting tourists. I discarded the tainted beverage, not prepared to argue my case to the shopkeeper in Mandarin, and bought a carefully inspected bottle.

Water is the least of China’s counterfeit worries; whenever you spend a bill of large denomination, the cashier puts it through a scanner to make sure its real. There are reports of tourists being served fake alcohol, sometimes including anti-freeze, at some of even the most reputable bars. There are even stories of rat being served on the street, presented as either pork or beef. Those are some of the more unsettling examples, but they serve as a reminder of reality: This is China.

Constant vigilance.

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