Visiting the USA after a year in South Korea is more awkward
Visiting the USA after a year in South Korea is more awkward
Goodbyes are awkward.
Came home from my farewell dinner with the English department at my school tonight pretty early (7pm) and knew I wasn’t in the state to stay dormant in my homestay all night. Furthermore, it was a Friday night and my host brothers (ages 14,12, 9) were buried in their textbooks sprawled on the living room floor. Despite my cultural understandings of the competitiveness of their classrooms, the expectations of their parents, and the importance these tests have even in Middle School—it just didn’t seem right.
"Wanna go see World War Z?" They jumped up, put on their game face, and went over to talk to The Boss, my host mom. After some serious reluctance, she agreed, after they promised to study later that night plus at least 5 hours on BOTH saturday and sunday.
Little did I know that this movie would be TERRIFYING and totally not appropriate for a 3rd grade student. But these kids are as thick as bricks. The youngest spent most of the film curled up in a ball on his seat like a sick dog, the middle one with his hands attempting to cover his eyes and his ears simultaneously, and the oldest with a huge grin on his face the entire time.
After the movie, their happy energy was full on, and my host mom and dad took note, smiling and thanking me for giving their sons a mini vacation. We busted open a huge watermelon at the table while the kids got back to busting out the books.
P.S.: SEE WORLD WAR Z!. You’re welcome.
From a student, as a farewell gift (along with Korean folk dolls!)
Distinguished Corner to the teacher.
Thank you sir.
Meanwhile teaching me to thank you.
I think one day suddenly refresh his corner.
I’ll often be contacted.
Note my Korean spelled name is 코너, which is used in Korean sometimes as “corner”.
I showed Modern Family as my final lesson with one of my 3rd grade classes and did a brief lesson on different family structures. At the end I had them write how their Korean family and the family on the TV show (which includes a gay couple, and a remarried couple) are similar or different.
Their responses were some of the most heartwarming things I’ve heard all year:
" We are different because my family has very simple life"
"We are similar because with each other listening some problems and solve"
"We are same because my family loves my family eachother share sadness, happiness, and my family is only one"
"We are similar because my family is original eachother"
"They are different because funny and my family not"
"They are similar because we are both always smile and sharing love, happiness, and so on"
"They are different because my family has no many money that can buy anything"
"They are different because my family is no fun"
None of the responses noted the gay factor, different weight or appearance issues, or other superficial remarks. So proud of these kids on my last day!
I will be staying in Korea fora second grant year with Fulbright. New school, new city, new living situation. Ill be working at an all girls high school in Seoul, and living in my own apartment.
I think change is the only way to propel myself forward in korea and avoid feeling stagnant. So, while I am very sad to leave my current students and feel guilty departing in the middle of their school year, the change is more than necessary for my well being and i look forward to the diversity and chaos of the capital.
Being the constant self critic, a gene I tragically inherited from my mother, I’ve often been caught in a wave of thoughts on what I should be doing, what I could be doing better, and what I should have never done at all. My grant year with Fulbright in South Korea was a tremendous gift, one that I’m lucky enough to extend for another year as I move to teach in Seoul next year. But the grant was framed as just that, a very special opportunity for extraordinary people only—-a designation that at times suffocated me this year. What if I just want to be normal? What if just living here, in a totally foreign land full of small challenges everyday, was enough?
Today, while sweating with 할머니s (grandmothers) in lavender and rose petal scented heated dens at my neighborhood’s 찜질방 (community sauna/spa), a different thought consumed me: accomplishment. I’ve got tons to be proud of from my first year in South Korea, here’s a proclamation of some:
—I lived with a previously foreign Korean family. After living on my own for the past 6 years, in dorms and apartments, I went back to family dinners, homework help, and friday night card games, only this time with a Korean family. Being the individualized, independent seeking individual that I am, this was the single hardest challenge I’ve dealt with this year. Despite the miscommunications, inconvenient location, and lack of privacy, I would have never changed a thing. I love my Korean family and cannot wait to see how my brothers progress into diligent young men.
—I can hold a conversation in Korean. And can understand a lot of what I hear from the strangers around me. And can communicate and teach to my lower level students using Korean. And can write multiple pages worth of journal entries in Korean. And achieved one of my biggest goals for the year—to make Korean friends through the Korean language. I came to Korea not even knowing how to read or pronounce 한글, the Korean alphabet, and am leaving a year later with a confident intermediate (?) level.
—I adapted to Korean food. I eat a traditional Korean meal 3 times a day, nearly 7 days a week. Pungent kimchi, a steaming bowl of white rice sprinkled with alternative grains, a spicy vegetable and meat stew, sweetened and stirfried dried anchovies, and a variety of vegetable 반찬 (side dishes), greet me nearly every morning I wake up. The flavors are uncompromisingly intense, but I’ve learned to accept it no other way.
—I taught conversational English to over 1,200 Middle School students in 11 months. I attempted (sometimes successfully) to reach out to all of my students, whose capabilities ranged from conversationally fluent to illiterate. Through club classes, private conversations, basketball games and bike rides, I formed tangible bonds and real relationships with a few dozen, whose names I’ll remember and intelligence will inspire me.
—I collaborated with a Korean English teacher at my school to plan and perform an “open class”, a class which would be scrutinized, critiqued, and applauded by all the English teachers at our school, the principal, the head of Gwangju’s board of Education, and a handful of other teachers from my city of Gwangju. I learned to keep up with my co-teachers ambitious plans and perfectionist tendencies as we spent hours upon hours for over a month planning a lesson which turned out to be more of a theatrical performance than a English class period. Despite my confusion and frustrations at the process as a whole, I nailed the lesson and was told by the head teacher at our school that it was the best lesson she has ever seen.
OK enough with that. The bottom line is that living in Korea, a “comfortable, first world asian country” began being easier than I anticipated and progressed into being more difficult, foreign, and alienating than I ever imagined. But I guess thats life, and thats what happens, no matter where you are, when things stop feeling like a fantasy and you start acting like a player in your real life.