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.