Reality vs. Expectations
With a mere 89 days left in Korea (or 90, depending on how you’re counting), I think this is an appropriate time to reflect on the things I’ve achieved, the plans that fell through, and what I could realistically accomplish in my last two and a half months in Korea.
What I’ve Accomplished
- I taught. I’ve taught almost every day. I don’t know if anything I’ve done or said has made even a small impact on any of my student’s lives. And while I may not have had many super-fantastic-spectacular days, I haven’t had one major teaching flop so far. Teaching honestly scared the crap out of me before I started doing it, but now I know I can! Yippie!
- I learned some new Korean. I took a month-long class. I’ve made some progress in at least comprehending Korean, although I don’t know that my speaking has improved significantly.
- I traveled to Jeju Island for the Fulbright Conference last weekend. I’d never been there before. I was almost dreading going, because it involved getting on an airplane which is kind of a hassle, but it was really beautiful and I’m glad I had the opportunity to go!
- I have met lots of new people.
- I’ve managed to stay in decent contact with my friends and family in the States, which I am grateful for.
- I’ve learned new bus routes in multiple cities, I can ride the subway in Seoul without thinking twice about which door I’m exiting or which side of the platform I’m on. I take the KTX [high-speed train] with no issues. I’ve flown domestically [and received a balloon animal on one of the flights for my beauty and Korean skills. Hahaha.] And I’ve taken the bus between cities. I can coordinate most ticket sales via phone app or the internet, even in Korean-only.
- I survived bad food in Goesan and stomach issues elsewhere and for the most part am on an even-keel, health-wise.
Expectations that Fell Through
- Korean language. I took one month-long course. Half the reason I came back to Korea was to learn the language. I planned to be consistently enrolled in a Korean class for the entire year, attempting to leave the country at a high-intermediate level. [I need to be “Proficient” for graduate school. This remains a huge challenge for me.] Despite asking my homestay, host school, local college and the Daejeon facebook group for help finding a tutor or class at a time when I could actually attend, nothing was found. Whomp Whomp. Unfortunately, my graduate school will be judging on my actual ability to speak, read and write and not on my ability to karaoke… that might yield some better results.
- Korea is not the land of love. I was misled from the first time I studied here. All it did was make my life incredibly frustrating. Relationships are overrated, but it’s easy to get swept up in the desire to participate in the couples-culture that is so evident here.
- Lack of close relationships. “Daejeon people are not very friendly.” Apparently this isn’t just me, but my host school and homestay have not made it possible to become a true part of their lives. I am not close to either of them, and although I’ve met a few Koreans who are similiar age to me, no one has remained a friend. I suppose if I wanted close relationships, I should have gone to a more rural area.
- Lack of Korean Culture. Like the above, I have not been exposed to Korean culture that was unfamiliar to me before I arrived. This is probably a direct result of the “lack of close relationships” bullet. I don’t eat unfamiliar Korean foods in my homestay (they seem fairly Westernized), my school has their English Department lunches at a Vietnamese restaurant and I wasn’t included in Korean festivities for either of the two major Korean holidays that I have been here for (Chuseok or Chinese New Year).
- Put my best effort into my classes. Although my brain feels totally null and void of new lesson ideas, I only have about 3 more lessons I have to plan (since it takes two weeks to cycle through all of my classes). This isn’t much. Offer 3 more solid lessons to students.
- Help my students to excell at the first annual Daejeon Youth Activism and Diplomacy Conference (YDAC) coming up in June.
- Travel. I have really only traveled with Fulbright this year, and I haven’t really done much independent travel. So far, I have been back to Jeonju for an evening, I have been to Seoul a couple times (including the month of February), Donghae Beach, Gyeongju and Jeju. And Goesan, if you count orientation. I need to go back to Jeonju. I need to go to Daegu and Busan.
- Become more familiar with Korean culture. I could go to Seoul to attend a lantern festival for Buddha’s birthday. I could go out of my way to try some new foods (or at least eat the Korean foods I love and don’t get to eat at home more often — like 물냉면, cold noodles).
- I can leave a good impression on my aquantances, and try to reinforce Fulbright friendships that I could see lasting beyond July (like the other ETAs who will be in D.C. this fall!).
- I can prepare to come home. I can continue to apply for jobs and register for courses and talk to future classmates and keep my family updated and make plans for my future. And I can look at the little airplane icon on my cellphone home screen and while I am counting down the days, I can also be happy about the time I have left.
Wake Up.For the first time in months, this morning felt alive.
I wore two layers too many, braced myself for gale-forced winds as I stepped out…
into the sunshine?
By 9:30am, it was already significantly warm. I felt the sun on my skin instead of the wind. The trees blooming their flowering buds, little peaks of green grass rise above the muddy, matted grass from last fall. One singular child sat on a bench outside my apartment reading a book.
This is the kind of life I forgot about, not very far off from the mid-morning brunches and report-writing sessions in the sun last spring, in Los Angeles. This is the kind of life I never want to let go. I never wanted to let go. But I lost it somewhere in the loneliness of winter (probably due to a severe lack of Vitamin D).
By 10am, the world was awake in an early morning daze. Everything was still silent, but no one was alone. Markets are opening, coffee shop espresso machines humming. Even the “spicy cup chicken” shop owner was cooking. At 10am. I haven’t seen him there before noon in months. This is big, I thought.
And while I would love to share this kind of morning with close friends, or family, or someone special - because the sunshine on a springtime Saturday morning is so special to me - this may be the only time I will never feel alone. Because I can feel the world rising together in my bones.
This morning, Korea was finally waking up. And I can only hope I’m waking up with it.
How I felt when I found out my students don’t wash their hands after using the restroom…
Submitted by JJM
It’s not a common situation. Or is it? Almost never being alone, but being almost consistently isolated. Culture shock? Language barrier? Nine months down, and the boundaries between “culture problems” and “my problems” have bent and blurred and broken. I walk to work. I walk home. I might walk to the store if I need something.
My typical day consists of the following handful of sentences [unless I talk to my mom]:
“Hi! How are you?”
“[insert what I ate for lunch here]”
“I have ____ hours of class tomorrow.”
“I’ve arrived/I’m leaving.”
“I will eat well/I ate well.”
Note that some of these are in Korean.
I walk to work. I walk home. I walk to work. I walk home.
And these are the most engaging conversations I have these days.
I didn’t except transitioning from Seoul to be so difficult. I searched and fought my way out of this isolation before I left for Seoul. I met some other expats, I met some Koreans, I still kept in touch with a select few Fulbright friends, I met a boy. It worked. I met friends almost every day. I received Kakao messages just to chat. And then Seoul was mostly fantastic. But people work, schedules change, people leave, they live different lives, they grow tired and wary and they grow apart. Today, my life is not much different than it was last September or October, except with slightly less hope and a lot less plans.
Korea, I wish you were giving me a reason to stay.
imanna asked: Hello, I am interested in applying for the Fulbright program and I was curious how difficult is it to get into the South Korea program? And thank you for this blog. It has given me wonderful insight of the daily life of a Fulbright scholar :) Good luck on your journey!
Hi! First, I’m so happy to hear that there are people reading my blog who are unrelated to me! Thank you! ^_^
To answer your question, the Fulbright Program in South Korea is pretty selective. I am not sure about the numbers for research grants, but for teaching assistantships, I believe about a quarter to a third of people who apply are accepted. This year, the majority of my fellow teachers have prior experience with teaching or East Asia, but there are lots of other majors represented as well. No matter what, I’d highly recommend applying! You’ll never know if you don’t try. 화이팅!
For better or worse, everything has changed.
I returned to work last Monday for the first time since Christmas. (Well, I had a two week winter camp in the afternoons, but that’s a blip on the radar.) Everything has changed. Everything is weird. It’s familiar but it’s not. I’m having a difficult time readjusting from Seoul to what is supposed to be my “home” this year.
I wake up in the mornings and look in the wrong places for my cereal bowl and soy milk. I got used to the kitchen I had in Seoul. It’s been a week, and every morning, without fail, I look for something in the wrong drawer or on the wrong shelf.
Monday morning, I arrived at my office and everything moved. The desks were different. They moved. There were extras. The creature comforts of my office (a snack drawer and instant coffee) temporarily(?) disappeared.
They moved my desk. I used to be next to the window, facing the door, on the aisle you walk through to get to the fridge and the sink. Now I am smack in the middle of a cluster of unused-but-claimed desks, facing towards the window, with my back to the door. The other english teachers have moved into my office. They all sit together, behind me. I can’t help but think that they subconsciously excluded me… again. Yet I don’t want to move. Because it won’t bring back my old office with my old teachers, snacks and coffee included.
Some of my old co-teachers left. I haven’t met all the new ones yet and I don’t know how they will be as co-teachers. Most of my old teachers just sat quietly in the back while I did my thing. I believe that one of my favorite co-teachers — an older man who sat across from me in the office last year — has left, or retired, or some combination of the two. He was always very kind, always spoke to me in English, brought me fruit from lunch even if I didn’t want it. He made me feel welcomed. As the school year starts, a little piece of me is mourning that.
Then there was the physics professor in my office last year. I haven’t seen him yet. Maybe he moved. Teachers in Korea get moved every few years to a new school. He knew little English but liked to talk about headlines in the daily newspaper. One day, just weeks before winter vacation, he came in and said proudly “I! Am the physics teacher!” There was also the new, young female teacher who always made our office coffee. I didn’t know it, but these people made an positive impact on my day, everyday. I couldn’t wait to get to the office in the morning.
My schedule changed too, but not as drastically. The biggest change is Monday’s. I now teach 5 classes on Monday, with 3-in-a-row from 8am-11am. The rest of the week gets gradually easier.
Tomorrow will be my first day teaching an actually class. I was expected to work full-time last week even though I wasn’t teaching. I’m ready for the second part of my year to begin.
I need to accept the change and move on.
Seoul, I miss you.
It has been way too long since I’ve updated. Again.
I will try to post pictures in a separate post to not overwhelm your eyes.
I spent January 29th to Feburary 28th in Seoul. It was a really necessary and productive vacation away from my placement city of Daejeon. While I was there, I lived in Hongdae — one of the main college neighborhoods and one of Seoul’s most popular nightlife districts — and took Korean classes at Ganada Korean Hagwon (a private acadamy). Classes ran from 10-1 on four days of the week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday) and were totally fantastic. I was placed at exactly the right level and learned a lot of new grammar and new vocab. We covered 15 chapters (half of my assigned textbook) which means I still have tons more to work on even now that class has ended.
My classmates became my best friends. Myself, one other Fulbright Fellow, a Mexican couple, three Japanese students, a Malaysian student and a Korean who grew up abroad all squished into a tiny classroom to practice our reading, writing and conversation skills. At least some of us had lunch together every day after class, followed by coffee and homework time. It was really an exceptional experience, and I am not sure if any other language class will ever be quite as … joyful.
When I wasn’t in class, I was either waltzing around Seoul or at my villa in Hongdae. Since I decided not to travel abroad over the break, I opted for a nice-sized single room (instead of a closet), sharing a house with a younger couple and another college-aged student. My house was only a 3 minute walk to the subway, and about 15 minutes to the main Hongdae shopping and restaurant area. Plus, there was a little shop right across from my apartment that made ONLY FRENCH FRIES. You could choose from homestyle or cajun spice fries, along with about eight different dipping sauces. (WHOA!) And they were really delicious. I really couldn’t have gotten much luckier.
I should have written about what I did each day. Made breakfast, walked to class, ate with friends, did homework at a cafe, shopped, saw people and places, ate dinner, etc. I went to the War Memorial, the bus terminal arcade which has so much shopping it hurts, Kyobo bookstore, the Coex aquarium (huge!), Seoul Tower and some other places. I also met an old high school friend for dinner, had some good indian food for lunches (at Jyoti) and some great bubble tea (from ShareTea) and many tasty cups of chicken/rice cake/tater tots (from Hong Cup). I wish I had more time. There is so much more I could have done.
Seoul has my heart. Coming back to Daejeon, I’ve been fighting the homesickness and longing for it even though it was never really my home. I just felt free. And like I was learning again. I am sure I learn new things everyday, but there’s nothing like having a huge city and a good Korean class to get you out of bed in the morning.
Edit: Uploading phone photos. Sorry for the impending influx of separate posts. It’s the only option!