Saturday, July21, 2013, Mike’s Coffee, Denton, Texas, The United States of America, 11:20 AM

I have been home now for four days, and I am emotionally and physically exhausted. Physically because I still have jet-lag and have not slept more than five hours in one night. Emotionally… wll, that is pretty self-explanatory.

My Fulbright journey has truly come full circle. And as such, this will be my final blog post. At least in this particular blog, that is. I have a movie blog that I didn’t work very much on in Korea, but I want to get back to, so if you like my writing, please check it out. It is hereslookinatyousquid.wordpress.com.

Okay, enough self-advertising. Back to the subject at hand. Honestly, coming back to America had both been easier and harder in unexpected ways. First off, it almost feels as if I never left and my entire year in Korea was one giant dream. Every now and then I think I imagined it all, and the only way I know for sure it really happened are the items I brought back from Korea.

It has been great spending time with my family and friends. I am very happy to be home. But honestly, what has been very difficult is that now I should be getting ready for graduate school and shifting gears, but Fulbright isn’t completely out of my system. I am still thinking up lessons. It feels wrong when I am not visiting Seondeok Girls Middle School each day. I know logically that things have changed, but my heart doesn’t quite know it yet. I guess I need a little bit more time to get adjusted. It will probably happen more quickly when the jet-lag is over. Before coming home, I have always thought that when my grant year was over I would have this huge feeling of achievement. I mean, I am a Fulbright Scholar now! I am very proud of myself, but honestly, right now when I think of Korea, I don’t feel this grand awe of my success. I feel a bitter ache of wanting to go back.

But I do believe this too will fade. I think I will feel the urge to go back to Korea for the rest of my life, but it won’t be as strong as time goes on. I am very sure graduate school will preoccupy me.

I am proud to report this though: looking back on my grant year, I honestly think I have no regrets. I am still a little disapointed the Clazziquai concert was canceled, but 99% of everything was perfect. There were a lot of challenges, but those difficulties allowed me to grow and become who I am now. I don’t feel very different than who I was before coming to Korea, but knowing everything I went through, I know I must be. Case and point: I start graduate school in about one month, and I am not freaking out about it.

So how do I end this blog? Honestly, I have been trying to avoid that word, because I know that my year in Korea will have ramifications on the rest of my life. So while my grant year is over, and I am in America, I think Fulbright and Korea will live on in me for the rest of my days.

How about this? Aside from everything, the one thing I am always sure about is the fact that I am a writer. An unpublished one, yes, but when life is uncertain, writing is something I can always hold on to. So I will end this blog this way:

Last night

I saw mountains in my dreams

partially shrouded

and obscured

by an ethereal veil of mist.

The fog caressed me

beckoning me to return

to the green mountain slopes

where I once felt tears,

so humbled I was by their beauty.

And maybe one day,

I will actually be able

to answer their call.

 

Advertisements

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013, Airplain somwhere over the Pacific Ocean, 8:45 PM

 Well, my time in Korea has come quickly to an end. The next soil I stand on will be from a land I have not been to in over a year.

 

I admit I kind of let this blog get behind over the last week, and I think that was mainly because as I saw the end coming closer and closer, I grew emotional. I was afraid writing about it would make it real, if that makes any sense.

 

So back to my last day of school. First, I went up to my classroom to tidy things up and do a bit of organizing for the next ETA, when something amazing happened. Ye Ram, my loudest student, and also one of my most disruptive students who I thought at one point had been expelled (I was wrong, I guess it was just suspension) came into my classroom with tears going down her cheeks and gave me a big hug, saying “Allison, don’t go.”

 

I was so surprised. Considering how many times I had to give Ye Ram death glares to quiet up, I just did not expect it. But it was definitely the first major tear-jerking moment of the day.

 

Since I only see my classes once a week, I had been saying good bye to each class all week. But on Friday, Mrs. Go had me go to each class as they were being taught by other teachers to say good bye again. And since it was the final day, it was much harder. My students kept saying “Teacher, don’t cry,” which just made me cry harder, which was a very vicious cycle.

 

After my last class, I sat in my classroom alone for a few minutes, and looked around me. I thought of the hard moments, those classes I had when I first started teaching and I wanted to hide under my desk in the fetal position. And then I remembered some of the amazing moments. When my students made me laugh by saying something rediculous. I still think my favorite one is when I started dancing one morning and one of my students screamed, “My eyes!”

 

Before I left Seondeok, the teachers had a little ceremony for me. I received gifts: two collections of Korean poetry with English translations, a Seondeok year book (yes, with my photo in it) and a Korean painting of the mountains.

 

I greatly appreciate the gifts, and I thanked everyone warmly, but I also said the true gift they had given me was letting me teach their students.

 

Mrs. Go was going to take me to the bank so I could transfer all my money in my Korean account to America and then close my Korean account. As she and I walked to her car, my principal followed us all the way to see me off. He thanked me for all my hard work.

 

By the time I made it back to my homestay, I sat in the middle of the floor of my room, just trying to make sense of everything.

 

I spent most of that weekend packing, but one Saturday night my younger host sister Youngjoo (who was one of my students came to me and said, “Allison, my friends and I made this for you.”

 

She handed me a large, laminated piece of construction paper with about ten post it notes. On each post it note was a note that said nice little things like, “Come back to Korea soon!” or “You are a good teacher!” As I read each one, tears kept coming.

 

Sunday night was my last night in Gyeongju, and my last night with my homestay family. They asked me what I wanted to eat for dinner. I requested Korean barbeque, Sangeyupsal.

 

I don’t know if I have said much about Korean barbeque, but it is amazing, and nothing like barbeque in America. You are given little slices of meet that you cook on a little pan in front of you. Then you take a large leaf from the provided baskets and put the meat in it plus any other topping you might desire. What I like to do is put in meat, roasted garlic, and mizo paste. It is amazing.

 

That was a great meal, quite possibly the best one I have had all year.

 

The next morning, my host father had to go to work, and my host sisters had to go to school. They each gave me a big hug. Youngjoo was crying. I wrapped her in my arms as tightly as I could and whsipered to her that I thought she was an amazing, sweet girl.

 

I didn’t start crying crying until my host mom started driving me away from the apartment to take me to the bus terminal. As I watched the apatment disapear from sight around a corner, it was like a part of my life was vanishing with it.

 

I planned my journey to Incheon airport very carefully. I wanted to make it as stress free as possible. Therefore, I decided over a month ago to take a bus straight there from Gyeongju the day before my flight, and booked a room at a guest house near the airport which offers a service to pick you up from the airport and drive you there.

 

After a six hour bus ride, I went into the airport, I went to the information kiosk asking if they would call my hostel for me so they could come pick me up. But when I talked to the manager, he said in confusion, “You are too far away for us to pick you up.”

“I thought you were ten minutes away from the airport,” I said.

“We are. But you are an the Incheon bus terminal, not Incheon airport.”

I had had no idea there was an Incheon bus terminaI, so I guess when I had gone to the bus station that morning and asked for Incheon, that is what they gave me. I hung up the phone and went straight into problem solving mode. I told the woman at the information kiosk that I need to get to airport, and asked her how I could.

She told me it was about an hour away on a public bus or subway.

I had planned my excursion so I would not have done either of those things. At that moment, I had a lot of heavy baggage with me, and dealing with that kind of cumbersome stuff with you on crowded public transportation can be very difficult. So even though I am much more comfortable with buses than subways, I chose the subway route. Still inconvenient to be sure, but less so by far.

The woman gave me a lot of help, giving me a map and circiling the stops and transfers I needed to make. So in the miracles of all miracles, I was able to take an hour long subway ride with two transfers and did not get lost. Booyah! Of course by the end of it my arms were aching from luggina round my huge suitcases and sweat was pouring down my back from my heavy backpack, but I finally made it to the airport, where I called my hostel back and they picked me up.

And now here I am on my plane. I am aware that in this post and many of my latest posts contain a lot of saddness at leaving Korea, but when I was waiting in the airport, I pulled out my photo album of my family members and friends. I made it before coming to Korea as something I could look at when I got homesick. I kept looking at one of the photos I had on the first page. It is a photo from my college graduation. I’m still in my gown, hat, and all of my cord/ stole regalia. I am with my little sister Maggie, and our arms are wrapped around each other.

Right now I am no longer thinking about everything I will miss in Korea. I am thinking about what I will see when I get off this plane. Well, after picking up my baggage and get through customs, that is.

 

You know, when I came to Korea, I brough an American flag pin, and even though it is very small, I somehow did not lose it. Just before the plane took off, I pinned it to my shirt. I guess it was my own little celebration of returning home and demonstrating my patriotism. Because while I love traveling and love criticizing the American government to no end, I am American, and I am proud of it, and I am happy to be heading home… finally.

 

I began this post with saying “My year is coming to an end,” but I wish to ammend that. I chose not to look at this as an ending. I would like to instead think that I am simply about to go on another journey. And while I am leaving Korea, Korea will never leave me. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013, Caffe Bene, Gyeongju, Sotuh Korea, 4:47 PM

This has been my last week of teaching. I have two days left of being an English teacher in South Korea. Somehow I am getting this weird feeling, this sense of searching. Whenever I am being driven somewhere, or when I’m riding the bus home, I am looking at Gyeongju around me, as if I should be discovering something more concrete I can hold onto. I am looking at things that I have seen every day heading back and forth to school and never really thought of, and now I am asking myself if I will remember it. For instance, about twenty feet from the small road that leads to Seondoek is a bridge of train tracks that goes over the road. It is a track for KTX, which is the fastest train in Korea. When you walk below that bridge and a train is going on it, it sounds like an earthquake. And green plants spill over the side and hang down over the road, I guess a Korean version of Georgian ivy. I have passed under that bridge a thousand times. And this morning, as my host mom was taking me to school, I went under it, wondering how long it could be retained in my memories. 

There are quite a few specific things I need to write about today, not just my sadness about leaving. I actually have a bit of back track to do because for the past few days I have been organizing my room, and finishing up things both at my school and my homestay. Not only am I providing closure for myself. I am also trying to leave things in a manner that will make the next ETAs’ transitions as easy as possible. In my school, I have cleaned and organized my cl;assroom and my desk, and I have written a letter explaining the need-to-know facts of Seondeok, just as the ETA before me did. I also did a similar thing in my homestay for the ETA who will be moving in with my host family. There are a small number of things I have acquired that I no longer need and/ or don’t want to lug back to America in my suit cases. I thought a lot of these items could be helpful for the ETA who will be moving in. When he/ or she does, he or she will get hangars, hand sanitizer, pocket tissues, band-aids, ear plugs, pepto bismal, and a few other items. 

Anyway, now I am giving myself a break and I need to go back to last Saturday night. When my host family surprised me with a little excursion for the five of us. We drove three hours out of Gyeongju to a small city where we stayed at a hotel. We had left at around 11:00 PM, so by the time we made it to the hotel it was very late, and we were all exhausted. I was more ready for sleep than anyone. We walked into our hotel room and I saw no beds. 

I should not have been surprised this. Before the west started influencing Korea, Koreans all slept on the floor, their only cushioning a thin mat. Today, most Korean people sleep in beds, but some Koreans opt for the traditional sleeping style. Hotels often offer two kinds of rooms: rooms with beds, and rooms with mats, like the one we were in. During my grant year, I have actually slept this way a few times. Never very comfortably, as I am the worlds lightest sleeper and any change to my sleep habits screws up a night for me. Until Saturday night. I was so exhausted that I fell right to sleep on the floor, no problem. 

The next morning, we drove about another three hours to the coast, to go to the International Garden Festival. I spent the entire drive looking wistfully out the window. Korea is famous for its cherry blossoms in the spring. And yes, they are stunning. But I think the most beautiful time in Korea is monsoon season, when almost every morning, the mountains are veiled with a sheath of mist. It is the most ethereal thing I have ever seen. I am quite sure that in the future, when I think of Korea, that will be one of the first things I think of. 

Monsoon season is quite beautiful, yet it is a very inconvenient, and at times, quite miserable time in Korea. For it rains almost everyday. Most of the time it is just a sick sprinkling, but every now and then, it pours. By the time we made it to the festival, it was pouring. And my tennis shoes were still slightly damp from my brief stint in the rain just two days prior. So I wasn’t exactly in the mood to go rushing into another storm. 

But rush I did. During that whole trip, no matter what we were doing, I was a complete optimist with a winning attitude. Okay, let’s be honest, that does not sound like me at all, but that is what I was those two days, because my host parents were doing this for me as a good bye present, and I was not about to disrespect that kindness by getting bitter from the rain. 

When we first got out of the car we squeezed under two large umbrellas. And quickly my host mom found a vendor selling pink plastic ponchos for me and my host sisters. 

Unfortunately, I seemed to get the poncho with the defective snaps, and when I rarely was able to get them to snap together, any movement whatsoever pulled them apart again, so I ended up getting wet anyway. Oh well. It was just water. And thankfully, the festival had a very large indoor garden.

Next to the indoor garden was an indoor market with vendors from all over the world. Okay, mainly they were Korean or Indian. And actually the Indian ones flirted with me a lot. One guy even asked me for my phone number. My host sisters thought that was funny. But the memorable thing that happened here was my host family found a booth that took family photos and instead of printing them on paper, they printed the photo on small slabs of wood. My host father had two made of all of us sitting together, and when they were finished, he handed me one and said very simply, “Gift.”

My hands trembled slightly as I received the gift. I said nothing, biting my lip, blinking rapidly.

My host father said something very fast in Korean to Heejoo, the older host sister. She said in English, “He asked if you like it.”

I looked at the photo. Four Koreans, pale skin, dark, sleek hair, gleaming, dark eyes, and sitting amidst them, an even paler-skinned, blond-haired, green-eyed woman. They were all smiling, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. 

“It is the nicest gift I could have asked for. Thank you,” I said. 

By the time we left the market, most of the rain had stopped. It was just sprinkling. The remaining grey clouds blocking the sun kept the day relatively cool, so for a while the day was very pleasant. 

The gardens outside were beautiful. But honestly, I don’t remember them very much. What I remember is having a great time with my host family. A perfect way to end our year together. 

 

So that gets us up to this week. One other thing that has been keeping me busy over the past few days is I have been reading. Which is obvious, because I am always reading something, but I want to talk about the two books I read. The first is called Escape From Camp 14, by journalist Blaine Harden. This book is the true story of the first known man to escape from a prison labor camp in North Korea. My ETA friend, Alanna Hoffman recommended it to me. Over winter break, when everyone was traveling to Japan and South East Asia, the United States, Alanna went to North Korea. Don’t worry, she got back fine. She wanted to go because she has spent a large portion of her grant year working with North Korean defectors. She told me about this book at the Jeju Conference, and I finally started reading it a couple of weeks ago. I’m sure it is no shocker to say it is not a happy read. It is quite disturbing. There were multiple times I had to shut the book and wait a while before I could continue. However, it was worth it. The book is extremely enlightening, and very powerful. 

At one point in his book, Harden mentions the memoirs of the American soldier Charles Robert Jenkins. Jenkins was stationed at the DMZ in the 1960’s. After becoming severely depressed, he stepped over the border and surrendered to North Korean soldiers. I found those memoirs, called The Reluctant Communist, and read that too. 

First off, let me just say this book is much less disturbing than Escape From Camp 14. It is also not a happy read exactly, it is just a little less disturbing. Relatively speaking. However, it was still powerful and riveting. And it allows you to see North Korea in a very different way. Escape From Camp 14 is from a North Korean point of view. The Reluctant Communist is from the point of view of an American. The man who escaped from the camp in Escape From Camp 14 experienced life in North Korea as the lowest of the low. As an American prisoner, Jenkins was treated as the elite. In North Korean terms, which is nowhere near as luxurious of the elite in America or even some undeveloped countries other tha North Korea. 

Anyway, my point with all of this is I would totally recommend both of these books if you are interested at all in learning more about North Korea. 

Which brings us up to today. Yesterday, just before I was about to leave school, Mrs. Go told me that this morning I could go on a field trip with the first year students to experience a traditional Korean wedding. I didn’t have any morning classes, so I told her I thought that would be great. And, just like most things in Korea, I had no idea what I was in for. 

I came to school this morning, and Mrs. Go drove me to what looked like a Buddhist temple near the school. All the first year students were standing on a large open-air pavilion as a woman in a hanbok was introducing what they would be doing. Actually I’m just guessing that because I have no idea what was being said. But a few minutes later, another Hanboked woman grabbed me, pushed me towards a room, and put me in a Hanbok. Oh, just in case, a hanbok is traditional Korean clothing for females. It consists of a thick skirt or dress that you wear under your breasts, and it goes straight down. On top of that you wear a loose shirt with flaps you can slide your hands under. A hanbok is extremely hot, and shows no figure whatsoever. 

As this woman was putting me in a hanbok, I kind of felt like Mulan when she was being all made up for the match maker. She kept turning me this way and that, poking and prodding me, raising my arms, etc. 

I very quickly started getting a feeling that I have not really had since October. The feeling that you don’t quite know what is going on, or what to do, or how to  behave. I felt that way a lot at the beginning of my grant year, but over time it grew less and less. I got use to my school. To Gyeongju. 

But to this place, to this situation, it was completely new again. And it was weird feeling that way again considering I am going home in less than a week. 

But despite that feeling, I kept a smile on my face as she got me in my hanbok. 

Then, as the ceremony started, I resorted to the tactic that I think every ETA resorted to when they had similar feelings: observe, and mimic. I followed a line of about ten students back into the pavillion where they were going up to a woman in a hanbok, and one by one were putting their hands in a bowl of water, and then drying them. I observed and mimicked. And we went back into the room we had just been in. And as I waited in a corner, the students all became adorned in hanboks like me, except in different colors. 

We got in a line again and went back in the pavillion, this time going to small square mats. We stood behind them, then a woman read each name. As a name was called, the student would go down on her mat and sit on her heels. Again, I observed and mimicked. This time, I regretted it. 

For whatever reason (I’m American, I’m not accustomed to this posture, I’m out of shape, what have you) sitting that way was extremely uncomfortable. After just a few minutes, my feet went numb. Pain was reaching up my back. My knees were shaking. I was trying my hardest to be respectful of the ceremony, but I’m sure I was squirming my entire way through it. I hate having to play the foreigner card after being in Korea over a year. 

As I was shaking in pain and cussing in my head, the woman in front of us was singing in Korean. After that, about four women in hanboks brought out something on trays to me and each student. It wasn’t until they put a tray before me that I saw exactly what it was: what looked to be a very intricate and embellished pin cushion, and a twisted coil of black hair. This is going to look interesting, I thought. 

The women pinned the coiled hair to the back of our heads, and placed the pin cushions (I’m sure they have an actual name, but I have no idea what it is) on the top of our heads. I really wish I could have gotten a picture of myself with this done, but when we went back to the room, a woman whipped it off of me before I could get my camera out. Argh!).

Once they finished with us, we stood. I tried, but I was as shaky as a new-born colt. My legs wobbled. I must have looked like a drunk grandmother. I’m laughing right now, writing this, but at the time, I was mortified. 

I finally made it up. I was hopeful that we were done, and I could get the hot hanbok off and stretch my legs. It was not to be so. Instead we bowed and sat back down on our heels. And stood back up. And sat back down. And stood back up. And sat back down. The expletives in my head were getting more colorful by the second. 

The woman was singing again, and each student was brought out trays of tea. I kept mimicking. We grasped the small ceramic cups of tea with both hands, and waited. Then we lifted our hands to our chests. Then waited. Then brought it to our lips. Then waited. Then we could take a drink (although I will admit, I took an early sip). 

We finished the tea, and stood again. This time my legs could not support my weight. I had to grab a wooden beam beside me to hoist myself up. And once again, I prayed it was over, so my legs could get some relief. 

I almost cried when once again, that turned out not to be so. For a second time we went back down. Then went back up. Then went back down. Then went back up. Then went back down. Koreans like rules of three. 

There was more singing, and a lot of talking in Korean that seemed to last forever. I was getting to the point in which I thought I couldn’t take it anymore when we finally stood and went back to the room where we were relieved of our hanboks. 

Since the students could only do this ten at a time, the ceremony was done three times. The students who had already gone waited in a room, while I watched the other two ceremonies. Thankfully, I got to sit cross-legged. Since I was just a spectator, I got a few photos. 

Afterwards, we all walked back to Seondeok… in the heat. To explain how hot Korea is in the summer, think of how hot Dallas is in the summer, and add worse humidity than Houston (I’m sorry if you are reading this and you are not from Texas). But, I am actually glad we walked back. Buecause we walked through a lotus field that Seondeok is by.

I had gone to this field a few times in the fall and spring. I really wanted to see it in bloom, and thought the flowers would open when all the other flowers did in Korea in the spring. When I never saw it happen, however, I thought I missed it.

But as we walked through the field, I saw the biggest, most beautiful flowers I have ever seen. They were breathtaking.

Okay, I think I have spent three hours writing this post. I have other demands on my time. But I promise to write again before I return home.  

Saturday, July 6th, 2013, Caffe Bene, Gyeongju, South Korea, 11:25 AM

I had an unexpected adventure yesterday. To explain exactly what happened, I have to go back to a week ago, to last Saturday night. I was in Seoul with all the other ETA’s at the Final Dinner. After the final dinner, I went to a club with my friend Megan and her Korean friend Teagum. We went dancing and had a lot of fun. 

Note about Korean night clubs. You have to show them ID to get in. Unlike American clubs, this is not really to show them your age, but to confirm you are not in the military. In Korea, every male has to serve I think at least two years in the Korean military, and night clubs don’t like having soldiers in their establishments. 

Fulbright ETA’s and other foreigners have ID’s called ARC or Alien Registration Cards. I showed it to a bouncer as I went into the club. And around 3:00 AM, when I made it back to my hostel, realized I no longer had it.

I was not extremely concerned, because honestly, I rarely have to show my ARC card, and I am leaving Korea very soon. But, to be a good ETA, I called Anthony Cho, a former ETA who is now Mrs. Shim’s assistant. His job is basically to take care of all the ETA’s and help them with stuff like this. I told him what had happened, and he informed me that when foreigners leave Korea, if they cannot return their ARC card, they are fined 100,000 won, or over $100. Meaning I either had to pay that fine or go to an immigration office to apply for a new card. 

I had to wait for Anthony to email me with pertinent info, which he did on last Thursday, the day my principal, vice-prinicpal, and co-teachers threw me a special hoishik in honor of my departure. 

Before we left Seondeok to go to the restaurant, I told Mrs. Go what was going on, asking for her help. She told me not to worry about it. We would work it out after the hoishik. 

I have gotten very use to hoishiks. Even though many of those present are English teachers, for the most part, they speak Korean. I have gotten very adept at sitting there with a smile on my face as I space out. 

We did talk a little bit. This was July 4th, so I was wearing a small American flag pin on my dress, and I explained just why I was wearing it. July 4th somehow becomes much more important when you are actually not in America. 

Anyway, they were speaking Korean, and eventually, I heard my name get thrown around, and the term “ARC card.” The discussion became very serious it seemed, and I waited patiently for someone to translate to tell me just what was going on, but they didn’t. Then something quite awesome happened. The Seondeok Chairman (Seondeok is made up of a middle school and a high school, each with their own principals. The chairman is above both the principals) and two of my co-teachers pulled out their cell phones and were speaking in rapid Korean. 30 minutes later, Mrs. Go gave me a lot of detailed information of exactly what I needed to do. Where to go, who to see, what I needed to take. It was a nice late reminder of just how much my co-teachers are willing to help me. 

So yesterday I took a quick trip to Ulsan to go to their immigration office and apply for a new ARC card. It takes around three weeks for a new ARC card to be made. Obviously, I will be in America by then, but, the immigration office can give me a certificate stating that I applied for one. I can show that to the immigration officers at the airport so I don’t have to pay the fine. 

So the actual trip was not a big deal. It was basically an hour long bus ride broken up by a bureaucracy, which is just as much fun as it is in America. However, on my way back to Gyeongju, I realized something. One year before, I was just starting orientation. I was new in Korea, didn’t know anyone, and terrified out of my wits. At that time, I would not have been able to get on a bus by myself to a Korean city I had never been to, take a taxi to a building I didn’t know to get what I needed. It doesn’t sound like much, but throw in a language barrier, and it becomes much more difficult. I have come very far. Not only did I see a scared girl at the beginning of orientation, I can remember a terrified new teacher who had the urge to hide under her desk. Yes, my students can get difficult, but I haven’t had those urges in a while. I really have learned so much, and changed. Queue Caterpillar to butterfly metaphor. 

Something else happened. It is monsoon season right now in Korea, meaning rain is likely every day. If you are wise, you will carry an umbrella with you everywhere you go. So I took an umbrella with me to Ulsan, but by the time I got back to the bus station, I no longer had it. At the time, it was not a big deal. It was barely sprinkling outside. Even when I was back in Gyeongju, rain was just trickling down. I got on a bus to my homestay. Ten minutes later, when I stepped off the bus, it was pouring. I was soaked in just a few seconds. I was drenched and cold. And smiling from ear to ear. It felt great. Kind of like Korea was saying goodbye to me in its own way. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it is how I felt at the time. 

Today, I have learned that the new ETA’s, ETA’s for the 2013-2014 grant year have just arrived in Korea, and are already in Goesan starting their orientation. It feels so strange knowing that the teacher who will take my place at Seondeok middle school is already here. 

As things end, others begin. The circle of life. And now I have a sudden urge to watch the Lion King. 

I start my last week of school on Monday. I have planned a game for my students, a jeopardy style game with the premise of “How Well Did you Get to Know Allison Teacher?” The categories are my family, my likes and dislikes, my hobbies, Me in Korea, and Misc. 

I honestly don’t know which goodbye will be harder, with my homestay, or with my students. Either way, I am trying not to think about it. Ten days. Ten days. Here we go. 

Monday, July 1st, 2013, Seondeok Girls Middle School, Gyeongju, South Korea, 11:40 AM

I have had some awesome days lately. To start, I need to go back to Friday.

Starting with this semester, Mrs. Go asked me to do a club class with her. She told me we would do the class only three times, but each class would be three class pereiods of 45 minutes. And the topic of the class would be world cultures.

When I was first orgnizing this, I was very intimidated because, first off, I usueally do one class at a time, and I am very use to 45 moinute lessons, rather than lessons of over two hours. But actually the subject matter was the hardest part, because world cultures is pretty broad. Despite that, classes of the semster went pretty well. But I wanted the thrd one to be special. I decided to focus on traditional clothing across continents, and showed photos of traditional clothing from North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Then I put the students into five groups and gave each group a continent, provided each group with newspaper, foil, scissors, and tape, and told each group to come up with an outfit, using the photos of the clothing from their continent as inspiration.

Before I did the lesson, I had no idea what to expect. I thought it was highly probable my students weren’t going to care, or would spend five minutes crushing newspaper onto a girl’s stomach and saying they were done. Or what have you, but I was honestly surprised how well it went. My students really got into it, and seemed to have a lot of fun. Not only did they make some really creative, cool designs, they paid atttention to the photos I showed them. It was an awesome final class. One of the groups even made me my own bracelet out of foil. So thoughtful.

Photo: Best clubclass ever.

Can you guess which model is from which group? From Left to right: Middle East, North America, South America, Africa, Europe

Saturday night was the final dinner for the ETA’s. It was our last event in which we would all be together, and it was in Seoul. I took a bus to Daegu on saturday morning to meet my friend Megan. We had bought tickets on a KTX train a week in advance. But when we get on our train, we see people already sitting in our seats. After a few minutes, we realize we had gotten on the wrong train, because so conveniently, the DongDaegu station sometimes send two trains to Seoul at the exact same time. We were able to get off the train right before it left, but by that time, our train already had left. We had to go to the ticket counter, cancel those seats with a fine (yay!) and buy whole new tickets for another train that was leaving in the next ten minutes.

To make sure we were going to make it and get on the right train, we rushed, jumped on, and sat down with sighs of relief. Not two minutes later, two people came up, showing us tickets, saying we were in the wrong seats. After five minutes (during which the train had already left) we realized we had been in the right place, we had just boarded the train before our correct train. When it rains, it pours.

That wasn’t actually a huge deal. We just sat in some empty seats and when the train stopped in Daejon, got off, and waited for our correct train to stop there.

The hillarious thing is that I have taken multiple trains by myself in Korea, and been extremely nervous. But with less than a month before leaving, and while in the comany of a friend with intermediate Korean skills, we not only board the wrong train once, but twice consecutively.

Oh, and in the middle of this I realized that I had forgotten a very important item. A nice pair of shoes to wear to the dinner. All I had were sneakers. And I was performing! Luckily, Seoul is a shopping hub, so when Megan and I checked in to our hostel and had some time to kill, I found actually, a really cute pair of shoes. That fit me no less. Huzzah to that.

So, the final dinner. It is not only am occassion to say goodbye to the ETA’s, and Mrs.Shim, our director, but to reflect back on everythiung we have done. So it was really sad, but also, extremely meaningful. It almost felt just as significant as a graduation, if not more than.

Just like at previous Fulbright events, during dinner, ETA’s who were interested were allowed to do performances. I wrote a poem about a month ago, and for the last few weeks I have been memorizing it and practicing it. I was a bit nervous about it, because I have performed poetry before with Fulbright with good responses, but since this was the last dinner, I wanted this poem to be the best. All of Saturday I was kind of going through it in my head, and was whispering it to myself as we were all getting ready in the hostel. And to my terror, I kept screwing up in the most important parts. So eventually I just had to stop myself because if I kept thinking about it I was just going to screw mysel;f over. I just tried and maybe partially succeeded in chilling until my time cmae. And of course I was one of the last performers so I couldn’t really enjoy who came before me.

But anyway, I began, my mind cleared, and I just did my poem. I didn’t mess up. I got everythiung out of the audience I was looking for. And when I finished. It felt… incredible. Later in the night when I was saying my goodbyes, everyone complimented my poem, and of those people almost all of them said I had made them cry. One person even awarded me the great honor of saying “You are the voice of our year.” I honestly can’t think of  any higher praise.

Below is a link to a video of my performance.

 

At the end of orientation, I was honestly not very happy about how I believed thhe other ETA’s saw me, and I blame no one but myself for that. And now, I know that when other ETA’s, the ones I was not really close to, will think of me, that is not  what they will think of. They will remember my poetry. Which I couldn’t be happier about. I’m not very good with social communication. But  through writing, through poetry not only can I speak, but I come alive.

So of course, a lot of final dinner was goodbyes. And that was hard. When you graduate college, you know you are going to able to stay close to some people. But Fulbright ETA’s are so widespread, all over America, and a significant portion of the ETA’s are renewing.

As hard as those goodbyes were, the hardest one were with my closest friends that happened later. On Sunday we did some shopping, went to a few places in Seoul. And one by one we parted ways.

Photo: Sarah Carey Megan Sara-Lynn Katie Welch

I am dreading the goodbyes still to come. Saying goodby to my students, and my fellow teachers, Hemma, and my host family.

I learned reccently that the next ETA at Seondeok High School will live with my host family. Families hosting multiple ETA’s is not rare, but because I was my family’s first ETA, learning this really made me think.

My first response was “Great! I must have not screwed up enough to make them not want to do it again!”

And then my evil possessive and deffensive side came out, and I thought, “What if they end up liking this ETA better than me?”

Which was kind of at the back of my mind all weekend. So when I made it back to my home stay on Sunday night, I mentioned that info to my host sisters. Heejoo, the older sister, looked at me and pointed at her sisters, saying, “She does not want us to.”

I asked Youngjoo why, thinking her answer would be something like I want my room back or my cell phone back. But that is not what she said. Youngjoo said, “Because when I see the new ETA, I will miss you.” It brought tears to my eyes, and I gave her a tight hug.

Today is my only class of the week, because tomorrow my students have exams. So I will spend Tuesday through Sunday packing and finalizing everything. Next week are my last classes, and the following Wednesday, I return home.

Big breath. Here it comes.

Wednesday, June 26, 2-13, Seondeok Girls Middle School, Gyeongju, South Koea, 8:20 AM

You know thos big donation things in public places? You find them in museums, amusement parks, and malls. You place coins in a slot, the coin shoots down a small ramp and circles around a large drain until it is depositied in the bottom, never to be seen again. You know how when the coin gets to the end, at the smallest point of the funnel, it appears to be going fatser than ever as it zooms around the smaller circumference quicker than be seen?

That is kind of how I am feeling right now. I have always known where I have been headed, but now I am in the neck, the end, and even though I know logically time is the same, I fell U am circiling the drain faster than ever.

I am in an hour glass, attempting the Sisyphean task of pushing the grain of sands back up even as they fall on me.

There was a game I played with my friends at recess in elementary school, called plumber. Somone goes down a slide but stops themself in the middle, without going all th way down. Then another person goes down, stopping behind the first person, and so on and son on. Whiole this is going on, the plumber goes up the slide and tries to pull all the other players down, thus unclogging the slide, if you will. Even though for the last three months I have prepared for this, I have thought about how great it will be to see my family and friends again, suddenly I see the end coming fast and now my legs are braced firm against the plastic sides of the slide, even as something is trying to pull me down.

Okay, enough with the metaphors. I am going home in 20 days. 6 of those I will be a teacher. Maybe I have been in Korea too long, because right now it does not seem real. Texas has felt so far away for so long, on an emotional level, it almost seem impossible to return.

Sorry for thg4e short nature of this post, but that really is about i8t at this point. More to follow after this weekend’s festivities.

Sunday, June 23, 2013, Caffe Bene, Gyeongju, South Korea, 5:03 PM

I know my last post was mostly of a negative nature. But today I am doing much better. I had a much needed good night’s sleep, and spent some fun time with my host sisters. 

 

It was around 11:00 PM last night, and my host sisters were taking a quick study break and eating snacks and they invited me to join them. Hejoo and I talked about classes while Youngjoo, hyped up on energy, danced around and randomly did jumping jacks. She joined me an Heejoo and gleefully told us she wanted to try and put as many cherry tomatoes in her mouth as she could. I laughed along with them but paid very close attention to the proceedings, ready to administer the Heimlich if needed. But she did not choke thankfully. Amazingly she fit 10 cherry tomatoes in her mouth. I don’t care who you are. That takes skill. And a big mouth.

 

Youngjoo still had a bunch of energy, so I decided to teach her how to do squats. We did some together, and she calmed down very quickly after that. 

 

Last week, Mrs. Go revealed to me that this Friday I will give a going away speech. In Korean. As can be imagined by my Korean level I panicked and texted Dowon, my Korean friend on the spot. Dowon actually translates things, usually from Korean to English, for a living, so I thought more than anyone I know she would be able to help me. Through texts I begged for help, and amazingly she was extremely kind about it. I sent her a short speech in English, and just a few hours later, she sent it back to me in Korean. Yay for resourcefulness. Anyway, even though I have the speech in Korean, that is just half the battle. I am very out of practice with reading Hangul, the Korean alphabet. I can do little parts at a time, like names, but reading full sentences is very difficult for me. 

 

So last night I brought out my speech and practiced it in front of my host sisters. I only got through two sentences before I noticed a look of clear sympathy on Heejoo’s face. “Is it really that bad?” I asked her.

 

Her response was to take my speech out of my hands. “I will write down the pronunciation in English for you.” So yes. Yes it was. “Thank you,” I replied. 

 

In my post yesterday I did talk about doing performance assessments I have been doing, and discussed the hard aspects of it, but there are positive sides. When I am actually alert and not about to descend in sluggish lethargy, it is very interesting listening to my students responses to my questions. 

One of my questions has been “What does your best friend look like?” I have gotten some variegated responses, including some very negative ones like “Ugly!” or “Fat!” One of my favorite responses has been, “My best friend looks like a person.” But the best one has to be when a third year student said, “My best friend looks freaky.” 

 

I ask my low level students very simple questions, like “what is your name?” and “How old are you?” etc, but with my high level students I ask more interesting questions that allow them to show their personality. One question I asked was “What do you think is more important, money or happiness? One of my students just blew me away. She replied “Happiness,” and proceeded to tell me what she said was a true story about a woman who got rich but was never happy and ended up committing suicide. On the outside I smiled at her and gave her a high five. On the inside I was going daaaammmmnnnn. . 

 

Probably the question that has elicited the most interesting answers is my question of “What is one difference between Korea and America?” Obviously, most of my students commented about language, and food. Some talked about clothing, chopsticks vs. forks. I’m amazed only two said Korea is much smaller than America. About ten students, including Youngjoo, my host sister, gave an answer that I did not expect at all. Their answer was some version of “America is more free than Korea.” 

 

When an American hears about freedom, the first thing we think of is political freedom, because that is a big part of our historical identity, but after questioning these students a little bit, I realized they were talking about social freedom, mostly about schools. About the fact that they are required to study so much more than American students, and really don’t have any free time. They don’t really have time to be kids, although I know that argument could be easily ripped apart because historically speaking, the idea of childhood is very recent. 

 

I have heard from multiple sources and seen with my own eyes that while economically and politically Korea is on par if not ahead of America, in terms of social aspects, Korea is about fifty years behind. Although that is a gross simplification, and I am very aware that America has its own social problems to worry about. But this is not the time nor the place for me to rant about those issues. My family reads this after all. They can read about that in my facebook posts.  

 

Anyway, when you know that Korea is a developed country, you have these expectations of a country that is more or less like America. Then you travel here, and you realize just how different it is. There are a lot of reasons. The main of which Korea’s Confucius background. Also, probably Korea’s history. They brought themselves out of a horrible depression in the 1950’s. That work ethic that gave Korea prosperity still very much exists. Sadly, it was a very “The ends justify the means” mentality. The political agenda at the time was let’s deal with the economy first, and worry about everything else later.  Interestingly, the daughter of the President who created that agenda (I can’t remember his name) is now President, Pak Jun Hee.

 

However, as that mentality withers away with growing generations, and as Korea continues having exposure to foreign countries (like through Fulbright, for example) I believe Korea’s less than free society will start to experience rapid change. I would even go as far as predicting at some point it might even eclipse American social progress. As Korea is much smaller, it is much more politically expedient. And let’s just face it, the turmoil that the American congress is in is not going to change any time soon. Where is Henry Clay when  you need him, seriously? 

 

At the same time, people are predicting that the economic tiger of Korea is slowing. The growing economy here has already started plateauing with the world recession. It appears as if economically speaking Korea is headed in the foot steps of Japan. Minus an Earthquake. Japan kind of acts as a barrier for Korea, meaning Japan is the country that gets all the bad typhoons and earthquakes. As Koreans would say, Fighting! 

 

I think I’m just rambling now, but I am in a good mood. Oh, here are some other funny things my students have been doing lately. All throughout my grant year, my students have given me food. Pieces of chocolate, handfulls of chips, so on and so forth. However, they have always been small parts of their own snacks. It wasn’t until I started performance assessments that I received two full candy bars, and a pop sickle. I was very grateful, and enjoyed them immensely, but I definitely questioned the timing with detached suspicion.

 

Oh, and there was an incredible moment when one of my first years came into my classroom and said “Hello Moto.” I was like “How do you know about that? Were you even alive when those commercials were on?” Just goes to show that my students are awesome.