Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 Recap

It's New Year's Eve! 2012 is just about over. It's been one of the most eventful years of my life, relatively speaking (my life is not really that interesting). For the past five months, I've been on a small adventure in Korea. It's nowhere near the epics as told in movies like Les MisérablesThe Hobbit, or Life of Pi -- all three of which I have watched recently -- but it's my own story, and I decided early on that it was one worth telling via this blog. It's a habit of mine to immediately go to Wikipedia after finishing a book or film to read a recap(itulation). Thus, I think I'll do the same for my own story. The following is a quick summary of what I've done, seen, and thought about since January 1st, 2012.
Spring semester, Senior year. I was finished with my thesis and looked forward to my last semester of college -- the first without, I'd assumed, any major academic stress. Boy, was I wrong. Preparations for Honors exams steamrollered me. In the meantime, I spent a lot of time singing (in my a cappella group), dancing (swing, taiko, and tap), and taking photos with a shiny new dSLR camera. I did not spend a lot of time thinking about my future, and I did not apply to any jobs or graduate programs. Instead, I found out in late March that I was accepted to the Fulbright ETA program in South Korea. Hooray! Then, I graduated, my brother got married, and I left the country in July.
Pre-departure. How did I feel about Korea before leaving? The Fulbright Korea program is a very organized one, and they provided lots of reading materials, among other online resources, to help us English Teaching Assistants become as familiar with the country as possible before arriving. Apart from the introductory stuff that I read, I knew nothing about the country. I could only barely introduce myself in the language. Having tons of Korean and Korean-American friends had exposed me to what the people were like, but I still felt unprepared. Yet, I also felt excited. I was about to spend a year in a country I'd never seen before; I hoped that I would learn a lot and try new things and that I might become fluent in Korean by the end. I started this blog.
Goals. People kept asking me why I wanted to go to Korea. Well, for the travel experience (I have a Korea Bucket list!) and partially for the satisfaction of developing a sort of pan-Asian identity. But why the Fulbright specifically? So that I could gain teaching experience but also have a strong support system, government-funded, because I knew that I knew nothing and that I would need all the help I could get. So I set a goal to become a better teacher, to see if I'm really cut out for this as a career. And the verdict? Well, teaching may or may not be in my future (read: no verdict yet), but at the moment I really, really enjoy it. And this is partially because my job isn't so difficult.
What's it like? Pretty easy, to be honest! I really mean it when I say the Fulbright program takes care of us. And I really lucked out in the school placement roulette. Fulbright allowed us to indicate what kind of school and city we wanted to be placed in, but we were not guaranteed any specific placement. Yet I was blessed and fortunate enough to have landed a school and city that almost exactly fit what I had requested. This school turned out to be a small, specialized science high school. This meant smart, hardworking, and polite students, and not a whole lot of them. So while I teach 180 students about eight hours a week total, some of my Fulbright colleagues at larger schools have over 600, and teach up to twenty hours a week, plus weekends. We are on the same scholarship, might I remind you. So again, I lucked out, I love my students, and I love my job.

Be that as it may, there were several moments throughout this fall semester when I felt like I didn't have enough to do. These thoughts collided in a bad way with other feelings of uselessness and unproductiveness that negatively affected my work ethic. A strange paradox, isn't it? Having less work made me less motivated to work. I specifically told my co-teacher (the English teacher at my school whom I "assist", or, more accurately, replace several times a week) that I'd like more to do next semester, and that's very likely going to happen, fortunately.

As for my thoughts on the Korean education system... well, I have plenty of sharp words reserved for it, based solely on what I've seen since August. But I'll save them for another post.
General opinions about Korea. Being able to see the country itself -- I've been to six of the eight largest cities -- would have made this year worth it even if I despised teaching. What I mean is, Korea is really beautiful and fun to visit. If you're the adventurous type and are up for river rafting or bungee jumping, they've got it. If you're totally into history and want to visit monuments, ancient palaces, and the like, you could spend many months here before being satiated. And, of course, the food. Korean barbecue, Korean street food, Korean "Thanksgiving" food: you name it, and I've had it, or will soon try. People often ask me what my favorite Korean dish is. Since you can almost never go wrong with dolsot bibimbap, I usually say that. But the truth is I love most edible things I come across here, so it's difficult to choose. Hotteok is great, and so is rainbow tteok (rice cakes), kimchi jjigae (spicy stew), omurice (fried rice omelette), pajeon (scallion pancake), mandu (dumplings), and everything really. Oh, and Korean fruits: persimmons, pears, peaches, and tangerines could keep me satisfied all year round!

Besides food and tourist spots and other inanimate things, I also have come to appreciate all the Korean people I've met. Koreans really are kind, at least the ones I've met. I can't make any blanket statements about the general character of an entire country; but I, personally, haven't had any particularly negative experiences so far. Just awkward ones. I blend in really well, you see. I could pass as Korean on the street, and when I open my mouth and try to use my (still poor) Korean, then most people tend to assume that I am Korean-American, or maybe Chinese. This usually helps rather than hinders; regardless, it's always fun or amusing to explain that I am Taiwanese but also American and that I'm learning Korean as well as teaching English.
Cultural ambassadorship. And that's the name of the game, despite my having some misgivings about it. Every interaction I have with a Korean who knows that I am an American could become a drop in the bucket of Korean goodwill toward the US, or just the opposite. Or it could miss the scales entirely and amount to nothing. But one of the roles I am meant to play is one of an ambassador, fostering good relationships between members of the two countries I am officially bridging. Have I been doing this job properly? I think so. Now, my students and other Koreans I've met have seen firsthand that not all Americans are white (and/or fat and/or rich and/or fabulously good-looking) -- and that some can be Asian -- and in addition, I've taught them bits and pieces of American culture, though less than I'd have liked. My hope is that in the coming months I'll have more opportunities to bridge any divides, correct any misunderstandings, or inspire any more multi-cultural interactions just by doing what I do. On the other hand, I've also been bringing glimpses of Korean culture to my audience back in the States. Hats off to you, dear readers! Keep on reading.
What have I accomplished? In 2012, I graduated, got a job, relocated to a country on the other side of the planet, made tons of new friends, picked up a new language, went bungee-jumping, voted in one election and closely followed two, wrote one-half of a 50,000-word novel, took the GRE, and had one or two minor panic attacks about the future...

Oh. The future. Have my plans changed? ... Wait, what plans? What are these "future plans" you speak of? Ha. Well, they've narrowed slightly. Right now, I intend to apply to grad school in the fall of 2013, which means a 2014 matriculation. I'm thinking about going into Linguistics to study endangered languages (or phonetics, which is also interesting, but in a different way, and will probably not take me around the world). And between that time, I may renew my grant for an extra year of teaching, or I'll come back to California and find a job. God-willing. That's all I know for now. I ought to make some resolutions for the new year, but... hey, that's still four hours away! I have time.

See you on the other side!

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