I walked back to the teacher’s office after sixth period today, and I found an envelope on my desk. A quick glance at the return address, and I saw that it was from the Fulbright Korea Program Coordinator, Amelea. Tearing open the envelope, I saw another smaller envelope, this one with my own handwriting. Nearly eleven months ago, back during Orientation, we had written letters to our future selves. As the grant year comes to a close, I can see what my past self had written, what my goals were, and how close I came to achieving them. Here are the contents of the letter:
So I’m sitting here in the Fishbowl (a classroom at Jungwon University), writing you a letter and hoping that your year has gone well. Do you love your students? Have you enjoyed teaching? Have you decided to renew?
I hope you developed amazing relationships with your students, teachers, and host family, and that you know enough Korean to have a conversation. I hope you learned a lot about yourself and have critically questioned your beliefs and the world around you. I also hope you remember that you are really freakin’ amazing and that you will make friends here that will last a lifetime.
If you haven’t yet, go shark diving, ziplining and DMZing (yep, totally a word). Travel around Asia. Get lost in Bangkok, take a slow boat to China, and watch the cherry blossoms grow in Japan. See beauty and complexity in everything and everyone, including yourself. I don’t know how you are feeling right now, but remember that you looked toward this year with excitement and the knowledge that you will have done your best. Congratulations!
Orientation seems like such a long time ago. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been a teacher for almost a year! After reading this letter, I thought about everything I’ve accomplished and how I’ve spent my time and energy this year. Here’s a quick rundown of my reflections:
I love my students, and I can say that even more sincerely this semester than last semester. Over the past few months, I designed my own curriculum and I could really take my students’ needs and interests into consideration–something that was more difficult to do when I used a standard textbook. Compared to when I first began the grant year, my enthusiasm is genuine rather than an attempt to entertain while I’m teaching. I’m pleased to say my students are always very happy to see me, and I think (for the most part) I have earned their respect. After I leave, they may not remember that “California is known for Hollywood” or “a simile uses ‘like’ or ‘as’,” but I think they will remember the way I made them feel. I will be so sad to leave my students, and several of them are already begging me not to go home.
My co-workers seem to have a lot more respect for me as a teacher and I think they can trust my judgment and my teaching style much more now than when I first started teaching. In the classroom, it’s clear that I am the primary teacher, and my co-workers do not need to translate as much of the lesson as they did before (hooray for my own improvement as a teacher!). However, with changes in the English department (including my Fulbright co-teacher and the head English teacher), the language barrier has become more difficult to work with. I also find there is a frustrating lack of communication in regard to school events and rescheduled/canceled classes. Even though I love my students more, I’m liking the work culture less. I find that the workplace has the most difficult cultural barriers, and the strict hierarchy system and importance of “saving face” can make day-to-day life frustrating.
Last semester, I volunteered to teach adult North Korean defectors in Busan, I wrote a blog for Reach the World, and I coached a student debate team. Since those activities ended over the winter, my involvement has been more with my school and individual students, whether that is leading a conversation club or working with an after-school class. I have also been involved with Fulbright publications, including Infusion literary magazine, Open Window student magazine, and the alumni relations newsletter. Though some of my activities were not as consistent as I would have liked, I am glad to have done a variety of community and school initiatives. I’d like to continue similar volunteering activities when I return to the U.S.
My host family and I have grown apart over the past few months. They are kind, and I try to be helpful when I can be, but our schedules just don’t permit more than a passing “안녕하세요” or “밥 먹어서?” The wonderful relationship I had with Ye Bin toward the beginning of the year is not nearly as strong now due to her college and work schedule. My family has never made me feel like I am a burden, but I am a little disappointed that we are not closer. Still, I hope they will remember me as fondly as I will remember them.
With my host family’s absence, I haven’t felt as motivated to study Korean, nor do I have my wonderful language partner, Ye Bin, to practice with since she started college. My language ability improved a lot at the beginning of my grant year, but suffered soon after I started traveling for winter break. If I have any regrets about this year, it would be about not studying Korean enough.
Outside of the classroom, my favorite part of the grant year has been traveling and crossing a lot of things off my bucket list. I went swimming with sharks in Busan. I got lost looking for a temple in Bangkok. I’m visiting the DMZ this weekend. I have been to festivals, temples, and mountains around Korea, and I backpacked through Southeast Asia by myself. I’ve grown so much more confident and I believe I am well-prepared for whatever challenges come next.
This letter was a welcome reminder of just how much I have grown over the past year. I’ve made wonderful friends and memories, and I am overall very happy with how my grant year has been. That having been said, I am definitely ready to go home. I miss friends and family, and I’ve missed some major life events back in America. It’s time to go back
Fortunately, I haven’t entered a “lame duck” period yet, and I think this letter will keep me focused on finishing the grant year with the strength and rigor with which I started. Six more weeks in Korea!