No, this post isn’t about me feeling renewed or refreshed. It’s about my decision to renew my grant in Korea and stay for a second year.
Unfortunately, just like the first year, I know almost nothing about where I’ll be living or teaching My current school won’t be hiring another foreign teacher once my contract is up, so I could be anywhere in South Korea. I could teach anywhere from elementary to high school (with the slight possibility of even teaching at a university). While I’ve requested a homestay, that’s not necessarily guaranteed. What’s different this time around is that I will have a little choice in the matter, although I’m expecting that I’ll have to compromise. But I’m not here to write a post on what I don’t know. This is why I’ve decided to renew:
I’ve known for a while that I was going to renew my grant to stay in Korea another year. It was just a matter of moving from “I think I’m going to renew” to “I’m going to.”
What pushed me to finally make the jump was talking to my uncle’s wife over the phone on Seollal, or Lunar New Years, back in February. This year has been a whirlwind, not only with learning how to teach and live in Korea, but in meeting my extended family in Korea for the first time. I’ve met all of my family members in Korea – thanks to the still-strong Korean tradition of the whole family gathering together on major holidays – and have stayed for short periods of time at two of my aunts’ houses. But my uncle and his wife have been living in India for the past few years on a mission trip. And I haven’t quite made it out there to see them.
On Lunar New Years, I was at my grandparents’ house early, before any other family members had arrived. I ended up being the one to answer the phone, because my grandfather was out of the room and my grandma commanded it. Fortunately it was my uncle and aunt-in-law. This was the first time I spoke to them both over the phone. My aunt-in-law was surprisingly easy to talk to, and spoke in a similar manner to my youngest aunt – with a liberal amount of English sprinkled in.
Although she informed me that her English was not good, she continued to speak it, in cute half-Konglish sentences. “This time [meaning this New Years] we, Korea, no go. But 칠월 [July] 2016, go to Korea.” And then something along the lines of, “Will we see you then?” I paused. Could I really just turn around and say “no, I’m leaving”?
It was the first time I said it out loud; yes, I’m staying in Korea another year.
Of course her expectation wasn’t the only reason; I’m perfectly capable of saying no when the situation calls for it. But now that I’m almost at the end, a year feels so short. Sometimes I wish I had a little long-term – or even medium-term – stability, some sense of where I’ll be one or two years from now, but that doesn’t seem likely. I’ve got grad school on my mind, and while I’m very seriously considering the cons of an advanced degree and having doubts…this seems like it has the makings of an “I think I’m going to” situation.
When I considered staying in Korea longer, I couldn’t help but also be reminded of the wonder of this situation. I’m in Korea, on a Fulbright grant. Two years ago I’d never even heard of Fulbright. Teaching in Korea wasn’t even on my radar. At that time, I was preparing to graduate from DU a year early. In my classes I wasn’t sure if I should introduce myself as a junior or senior, but I started saying “senior,” because if I didn’t say it now, I’d never get to call myself a senior.
Graduating early was the result of hard work in my high school IB (International Baccalaureate) program. For those of you unfamiliar with IB, it’s basically a program where students take all AP-level classes, are required to do additional projects and volunteer work, and take exams in each subject for possible college credit. Being able to graduate early was a reward for all that. It was a badge of merit. It felt good. But it was also the source of non-stop stress that began almost as soon as junior- I mean, senior year hit. I use that word intentionally because it really felt like that: a hit, a blow. A you’re-about-to-graduate-and-still-have-no-idea-what-you’re-doing feeling of panic that bogged me down almost 24/7. Did I try to do something about it? I’m sure I did, but indecision crippled me. Did I really want to go to grad school? Could I afford grad school? What would I even want to do afterwards? And so on. I eventually stopped worrying a few months into the year because, well, I was exhausted. I couldn’t keep functioning under this constant self-imposed pressure.
And two very important things happened next. I indulged in a daydream and wishfully told a very good friend about how nice it would be to stay at DU another year and just do art. [Side note: Art was one of my minors at the time, but I only demoted it because I thought it wasn’t a practical major. So I chose sociology instead. Now I realize that’s just funny.] But my friend asked a question that threw me off: “what if you did stay?” I hesitated. What? I wasn’t serious. No way I could do that. “But you could.”
And that reply opened up another huge can of worms. I began stressing about not only what I should do after graduating, but if I should even graduate at all.
The second important conversation I had was with another good friend who embodies the very idea of tough love. Or more like verbally-beat-you-down-and-make-you-cry love. (If you’re reading this, just kidding. You know I love you.) I don’t remember our entire conversation, just this aggressive line: “You don’t have a job, you don’t have a plan – why are you graduating?”
How dare she.
But the idea was already in my head. I found out that with the coursework I’d already done, I could finish an art major in one year. Working up the courage, I broke the news of my ridiculous idea to my parents. I tried to figure out the money part. I went through the awkward process of cancelling my graduation application. And I stayed.
I don’t regret that year; most of the time, I miss it. I still don’t know how I will use art in the future, but because I stayed, I undertook the treacherous Fulbright application. Recently I found this gem – the notes I took during the phone call in which I found out I’d been accepted:
For whatever reason, my frazzled little brain wrote down the answers to all the questions I was being asked, including my own name, phone number, and – when I was finally offered me the grant – a cursive “Yes.”
Even with all the uncertainty I’ll face in the upcoming year, I’m saying yes again.
There’s a lot more I can do here, while I still have the chance. I’m not a “natural” at teaching, if that even exists. Teaching is really hard. And teaching under the constraints of a culture and system you don’t always understand is even more difficult. But I’m getting better. I’m starting to understand what I can accomplish – what lessons can hold the attention of 40 adolescent boys, what incentives motivate exhausted high schoolers to get through the next textbook unit, and what my students really need in order to communicate in English – but I’m only scratching the surface. I don’t know what I want to do in the future, but I know that I want to be doing this now.