One Year After Korea

one year after korea plate of kimbap

I’m nearly a month late with this announcement, but here it is: it’s been one year since I left Korea.

One year feels like a major milestone. It feels simultaneously like too much time and not enough time has passed. No longer can people say, “oh you’ve been only back for [insert number] months.” Nope. It’s been a year. “One year” has a sense of finality to it. My “transition period” is officially up.

A recent conversation with a former professor sums up the experience well. I went in ready to reminisce about my Korea experiences to someone who hasn’t heard them before. Instead, she turned the lens forward, and the topics that dominated our conversation were about my life now and future plans – something less fun and more stressful.

Since I didn’t have any particular structure in mind for this piece, I’ll hit some main points or FAQs. So current ETAs, here’s how life might look one year after your Fulbright grant ends:

 

Cultural Adjustment

Adjusted One Year After Korea Crab Hot Air Balloon against blue sky

I’m adjusted. I’m good. Slipping back into American culture wasn’t too hard, but the lifestyle I had in Korea is what I miss. And I absolutely do miss Korea, some days worse than others. If you’re a current or prospective ETA, be prepared for waves of nostalgia and longing every time people who are still in Korea post about starting their school year or extending their grant period. Because you start to think, maybe I could have done that too. Maybe I should have stayed a second, or third year.

I could have stayed a third year. I would have accomplished more in that one year in Korea than I have here at home. But that might not be true for you.

At the same time, I don’t actually regret coming home after two years. I felt ready. I missed home. My health had been mildly uncomfortable for a while. I wasn’t willing to deal with another year full of uncertainty. Maybe if I’d been able to renew at the same school and live in the same city for that third year, I would feel differently. Maybe not.

But hold on to Korea in little ways.

  • I have my little FKAR calendar with all the Korean holidays on it. (I promise they didn’t pay me to say that.)
  • I seek out Korean restaurants in my area, even though I kind of already did that before with my mom, and most of the time it’s at least mildly disappointing.
  • I read books on Korea, like Bandi’s The Accusation, which you really should read if you haven’t.
  • I keep saying I’m going to get back into studying Korean…yeah, that still hasn’t happened. But I take the time to read my students Instagram posts sometimes.

And there are just as many little things that I miss about Korea.

  • I miss walking (or simply wandering) to places and awesome public transit.
  • I miss Korean fried chicken and super fast delivery.
  • I miss bathhouses. Seriously, enjoy them while you can.
  • I miss Korean skin care and limited-edition packaging with cute emojis and characters.
  • I miss being around the awesome ETA community. Despite our differences, you can’t deny that you have a bizarrely unique bond with your cohort.

 

Career & Work

Adjusted One Year After Korea latte in a mug next to laptop on wooden table

How did you use your Fulbright experience in job or graduate school applications?, everyone wants to know. I’ll get back to you on grad school next year, but truthfully I didn’t really apply to jobs. Joining some corporate structure really disgusted me when I came back from Korea, and so I searched and applied for jobs half-heartedly. Then I decided to freelance. Except…

Freelancing made my transition more difficult.

During the past year, I started a freelance writing business. I can say with confidence that I’m a freelance writer – I pay the taxes to prove it. But I can’t say I’ve been a big success. Freelancing is an interesting beast and one that I’m far from taming.

On one hand, freelance writing was a logical step. I liked blogging in Korea, I had two years of experience under my belt, why not get paid to blog (for businesses)?

In other ways, choosing freelance work made my transition harder. I had no regular schedule, no work handed to me, no coworkers, and no consistent pay. Some structure would have been good. And “making it” as a freelance writer isn’t easy.

About 9 months in, I got an especially strong desire to be back. At that time I really did wish I’d renewed for a third year. My feelings about work only contributed to the slump. I even drafted up a post on how much I missed Korea, but it was overly sad and didn’t have much of a point, so I never posted. Here’s a special, never-before-seen, exclusive excerpt:

In Korea I was winning. I was always winning. That’s not to say that everything went smoothly, but I was learning new things, successfully learning to navigate in classrooms, with coworkers, with ahjummas in the street. I got credit – let’s be real here – for simply going to a restaurant and ordering in Korean. Or speaking to the grocery store clerk.

Even when I didn’t get credit and actual verbal praise from another party, I could feel validated. I’m living in a foreign country on my own and surviving just fine! I’m working at a regular full-time job. I’m doing a million other things for Fulbright too! I’m so legit!

But now…I’m not doing a million things. I’m left with too much time to think. I’m paralyzed about the future and what I should do.

Depressing, right? And I’d already written more articulate versions of that post, several months earlier. But several-months-ago-me had a point. After a high period of success and excitement and adventure, struggling to run a freelance writing business from home wasn’t what I’d pictured as my next step.

But if nothing else, I’m learning. I learned and am learning the skills I need to market myself. I learned how businesses are awkwardly trying to work social media and that easing that awkwardness for them is a job. I learned about gutter cleaning services, airsoft guns, and how to use Alexa for marketing, because I had to write about those topics.

And I learned that full-time freelancing isn’t for me. I’d like a little more human interaction, thank you. But freelancing on the side sounds excellent.

So all this to say, sure, try freelancing after Fulbright, but be aware of the challenges you’ll face. And also that the “extracurriculars” and activities you did for free involved a lot of skill too.

ETAs are involved in a million different endeavors: Infusion, FKAR, Support Network, NKD volunteering, KAMP, YDAC, organizing Black History Month, not to mention conference workshops and orientation talks are just a few of the things you might have taken on. You developed and used a ton of skills in Korea.

 

America & its Political Landscape

One Year after Korea America Fractured art piece

America is a mess right now. But it was kind of a mess while I was in Korea too. Michael Brown was shot and the Black Lives Matter movement was born. The Charleston shooting happened. During all this, I wished I was in America so badly. Now I kind of wish I wasn’t.

I came back to a sort of nightmare America. At least it was just as terrifying to everyone else around me. My one year anniversary back from Korea landed just after the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. I wanted to address that in this post, but I just hadn’t processed the event. I’m still processing. I still don’t have the words to address this adequately.

But nightmares happen every day. Whatever nightmare is happening when you transition back to life in America, do this:

  • Find like-minded people and vent, cry, or both.
  • Process in the ways that work for you. For me, that’s writing and art.
  • Keep in touch with ETAs who came back with you and talk. Do this even if there’s no nightmare at hand.

And if you’re “stuck” in Korea, during these events, you still have a part to play. Like it or not you are the token American at your workplace. You do or will get asked questions about what in the world is happening in America. They’ll be looking for an insider perspective. Provide that as best you can.

Some days you’ll be so sick of addressing police shootings of unarmed black men in America, but the distress on your face and the anger you express is also a message. Some days no one in your office will know or care, and it’ll be up to you to decide: breach the topic or rest for today. And you too should call up your ETA friends to vent, cry, or both.

 

Conclusion

Writing all this, it feels like I was just in Korea last week. It’s easy to go back, to spend my time reminiscing. It’s also easy to get stuck in that head space. To almost mourn, rather than appreciate what were truly two of the most exciting years of my life.

But one year out seems like a meaningful time to recommit myself to looking forward, develop my own structure, and keeping hunting for good kimbap as I go.

one year after korea plate of kimbap

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On Choosing Not to Renew

I wrote extensively about choosing to renew last year – lengthy deliberations were involved – and how I came to my final decision. It wasn’t all pretty (big understatement) but choosing not to stay is just as legitimate of a choice and required its fair share of deliberations too.

As a Fulbright ETA grantee in South Korea, I can renew for up to three years. This is an amazing opportunity not available in most other ETA programs. I concede a little to the program’s self-proclaimed “gold standard” title on this one.  But the nature of the renewal process has changed.

This year, thankfully, there are no secrets and (as far as I know so far) no drama involved in renewing. The rules of game have been clearly laid out and they are, in essence: don’t expect to get exactly what you want.

Deciding to renew would once again open me up to all levels (elementary, middle and high schools, with even a slight possibility for university) and any location in South Korea. Part of me is tired and unwilling to start anew again; part of me realizes the hypocrisy in that statement as there will soon be a “starting over” for me in the States as well, whether in the form of a new job, new location or grad school.

Reasons to Stay

Security

In Korea, I have a job. I have some experience in that job.

Awesome things

I’d be able to do a lot more within Fulbright, like volunteering with North Korean Defectors, continuing and bettering the ETA Support Network and continuing to work as an editor or even taking on a leadership role in Infusion (Fulbright Korea’s literary magazine). Some of these things are really fun, and I’d almost stay just to do them…but that’s impossible. I have to teach and take care of other responsibilities too.

Family

I also love Busan and living with my extended family, something I’d never expected would be possible when I first came to Korea.

Penpal

Another very random, unique reason is that if I stay I’d probably be able to meet a penpal who lives in Israel. We’ve been exchanging emails for over seven years (!) and she’s planning to visit Korea and Japan in 2017! I’m so excited for her, but also so disappointed to be missing out on this opportunity.

 

Reasons to Leave

Touchy-Feely

I don’t have as many objective, clear-cut reasons to leave. Yet as cheesy as it sounds, I feel like it’s time. During my second grant year I began feeling sad about leaving Busan VERY early on, and wondered why I felt this way since I hadn’t even decided to leave. There were times I thought I might actually stay for a third year, but now I feel ready to leave. Of course, I have actual reasons too.

Tired and Unsure

There’s the uncertainty of a third year in Korea – where would I teach, what would my school logistics be like, and where would I live – and there’s also some degree of burnout. Recently I fluctuate between feeling burned out and feeling determined to do my best in the remaining time I have left with my students.

Language

It will be nice to once again be around people who can understand what I’m saying. After a frustrating trip to Subway today, I know I can’t wait until I no longer have to deal with a language barrier from day-to-day.

Beauty Standards (or cultural differences)

I’m also counting down the days until I can get away from the beauty standards of a culture not my own. I’ve never touched on this in my blog (surprisingly), but beauty standards have been one of the most frustrating things about living in Korea. But why talk about that now when I have more than enough to say for another blog post?

Family

Finally, there’s family to consider. While extended family is pushing me to stay (not directly, but in their own way), my nuclear family says no way. Although my parents/siblings range from assuring me it’s my decision to outright telling me to come back right away, I’m feeling  pressure and a sort of guilt to come home.

 

I’m not going home to any plans. I’m not going straight to grad school and I don’t have a job lined up (although I’m looking). Although it doesn’t feel okay, I know that it’s just fine.

Last week I mailed off two boxes of winter clothes. It’s official. I’m going home.