Fulbright Korea FAQ: Post for New ETAs Part I

By this time ETAs for the 2016-2017 grant year have been notified of their acceptance into the Fulbright Korea program.

A few people have reached out to me through this blog, asking about the program and teaching/living in Korea. Since my responses were like mini essays on the subject, I thought I’d share them here.

If you’re looking for a really comprehensive Fulbright Korea ETA guide, check out Gabi Nygaard’s post to new ETAs from 2015. I’m not even close to her blogging level. Seriously, this probably has everything you need.

Now that I’ve successfully diverted your attention to another person’s blog, I can just ramble on about whatever I like here, right? Just kidding, here’s the meat. Today’s questions come from incoming ETA Sheila.


#1. Struggles

“My first (and only time) in Korea was too short – only six weeks long. [I’m looking for some] insight and perspective about the environment and teaching. I’ve read through tons of blogs and lots of people highlight the great aspects of living abroad but I want to see some of the struggles and hardship you guys go through too.”

A happy note to start on. But really, it’s good question. Of course, most people don’t talk about their difficulties openly online, and with Fulbright in particular I feel there’s a standard of professionalism that limits what you should and shouldn’t say. Yes, your blog may have the required disclaimer: Your views do not represent those of the US Department of Statement, Fulbright, etc. etc. But there’s a little tact required. Our raw honesty and realness are limited to our ETA facebook group or Kakao chats. What you see online is filtered, but I’ll try my best to give an accurate picture of my experience here.

For me, four major challenges come to mind:

FIRST, Culture Shock

Those who’ve studied abroad have gotten a taste of this I’m sure, but it’s something to take lightly. Your year in Korea can get pretty lonely, especially depending on your placement and whether or not you have friends nearby. Typically, winter is a tough time when most people hit their low.

SECOND, Korean Language

In a way, this is another aspect of culture shock. I don’t know your level of Korean, but not being able to communicate or having difficult performing simple, everyday tasks can get frustrating. The good news is that you will get past this stage in time, regardless of how far you choose to take your Korean studies. At the very least, you’ll become really good at body language, hand gestures and facial expressions.

THIRD, Homestay

The Fulbright Korea program prides itself on providing homestays for all incoming ETAs. While the homestay can be an absolutely wonderful experience, it can also be – speaking bluntly – a train wreck. Fulbright has no way of ensuring the “quality” of homestays – it is up to your school (your employer) to find a suitable homestay and despite their best intentions, sometimes it doesn’t work out. My first homestay was absolutely wonderful and I wouldn’t have experienced half the things I did my first year without them. I tried tons of different food, went on trips with them, met their family, and with their permission, unfortunately even attended a Korean funeral. My first host family and I still keep in touch and I visit from time to time. They expect a wedding invitation from me someday (but whether they’ll fly across the ocean for me remains to be seen). Occasionally, I needed some space from them, but that was the greatest “difficulty” I faced with my first year homestay.

My second homestay was a completely different story. All the family members were busy all the time (including the elementary school student), so I never got to develop close relationships with them. They had some conflict within their family and frequently had loud arguments late at night. The host mom’s personality and mine really clashed and even led to yelling and fighting. The stress from this quickly added up, and I began to get physically sick all the time. Finally I approached my school and asked to move out. While it was difficult for them, I was able to move out at the end of the semester. Currently I know of (aka this is not the slightest bit official) at least 10 ETAs who have moved out of their homestays this year, out of 120 ETAs overall.

FOURTH AND FINAL, Constant Change

I struggle to find a way to concisely articulate this last point, but it’s really important. Working in Korea, many things change at the last minute and the school system is a lot more flexible (in some ways) than we’re used to in the US. You might be informed the day of that one of your classes has been cancelled or you suddenly have to teach a club class. I found it frustrating at first, but it is something you can get accustomed to.

Even though I would never willingly put myself into a work situation like this, I think it didn’t faze me too much because a) other things in my life were going well, b) I could vent about it to other ETAs and foreign teachers, and c) I approached it with the same mindset I did for living and teaching in Korea in general – that is, to be extremely flexible. In the beginning, in order to adjust, I turned off a lot of my own preferences and just went with the flow. The few months between the time I accepted the Fulbright grant and when I left for Korea allowed me to mentally prepare myself to be open-minded to a different culture.


Those were my major challenges. One more caveat is that while Fulbright Korea is wonderful community and has a ton of programs you can be involved in, your accessibility to these really depends on your location. I remember researching beforehand, and getting really excited about working with programs like KAMP or WYLD but neither of those were active in my placement. However, I still found programs I could participate in remotely (and I talk more about those in this post).


#2. Placements

“What are the chances of you getting placed in your preferred location? I heard you have some say but it’s definitely not always guaranteed. Do you think I would have a chance to be in Seoul at all?”


You are not at all guaranteed to be placed in your preferred location. I don’t say this with any bitterness; it’s just fact. It would be best not to get attached to the idea of any particular place. While the orientation team and Fulbright office will do their best to accommodate your preferences, there are a lot of other factors at play, such as school availability and school preferences.

Thus far, the program does not place any first year ETAs in Seoul, so I wouldn’t get my hopes up. However, there are increasingly more openings for elementary schools in Seoul, so in my completely unofficial opinion, there could be a very slight possibility that someday in the future, first year ETAs could be placed in Seoul. But again, this is only my opinion.


#3. Being Korean-American

“As a Korean-American I’m worried about how my looks and language ability will be perceived to locals…would you say Koreans have a more positive or negative outlook on Korean-Americans?”


I don’t think I can say Koreans have simply a positive or negative outlook on Korean-Americans. I generally haven’t heard of Korean-American friends here facing many problems, however based on appearance people might expected them to be fluent in Korean.

However I am not Korean-American – even though my mother is Korean, I could never identify as Korean-American in the States, and as a result, also don’t identify that way in Korea. Besides, people here only read me as maybe, possibly, probably not Korean. Sometimes they ask me to make sure though.

For more thoughts on this topic, I’d reach out to a Korean-American ETA – there are many! Kristen O’Brien also has a very active blog, and I’m sure she’d be happy to speak with incoming ETAs.


#4. Coping Methods

“What are additional methods to cope with change and ambiguity? I’m working on this but could use any additional help.”


As someone who’s facilitated a conference discussion group on this twice, you’ve come to right person! But of course, it depends.

It comes down to you individually, but some things people have found helpful have been pursuing hobbies that they enjoyed at home (i.e. finding a dance class) or trying a new extracurricular activity. Exercise and getting outside can help, but people seem to just as often binge-watch shows on Netflix. Personally, I journal, draw, try to get outside, or talk with friends (here in Korea or back home). It can be easy to get caught in a downward spiral, but forcing myself to make plans and see people almost always puts things in perspective. Even if no other ETA lives in your placement, the benefit of living in such a small country is that travel is easy and public transportation is wonderful.

The really great thing about Fulbright Korea though, is that you’ll get a lot of information on coping and self-care during the 6-week orientation. Throughout the year, the Support Network is also a resource in place just for you, as an ETA, and Advocates are available to call whenever you need it. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone currently in the program, there’s a lesser known network of alumni who have said they are willing to take ETAs calls (or texts, Kakaos, or Facebook messages). Fulbright Korea also has two conferences a year, in the fall and spring, where you can reconnect with other ETAs and attend talks on anything from lesson planning to dealing with anxiety to self-defense. It all depends on what your cohort has to offer.



#5. Gifts

“What are some suggestions on gifts to give? Any particular item that’s harder to find in Korea and more accessible here in the States? I heard it’s common practice to give gifts to homestay families, coteachers, principles, etc.”


Gift are important here, and it’s more the gesture than the gift itself. Packaging is also important, so make sure your gifts look nice!

Something unique to your hometown is always nice, as are edible things. I’ve given handmade soap, instant coffee (although Korea’s instant coffee is better), beef jerky, postcards, granola bars and candles. Yankee Candle is actually really expensive here. I also wish I’d brought more postcards because I’ve run into new people throughout the year and wished I could give them a little piece of my hometown.

Some brand name goods are also cheaper in the US, but I think those are trickier, since you won’t know the tastes of your gift recipients. I’d do some google searches on this though, as I know people have written a decent amount on this topic, and I always find myself at a loss for ideas too. Korean souvenirs, on the other hand, are much easier to find.


#6. Time Travel

“What are some things you wish you had known before accepting Fulbright? Did anything come as a shock (besides what you mentioned)? If you could go back to the year before with the knowledge you currently have now, what would you tell yourself?”


The first thing that comes to mind when I think of surprises is this: the Fulbright Office has its flaws. They aren’t always transparent about everything, some of which is for good reason. They’re like a very traditionally-run Korean company, with a strict hierarchy and can sometimes be set in their ways. However, all things considered, I actually don’t think there’s anything in particular that I would really want to go back and tell myself. What has been important is just to keep an open mind and be ready to learn.

The beginning of orientation and again at the beginning of your grant year, there’s so much to absorb. Take it in stride and try not to stress about what you don’t know or what you aren’t getting yet. It’s okay- no actually, it’s important to be able to laugh at yourself too. (That’s something I would tell my former self.) Everyone who’s offered a Fulbright grant is very high-performing and good at what they do. It’s jarring to suddenly be pushed into a situation where you don’t always feel like you know what you’re doing. But later finding out that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way was a huge relief and helped me feel more confident about my teaching.


That’s the end of part one, but I have an awesome part two in the works! Stay tuned! Or stay…at your computer…on Facebook…


Let’s say that again. I’m gonna be in Busan!

After all the confusion, drama, and ups and downs with renewing, I not only know where I’ll be next year, but I got my first choice! I’m going to be teaching at Yeongdo Girls High School, on a sort of island in south Busan.

Not only will I be in what I think is the best city in Korea, my placement is very close to my grandparents’ house, right over by the Gamcheon cultural village. I can’t wait. :) Although I originally wanted so badly to stay at my school, a series of events have made me ready for a fresh start.

I’ve been blessed to have really great coworkers – there are no coteachers who sleep or do other work  in my class. My principal, who will also be leaving the school and retiring after this semester, has also been nothing but kind to me. In our last conversation, he said, “I think you’re thinking of me as your boss.” Um…yeah, of course I am. “But I want you to think of me as your big brother.” But then we talked about age and he toyed with the idea of trying to be like a father instead. So many teachers at my school want me to to think of them as big brothers. It’s not just my school, is it?

But what I’ll miss the most about my school are my students. In the middle of my renewing confusion, one student heard I would be leaving and confronted me. “Are you leaving?”

“No,” I lied, because it wasn’t certain and a couple weeks later I was actually told I could stay.

“Good!” he replied, “because when I heard that, my heart stopped.”

What can you say to that?

Of course, this time around, when it became certain that I wasn’t staying, he was again the first to find out. But the fact that I would be in Busan, 1-2 hours away, took away the edge.

“Oh,” he replied in response to hearing my placement, “then I don’t have to be sad!”


But I’ll still be sad. I’ll miss my after school class students and my overachievers who made me privy to school secrets, and the students who probably have only said 6 words to me: “I’m fine thank you, and you?”

Gimhae Jeil High School, best of luck.