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.

Renewal

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:

when I got the Fulbright call light  when I got the Fulbright call label

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.