The first six weeks in Korea were meant to be an orientation for a new place and a new culture, but I found that more than getting oriented with where I was, I was pushed to really reflect and re-orient myself in terms of who I am, which was and continues to be far more important and helpful as I adapt to life after college and in Korea.
A Brief Overview of Orientation
Orientation for the Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistant) Program* in South Korea began on July 12, 2015 and lasted for a total of six weeks (until August 21). The goal of Fulbright ETAs in Korea is to teach English and act as cultural ambassadors for America while learning about Korean language and culture. I joined 69 other ETAs for six weeks of Korean language classes, English (TEFL) teaching methodology and Korean culture workshops, as well as a variety of fun cultural extracurricular activities and excursions. We were a little bubble of foreign-ness sequestered in what soon became the all-too-familiar gray walls of the “marble palace,” otherwise known as Jungwon University. This little-known but beautifully constructed school was located on the outskirts of Goesan, a tiny town in the rural province of ChungCheongbukdo (smack dab in the center of Korea, about a 2.5 hour bus ride away from Seoul). Our environs were quite picturesque; Jungwon was surrounded by lush green mountains and boasted an elaborately (if somewhat eclectically) decorated garden and golf course.
By the end of Orientation, I was really amazed by all that I had learned and begun to learn: A bit of taekwondo, the ability to differentiate between good, bad and mediocre kimchi, and how to glue fancy colored paper onto pre-made boxes with edible rice paste to create an extra fancy-looking colored box/basket/fan/pencil holder (aka “Hanji” :P).
On the more serious side, my eyes were opened wider to the issues of sexuality, race, and religion, what it means to be accepting or judgmental, tolerant or indifferent, vulnerable or attention-seeking, genuine or insincere. I saw how quickly I formed negative opinions of people and how easily those impressions were shattered by a single genuine conversation or a passing observation of their kindness to another person.
I rode the waves of sadness and nostalgia as I finally realized that my college years are over and never to return. Fortunately the waves carried me on to arrive at a calmer place, with a genuine appreciation for the wonderful four years I have just lived and the amazing people that I have been so lucky to call my friends and family. I was also able to contemplate how my new environment gave me the opportunity to meet even more amazing people like and unlike those I had met in college.
In all honesty, it was difficult for me to reach this place of calm hope and appreciation. I found the six weeks of orientation more often dis-orienting than otherwise, and I struggled with many things over the course of that time, among them how to really give up my hopes and dreams and disappointments to the Lord, and to lay my struggling at His feet, trusting Him to lead me. This I am of course, still learning.
To be sure, I also had plenty of wonderful experiences during Orientation. However, as the sweet memories tend to stick better than the sour ones, I want to first document the stressful parts of my first six weeks, as well as how I grew through them. Later I will find more time to sprinkle the sweet stuff in.
Physical and Emotional Struggles
Despite the lovely scenery surrounding Jungwon University, I often felt like I was suffocating. Sometimes this was because I literally was not getting enough fresh air. The campus buildings consisted of a few giant blocks of marble that were all connected on the inside, so that we never had to walk outside to get to the next place. This was convenient, but it also meant that I could go for a couple of days without remembering to go outside at all. By the second week I started having terrible headaches and realized that man was not meant to live in a poorly ventilated marble box, no matter how nice that box may look on the outside .
Besides that, I was often frustrated by how packed our daily schedules were, not having had so little control over my time since middle school. This made me extremely tired, antisocial, lazy, and often irritable (though, being me, I tend to repress negative feelings around other people, which only allows them to accumulate and explode at a later date).
I struggled emotionally as well, especially during the first 4 weeks when it felt like I was experiencing freshman orientation at college all over again, except with far less energy and motivation to make friends. I am by nature extroverted, but after being spoiled by the incredibly close-knit community I found in college, I now find it hard to convince myself that making new friends is natural or necessary, but of course, it is. Therefore, I was frustrated to find myself once again incessantly making introductions and small talk with all these strangers and worrying about little things that didn’t really matter to me, such as people’s impressions of me, the forming of social circles, and whether I was really building my “support network.” This was a term that was both casually thrown and urgently pressed upon us at every given opportunity by our well-meaning orientation leaders. Our “support network” of fellow ETAs was framed as the most wonderful thing to have and the most terrible thing to miss out on during our year here in Korea. So while I came to Korea believing that my main mission was to immerse myself in Korea and that social networking with other ETAs would not be that important, I started to worry that I was not worrying enough about this vaguely defined but apparently all-important social resource.
Once I started worrying about this, I started to feel insecure and judgmental all at once (which is usually the case, I think. The most insecure people tend to be the most judgmental of others). I was also wary of getting too close to anyone in case it would only make me suffer more only a short six weeks later when we were sent our separate ways to our various placements in Korea. Having moved around a lot with my family growing up, I think I have developed a somewhat unhealthy knack for staying unattached from people in order to protect my feelings. Thankfully I met a group of brothers and sisters within our orientation circle that kept me grounded in the spiritual realities of our new life in Korea. They reminded me that I was not here to please anyone but God, and that while I should not be afraid to open myself up to these new relationships, I should not depend on them to validate my worth either.
Coming to terms with my American Identity
At the beginning of Orientation I resented being stuck in an American bubble and couldn’t wait to enter the “real” Korea, thinking, I didn’t come to Korea to learn more about America and spend time with all these Americans! I remember joking that I felt more culture shock from being among all these American ETAs 24/7 than from being in Korea, because my social circle in America hadn’t been this diverse since sophomore year of college. In fact, it had been mostly Korean, which was a big reason why I came to Korea in the first place. I soon realized, however, that I needed to shed many prejudices that I had against my own people (Americans) before I could really share about American culture with whoever I met this year, as well as learn about Korean culture with an open mind.
I also realized that I have, ironically, not really identified as American ever since I moved back to the States for college. When asked by people in college, I always said that I was from Shanghai, adding as an–often apologetic–afterthought “but I’m also American and once lived in California” because I usually had to explain why I “spoke English so well.” In my own heart I had dissociated myself from the “standard American” because my time growing up in China had made me feel so Chinese and ostracized from mainstream American culture compared to many of my classmates who have lived their whole lives on American soil. Yet during the Fulbright Orientation I had so many great conversations with Americans from such an incredible spectrum of experience and ethnic-cultural-geographic-political-religious backgrounds that I came to really believe what I wrote in my Fulbright application essay, that contrary to what many people in the world (including many Americans) might think, Americans are diverse!
Despite there being perhaps a “stereotypical American,” I believe that there is no “standard American” nor any reason why I cannot be fully Chinese and fully American. Although I am a “TCK” (third culture kid) and may not always fit in perfectly with any crowd, I do not need to be embarrassed to represent either my cultural heritage or my national identity. There is no reason for me to hide my Chinese background or worry that I will not be “American enough” to satisfy my students or colleagues at my Korean school, or even other ETAs. If my identity as an American is questioned because of the color of my skin or hair or my food preferences or taste in music or interest in popular “American” sports (or lack thereof), then I can take that as an opportunity to teach about the real America, and real Americans, myself included.
During Orientation, I struggled with my faith due to the new environment, new conversations, and challenging new thoughts about issues I had never bothered to consider before. I sought wisdom and counsel and perspective from different sources, but ultimately found the greatest solace, joy, and truth in the most obvious yet often most overlooked place–with God. During the roughest parts of those six weeks it was Jesus who brought me back to look at myself and my life from His perspective and see what really mattered. When I faced an ugly side of myself that I had not recognized before and was loath to admit, when I felt like I was swimming in confusion, drowning in information, or overwhelmed by the pressures of so much unwanted social interaction and the general difficulty of being present, I found life, air, room to breathe and sing and dance and think and be still in His presence, whether by prayer or Bible study, sharing with my fellow brothers and sisters, being honest and accountable with my roommate, or bursting into spontaneous song and dance in the tenth floor auditorium that we called “The Sky.”
Truly, the sky was wherever and whenever I stopped my rushing and worrying for a moment, simply remembered to be thankful, and rejoiced in the fact that I don’t need my identity to be validated by anyone but my Father who has always loved me and always will. Sometimes I wonder if this is true; sometimes I worry that other people will think I am brain-washed or naive or ignorant; sometimes I fear that I’m being too trusting, too complacent, too unambitious; sometimes I am tired; sometimes I fail; sometimes I don’t know what or why or when or how… and then He reminds me, pulls me gently out of my ever darkening whirlpools of self-pity, doubt, fatigue and despair, and simply holds me in his arms. Zephaniah 3:17 (NIV) says this:
“The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
Looking out at the uncharted waters before me, I am nervous but mostly excited by the prospect of how I might have to swim, look, feel, smell, even breathe differently up ahead. The future is vast and unknown, but I know that the Lord is with me just as he has always been with me. It doesn’t really matter whether I am popular or socially awkward, whether I have much to teach or much to learn, whether I am American or Chinese or both or neither–
I am because He is, and that in itself is glorious and exciting and full of hope;
I love because He loved, and that is something I can never be thankful enough for, or cease to draw strength from;
I live because He died, and rose again, and enables us to die to ourselves daily so that we too can truly live, free of both the superficial and the serious ties that bind us to fear and insecurity, to pride and self-righteousness.
I do not know whether the next wave of life will carry me smoothly forward onto warmer, brighter horizons or whether it will threaten to swallow and plunge me into the deep, the dark, and the cold, but either way I rejoice, and either way I have hope.
The deepest depths have already been conquered; the highest heights made possible. In any case, I have found that Jesus’ words ring true: to reach the high places, we must first go lower.
I pray that above all things this year, I will learn to be humble, to trust the Lord, and to know what it is to serve out of a pure and loving heart. Amen.
*This site is not an official Fulbright Program site. The views expressed on this site are entirely mine and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.