Fulbright Orientation Week 2-2.5: It’s a bit of a blur, really.

“Orientation, I remember that,” an undisclosed renewing Fulbright grantee said to me, wistfully, as remembering childhood in a sort of Richard-Dreyfuss-narrating- Stephen-King’s-Stand-by-Me-tone:. The tone indicated a mix of horror and nostalgia. She said it as if it was a coming of age tale–though it took place less than a year ago. “Actually,” she added, “it’s kind of a blur. Now that I think about it.”

One would think that I could avoid some of the blur by blogging regularly. Yet, here I am, only a-week-and-a-half after my last blog post and what I have experienced is already a blur.

For reference, here are the topics I am covering.

Church on Sunday, July 19th.

That Korean class grind.

-Sokcho (속초) weekend, July 24-26 (part 2)

-Camp Fulbright (part 2)

    -First of two weeks ongoing at the time of this post.
-And first lesson, July 29th.

I go to Korean class. I learn a lot of concepts and words; I struggle to remember them. I recognize what is on the board twenty minutes after my classmates. I go to the extra study help, where I am told I understand grammar and need to practice speaking, vocabulary, and pronunciation (I understand the grammar? I don’t feel like I do!). I go to talks on teaching and Korean culture. I do lesson planning for camp Fulbright. I go to more talks. I make small talk. “I do” –“I do”– a lot. But doing alone does not make for much good reading. Writing and reading is the most internally active and externally still activity (at least it has since most people became more like St. Ambrose than St. Augustine and read silently)¹.

Time for reflection is sparse.

A life too busily lived is something like cooking barbecue, which meant to be slow-cooked, in twenty minutes: the quality of the meat may be good but the final product will never be what it could have been with proper time to marinate. In this metaphor, my day is the brisket and time for the brisket/day to marinate is equivalent to time to reflect on what I did each day.

Mmm, day brisket. Mmm, over-explaining metaphors.

*  *  *

From the top:

Church on Sunday, July 19th.

Before our afternoon workshops, I went to church with Kirim (the Korean R.A. here at Jungwon) and three ETAs: Becky, Grace, and Esther. Their Korean was all, to varying degrees, better than mine, which made understanding a bit better. The text was the Gospel of Mark’s passage on Christ’s time in the wilderness.

It was a small service which Kirim said was meant for “young guys”. By that, I think he meant people without families or working young people. Aside from us, the service only had 15 people. A rough estimate would say this Presbyterian church could only house around 80 people. The Methodist church in Goesan is bigger (with its red neon cross; neon crosses, I have seen, are not uncommon in South Korea).

I did not understand much. There was a piano, drum set, and keyboard visible, but no one during the service played any of the instruments. Instead, the music was supplied by a sweet chimey-CD voice-track-less Gospel music. I have only heard this type of worship music when outside the United States.

The Pastor stood in front of the congregation the whole time. Since he led singing, it was a pleasant surprise he was a competent vocalist. Occasionally, the songs were slow enough that I could read and pronounce the sounds. Though I did not understand anything, I appreciated the time of Spiritual communion with a body with whom I share the faith– though not a language.

That Korean class grind.

If I am completely transparent, my self-perceived lack of “marketable skills” has always been an area of chagrin for me. For a very long time, I feared the perception of being the History / English B.A. who is underemployed and unable to secure gainful full-time employment. “I always like my barista to know a lot about Milton,” some would joke as I studied hands-down the greatest Epic poet in the English language.

In small talk in college, after asking what I study, the follow-up question was always: “What do you plan to do?” Always, I loathed the knowing nod of the head after I said, “I plan to teach.” The head nod was all I needed, “Of course you are going to teach,” I could almost hear it saying.“What else can you do with that degree?”

Part of my desire to go abroad was a desire to learn something completely new. Even if I never pass a test which says I am proficient in another language, perhaps succeeding in my duties as a Fulbright grantee may show I am adaptable.

I want to show future employers, friends, the acquaintance who hears of my studies and thinks “Well, of course, you teach!,” any prohibitively limiting assumptions they may have about my professionally competency are misguided. When I teach, (I want to believe) I do so because I love to teach and want to teach, not because I can do nothing else. Part of my motivation to work hard is to prove to myself that my financial and personal well-being is not shot in the foot because of my educational distance from S.T.E.M. fields.

Of course, more noble reasons co-exist with this desire to prove myself: a desire to engage in cultural exchange, to learn about a new place, people, and culture, a true love for teaching are all the main reasons why I applied to the Fulbright ETA program.

But, if I am forthright, I am not without something to prove– even if I know I should not have such an attitude.

That is why it is so hard for me to come to terms with this fact: Languages are not my strength. Korean class is hard! My teachers, surprisingly, say I understand the grammar and speaking and vocabulary are what I need to practice.

In class, I will marvel at how much I could say, IF only we were speaking Portuguese. In a strange way, it is a serious confidence builder: I feel like this training in a language with little in common with English will make learning Romance languages easier for me in the future.

Yet, there are drawbacks in the present. After attending ever extra study session except two, my progress is limited. Today, I humiliated myself when I saw one of my teachers in the hallway and could not manage two sentences to say to her when she spoke to me. Part of it is a matter of strict memorization. Part of it, is learning takes a great deal of time.

Thankfully, the Orientation Coordinators (OC) staff has been encouraging. While I by no means want my hand held, they have given advice and shared their experiences with learning Korean. All are at different levels. Some made learning Korean more of a priority than others. That is to be expected. Just as everyone’s grant year is different so are our ambitions, virtuous or selfish or (as everyone’s are) mixed.

My own goals are to be able to hold a basic conversation and navigate the country, ask for directions, order food, book a hostel, and maybe–the gold crown of my non-English language achievement– order food by telephone. That seems a long distance away. For a long while, it will be me, my textbook, flashcards on Memrise, and patient peers, strangers, and teachers listening to me stumble and slowly improve.

The Korean language class grind is real. What sympathy I gain for my English language learning students students, at the same time! Today, I taught my first lesson to an exceptional group of students at the ongoing Fulbright English program. After I taught them, I thought about all they can do in English which is far beyond my abilities in Korean and I am so impressed by their hard work.

One step at a time. One day at a time. For now, I will have to end the post here and speak about more exciting items on my list (our weekend at Sokcho and my first lesson as a Fulbright ETA) later. It is time to study!

It may have gotten a little introspective in this post, but I hope you understand some more of my mindset– more of why, in my mind, what I do becomes such a blur of “doing” as attempt to overcome what are (to me) large hurdles.

Maybe that will make understanding what I am doing here more comprehensible.

Next post, expect more of what I am really here to do: teach and experience a new culture! My thoughts may explain my perception, but we both know what you really want to read about!


Reading silently didn’t become common until the 10th century. (Click to go back up)

From Alberto Manguel, Chapter 2 of A History of Reading(New York; Viking, 1996):

Ambrose was an extraordinary reader. ” ‘When he read’,” said Augustine, ” ’his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.’ “

“Eyes scanning the page, tongue held still: that is exactly how I would describe a reader today, sitting with a book in a cafe across from the Church of St. Ambrose in Milan, reading, perhaps, Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Like Ambrose, the reader has become deaf and blind to the world, to the passing crowds, to the chalky flesh-coloured facades of the buildings. Nobody seems to notice a concentrating reader: withdrawn, intent, the reader becomes commonplace.

“To Augustine, however, such reading manners seemed sufficiently strange for him to note them in his Confessions. The implication is that this method of reading, this silent perusing of the page, was in his time something out of the ordinary, and that normal reading was performed out loud. Even though instances of silent reading can be traced to earlier dates, not until the tenth century does this manner of reading become usual in the West…”

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