2002 ETA Program
Last month, I sat on a plane on my way to Seoul, dreaming of hodduck and yujacha. It was my first trip back to Korea since 2004, when I had returned after the conclusion of my Fulbright Award to attend the graduation of my 3rd grade students at Hanbada Middle School in Busan. I wanted to return to Korea to say farewell to the only class of students I had the privilege of teaching for an entire year, to reconnect with my favorite host teachers before they were transferred to new schools, and to visit my dear fellow ETA friend, who had remained in Korea to reconnect with her Korean birth family. That visit represented a hundred points of light of my ETA year in Korea. I recently re-read an essay I wrote in 2003 for the Korea Fulbright Review, reflecting on my year of teaching and learning as an ETA. At its core, the essay and the year that it chronicled was a reflection of a very personal journey – that of a young, African-American woman navigating the boundaries of her own identity in a culture that did not necessarily celebrate diversity. I will never know whether my lessons on Nina Simone or Martin Luther King cultivated a more nuanced understanding of American society among my students. What I do know much more clearly today is the impact that each of my interactions – with my students, my fellow teachers, and my fellow ETAs – had on my own sense of self and my ability to successfully navigate a new culture and an unfamiliar setting. I credit my ETA experience with shaping both personal interests and professional aspirations that remain with me today. Following my return to the United States, I became a Teach for America Corps Member in New York City, motivated largely by a desire to help underprivileged youth to develop the knowledge and skills necessary for responsible global citizenship. Today, I continue this passion through volunteer work with an NGO focused on youth development through international education. I hope one day to bring a cohort of these students to Korea for the same transformative cultural experience that has influenced me so profoundly. Yet, even more than the impact that my Fulbright experience had on my personal and professional development, there was no experience more rewarding during my year in Busan than the relationship I developed with my host family. I remember clearly meeting them for the first time – it was my first real foray into Korean society away from my fellow ETAs, and I was terrified that I would be different from what they expected. I could never have imagined how fully this family would embrace me as one of their own. On my second day after arriving in Busan, my host father took a very rare vacation day from work – the only vacation day I saw him take all year – to take me on a trip to the ancient Korean city of Gyeongju. Through the generosity and affection of my host family, I was able not only to witness Korean life, but to be a full participant in it. Their adoption of me did not end there – it also extended to my mother and now husband, both of whom visited Korea, and felt keenly the same degree of warmth and kindness from them. Despite long lapses in communication with my host family, I have never forgotten their deep openness and generosity. Two years ago, my host sister Yuri traveled from Korea in order to attend my wedding in Atlanta. It was an incredibly moving reunion that touched my entire family. At that time, I learned that since my departure, my host father had taken up painting as a new hobby. He sent with Yuri one of my most treasured wedding gifts – an original painting of the city of Gyeong-ju. So, here I was, eight years since my last visit, on a plane headed back to Seoul. This time, I was returning to attend Yuri’s graduation from Ewha Women’s University and to reunite with my host family. Despite the rustiness of my Korean, I easily fell into broken conversation with my appa and omma, and could not believe that my host brother, Myong-Hun, had somehow transformed from a 5th grader into a junior in college. And despite the fact that I had come to celebrate Yuri’s wonderful accomplishment, I myself somehow ended up going home loaded with gifts and Korean snacks courtesy of my host family. In turn, they were surprised at all I had retained of Korea in the intervening years – the names of my favorite Korean dishes, the importance of insa, the painting of Gyeongju that now graces my home. For me, this relationship is the legacy of my Fulbright experience. It has sustained itself over time and space, across graduations, marriages, moves to new cities, military service, career changes. It demonstrates that personto-person relationships can transform the way that Koreans and Americans understand and relate to each other. I will always appreciate the unique opportunity to be immersed in Korea, its culture, and its people. But I will most deeply treasure this surprising friendship between two families that will continue to sustain my connection to Korea for years to come.
Excerpt from 20 Years of Teaching & Learning. Seoul: Korea-American Educational Commission, 2012, pp. 54-56