1998 ETA Program
In the summer of 1998, while the South Korean soccer team was making a surprise showing in the World Cup, I arrived in Seoul with 18 other ETAs. Twenty years old and newly-graduated from college, I began my Fulbright experience with a hunger for learning and adventure. After a few days exploring the capital, we traveled to Chuncheon for a six-week orientation before receiving our teaching assignments. Besides the intensive sessions on Korean language and cultural awareness, our experience was rich with learning through exploring local cuisine, taking taekwondo classes, and reflecting with fellow ETAs. The most valuable lesson I learned during my year in Korea, however, was the experience of living as a foreigner which became much more intense once I left the comfortable confines of the Kangwon University campus and moved in with my host family in Changwon. As a white male from the United States, I am a privileged member of the dominant culture. In South Korea I was an outsider, a foreigner, and adjusting to this new identity was one of the most challenging and valuable experiences of my life. As a foreigner, I often felt excluded. There were times I felt like an outcast; like I didn’t fit in. Cultural practices were strange to me. Much of the food was unrecognizable and smelled funny. Since my language skills were less than stellar, my presence in a room full of work colleagues tended to make others feel uncomfortable so sometimes people would just leave when they realized I was there. I got stares as I walked down the street because there were very few other European-looking people who lived in Changwon at the time and I’d often hear children yell out to me “America” or “Michael Jordan.” When people tried to include me it often seemed forced, like the time my host mother made me American pizza for dinner. All the good intentions in the world couldn’t make pizza out of white bread, slathered with ketchup, and topped with yellow processed cheese. I will never forget a fellow ETA who is Korean-American saying to me, “I’m glad you’ve had this experience because now you know what it’s like for me every day of my life when I’m the only Asian in a room full of white people.” Participating in the Fulbright ETA Program equipped me with a global perspective and sensitivity to issues of language, culture, and race which affect how I approach my daily life and work as a Lutheran pastor today. I believe that I am a better learner, listener, and leader, more capable of empathy and viewing situations from the perspectives of others, because of this program. Korea is a land full of natural beauty, rich in culture and history, and home to an honorable and passionate people. I remain grateful for all of my experiences as a Fulbright ETA, but it was the opportunity to be a foreigner for a year that has most profoundly impacted my life.
Excerpt from 20 Years of Teaching & Learning. Seoul: Korea-American Educational Commission, 2012, pp. 40-41