Kaliq Simms
1996 ETA Program

The memories of my time on Jeju have appeared to me in flashes over the past decade and a half. A sea of students in identical blue blazers and blunt haircuts standing and bowing ceremonially upon my entering the classroom each day, “annyeong hasaeyo, Hunter seon-saeng-nim!” they would chant. The ever-open classroom windows let in snowflakes, ocean breezes, or sunshine depending on the season. Jeju Seo Middle School would teach me the wonders of the open air school. My students waving a colorful farewell banner, “saranghaeyo!” would blanket me forever with their vitality, a stark contrast to the island’s relentless calm. These images come to me from time to time, rediscovered pictures in an old album. I felt as if I were on location in a movie for most of my year in South Korea. The scene opens on a tall, clear-eyed, Black American tourist, her hair in dozens of sturdy braids. By all accounts, I was a spectacle. We, the Fulbright ETAs of 1996, all were a sight to see in what was then a culturally homogeneous country—give or take a few thousand oddly inconspicuous U.S. military solidiers. On the congested Seoul streets with their pungent aromas of smoked squid and fermenting cabbage, every one of my senses simultaneously experienced unfamiliar stimuli. The effect was heady, out of body. Was I really there? I’m not sure which was the greater motivator: the longing to leave the U.S. or the draw of living and teaching abroad. Having attending a Historically Black College, Morgan State University in my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, the last place I ever thought I would wind up was South Korea. I was an English and Secondary Education double major preparing to teach English in Baltimore City’s public school system. The late Dr. Sandye McIntyre, a legendary Morgan professor of modern languages encouraged me to apply for the Fulbright ETA Program. I believe his guidance single-handedly won me the coveted fellowship. I will never forget the visit of my mother and grandmother to Jeju-do. How my students marveled that their teacher actually had a family. Apparently, to students worldwide there is nothing more foreign than the teacher! In addition, I understood that perhaps what was equally intriguing was to meet in person two more African-Americans. For the vast majority of the five hundred students in my ten sections of English that year, I had been the first Black person they had ever known. Now, they had met three generations of one family. My grandmother was ninety when she made the trip. My family’s visit threw into sharp relief the purpose of my ETA year in a way I had not expected. The students were to sketch portraits of my mother and grandmother and to write, first person descriptions of each woman. The finished projects appeared as cartoonish brown faces framed by flat wooden sentences. Initially, I was disappointed by the lack of detail in the drawings by students I knew to be good artists. Likewise, the simplicity of the captions called me to question whether I had taught any English that year. It was not until the next day, when the students presented their posters and read aloud their sentences that I realized the deeper significance of my assignment. As each student read, I found that if I closed my eyes, my pre-teen Korean students, my family, and I became one voice: “I am a grandmother.” “I am American.” “I am a Black woman.” “I am a mother.”

Excerpt from 20 Years of Teaching & Learning. Seoul: Korea-American Educational Commission, 2012, pp. 34-35