From Margaret

During our meeting right before we step in front of a room full of eager principals who will escort us to our new homestays, Mrs. Shim gave a speech. I don’t remember much from that speech. It was twelve years ago and at the time I was nervous. As I focused on my internal what ifs, Mrs. Shim’s advice pulled me back into the room. “Don’t compare.”

At the time, this struck me as impossible. Don’t compare? Of course, we will compare! Just as during orientation we compared Korean language skills and soju tolerance and noraebang passion, after orientation we will compare homestay families, teaching assignments, and cultural wonderings.

I practiced my habit of comparing after my first post-placement phone call with another ETA. She had formed an incredible bond with her homestay family in an extremely short amount of time. Her homestay siblings took her around town on the weekends and explained Korean dramas together after school.

How can this be? My homestay sister was extremely busy with the stresses of high school and my homestay brother literally ran from the front door to his bedroom to avoid conversations with me. My time after school was filled with eating Choco-pies and dissecting lesson to determine exactly why that awesome Dave’s ESL Café activity flopped. It seemed unfair.

I’d like to say that I immediately realized the wisdom of Mrs. Shim’s advice, but I continued to gather details from other ETAs. I would begin each conversation brimming with stories about adorable gifts from students, perplexing English grammar questions, mountains, and octopus. I would end each conversation with a list of comparisons.

Honestly, I cannot remember “the” moment that I realized these comparisons were harming me. More accurately, I rediscover the value and truth to Mrs. Shim’s advice daily. Don’t compare.

So, even when my homestay family vacuumed at 8:00 AM on a Sunday, it was useless to compare. Nothing changed and embracing my own situation allowed me to wake up and sightsee. Even with that one co-teacher who left me to fend for myself with a group of sleepy second graders, standing alone gave me the opportunity to find my voice and truly respect the power of My Chew rewards for speaking. And what about the circumstances that don’t even require me to look on the bright side: my after-school writing club, the beautiful trees, temple stays, seasonal fruit, a kind principal, a loving homestay family, friends, and the opportunity to live abroad- there is no comparison.

Mrs. Shim’s advice framed these realizations for me. I’ve heard similar expressions like “the grass is always greener,” but nothing is as direct nor as helpful as Mrs. Shim’s advice. Of course, when examining societal injustices or gross discrepancies, comparisons are useful to spur change. However, among individual circumstances of privilege, comparisons take away from the beauty of our lives. They lull us to imagine what could be instead of valuing what is. This is just one truth from a rich experience with Fulbright Korea, but it is the most lasting for me. Mrs. Shim is remarkable, generous, and wise and her advice influences me daily.