Written by Michelle Tong
It wasn’t until a fairly recent Skype call with a current ETA that a certain question came up: “How was readjusting for you?” To be honest, I haven’t thought about it in a long time, but hearing it suddenly sparked visions of just how long it has been since returning home from Korea.
With about one year’s worth of so-called “experience” of being back on the American East Coast post-Fulbright, I would say that for the most part, I’ve readjusted. However, the process was definitely not easy.
Nowadays, my mornings as a graduate student do not start off with “Hi Michelle Teacher!” and are instead replaced with clipped exchanges of “Good morning, how are you?” with fellow students, professors and colleagues. My lesson plans have sat untouched for months, shadowed by scholarly journal articles, papers and job applications. I no longer bob my head up and down in a strange nod-bow hybrid whenever I meet someone and dropped the habit of handing things over with two hands (the horror!). The kimchi craving will kick in from time to time as well as bubbling jealousy whenever I come across pictures of authentic Korean food posted on Facebook (you know who you are).
The truth is we often discuss adjusting. During those first six weeks of orientation, we all learned how to “drop a 90” (a cooler term for the polite 90-degree bow), how to address others based on age and status, table manners, hand gestures, basic Korean phrases etc. However, what about readjusting? Looking beyond the warm hugs from your family and friends, the familiar sights of your hometown, jetlag and the now-pricey meals (notice the plural) at Chipotle, readjusting soon bleeds into the scary question of “What will happen after Korea?”
Maybe some of you know the answer: Graduate school? New job? New international adventure? However, some of you may not know. In fact, some of you may feel afraid. For me, I avoided the question like the plague. I knew that graduate school back at my alma mater was my “go-to” answer as I already had that plan set, but deep inside, something was prodding me with a good dose of fear and anxiety of not having enough clarity as to what the future would hold.
The first few days back at home were filled with hilarious moments of realizing how many habits I picked up while abroad. I answered question after question of “How was Korea? How was teaching? Are you fluent in Korean now?” The following weeks saw an influx of feelings similar to that of homesickness, but the strange thing was that I was home.
About half-a-year into readjusting, I landed an internship at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. As amazing of an opportunity as it was, my first few weeks in were miserable. I couldn’t understand how I could feel so tormented despite receiving an opportunity that so many young professionals would compete for. It wasn’t until after my breaking point and a tearful call to one of my closest friends from college that I gained the insight needed to identify the core of why I was feeling this way.
In the process of readjusting, I led myself toward a rather taboo subject in Fulbright Korea: comparing. Without realizing, I was comparing my position as a post-Fulbrighter turned graduate student to my former classmates who went straight from school to a career. I compared my status as an intern to how I was viewed as an ETA. I was comparing my life in Korea with my life back at home and felt that I somehow fell behind everybody else.
To help pull me out of my self-created pit of comparisons, the same friend whom I wailed to over the phone taught me how to rethink my situation. “Don’t think of it as being behind. You’re just on a different path.” The key word was different. All along my mind was so clouded by the actions and achievements of those around me that I failed to reflect on my own progress. Up until that point, I hadn’t even thought about any changes within myself other than the obvious cultural habits that I had picked up and then dropped since returning home. My head was stuck in trying to view everything and everybody around me as if I had never left the country. Change, as a result, became overwhelming.
Within the next few days in the office, I was introduced to other interns, all from different countries and different walks of life. We exchanged stories about our backgrounds, our professional goals and our reasons for interning at the UN. It was then when that familiar warm feeling of connecting with others despite cultural and linguistic boundaries revived itself. For the first time in a long time, I realized just how much Fulbright Korea has changed me.
Change is inevitable once you go abroad and return home. The trick is to embrace it and move forward, which is definitely easier said than done. I experienced the pride and joy of coming back home, ready to share my experiences and colorful stories with everybody, but also faced the obstacle of realizing that things are not going to stay the same as they were before. Be prepared to listen, observe, reconnect and rethink where you are along your path. Notice that it’s not just going to be you who has changed, but those around you as well. At the same time, be open to the change within yourself. Much like in Korea, the art of “don’t compare” is just as important – if not more so – when you return home, but if you really must, compare who you are today versus who you were a few months back. Ask yourself if you still hold the values of respect, commitment, compassion and professionalism that I hope were embedded in you during your time in Korea.
So for those of you who are wondering “How was readjusting?” I say that it was complex. It brought me happiness, relief, familiarity, yet at the same time it awakened hidden fears, anxieties and troubles that I needed to face. Fulbright Korea will always be a part of you, therefore making readjustment just that much harder. There will be those days, much like that first wave of homesickness in Korea, when all you want is to go back, and that’s understandable. My advice to you is to look back at the good times and use them to your advantage as you move forward toward a new future. Whether that means continuing studies, a new job, new home or new friends, remember to make your path your own. Leaving Korea does not in any way translate to the “end,” but rather is a new beginning filled with many new friends from all different walks of life, new skills, and a new perspective of the world that we live in.
Michelle Tong was a 2012-2013 ETA at Heungdeok High School in Cheongju, Chungcheongbuk-do. She is now a graduate student pursuing a Master’s degree in Communication at Rutgers University.