Written by Jonathan Rice
“Don’t compare.” Mrs. Jai Ok Shim, the director of Fulbright Korea, left me and 79 other English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) with those parting words on the day we were headed to our placement sites across the country. Whether on blogs, the omnipresent KakaoTalk Messenger[1. A popular text-messaging service in Korea] or in-person, she implored us to connect, but to avoid conversations about our homestay and school situations that would inevitably lead to comparisons. She reminded us that by not comparing our Fulbright grant year with others we could avoid feeling jealous or left out; Mrs. Shim emphasized that each ETA experience is different and that we should enjoy those variances.
Yet the tools for comparison are everywhere; I am in a country that wholeheartedly embraces social media and smartphones. The kids that I teach have newer and nicer mobile devices than the teachers do. When I ride the subway in Seoul, there are often few sounds beyond the screeching of the train and the constant pings of mobile devices. Everyone, from small children to elderly men and women, is on their smartphone. When I ask my middle school students what their hobbies are, both boys and girls point toward online computer and mobile phone games as a top interest. While I love Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, I was not used to the intense influence of social media in Korea.
One of the first things that my host father did to make me a part of my host family was grant me access to their BAND. A private social network, BAND allows my family to share the day’s best moments with each other. Over fried chicken, he ecstatically showed me goofy pictures of the kids on vacation at Haeundae Beach and of his corporate dinners. While I found the concept amusing and innovative, it also raised a disturbing premise. Even within my host family, my host parents and siblings apply a filter to how they present themselves to each other — social media invades the closest bonds of all. One day, my host mother and father went on a trip to a park, during which they sent some beautiful photos of the two of them smiling in front of a lake to BAND. However, when I asked my host father how the day went, he displayed mixed feelings, giving a look of concern and a sigh as he explained how busy and stressful his day had been. He presented a life on social media that was different from his reality. For a while, I even joined in, posting pictures from weekend trips to Daejeon and Seoul as a way to stay connected to my host family when traveling. While it was fun, it sometimes felt strange when they would interact with me more on BAND than in real life. I would post a picture and get many comments from them, but then our dinner that same evening would be nearly silent.
In another case, one of my students showed me an app that lets you completely redefine your facial features after taking a selfie; a casual snap on a phone transforms into an airbrushed masterpiece for friends and family to see. What this culture of social media creates is, to borrow from Walter Issacson’s “Steve Jobs,” a reality-distortion field. We use social media to present the version of ourselves we want others and ourselves to perceive. Life becomes manicured moments woven together into a perfectly arched narrative of successes and failures.
My reality-distortion field ramped up in the months leading up toward my graduation from college in 2013; it was a time of constant self-marketing. Unsure of whether I would have the opportunity to come to Korea, I spent many hours refining my resume, pitching myself in interviews and writing cover letter after cover letter touting my unique experience and abilities. Arriving in Korea less than two months after graduation, my brain was still in marketing narrative mode. Combine my end-of-college job search with being surrounded by a pool of naturally competitive and driven individuals, and my propensity to sell rather than share experiences increased further. In our discussion groups at the start of Fulbright orientation, I, along with other ETAs, would constantly reference my prior experiences in leadership, teaching and living abroad.
My early blog posts and Facebook statuses from Korea read more like press releases than personal moments. One weekend, after failing the second Korean language quiz, I broke down after spending about eight hours writing out hangeul characters. When blogging about the experience though, that highly emotional and stressful time turned into a throwaway line: “Repetition, repetition, repetition. Korean language. Lesson planning. Teaching.” I did not want to expose my vulnerability or true struggle.
I saw this masking of reality manifest in other ETAs as well. From blog posts about receiving a love letter from a student to Facebook statuses about traversing Korea with a host family for Chuseok, most stories ETAs present are about entertaining. That is logical, too — no one wants to broadcast something boring. The reality-distortion field extends to all, even our closest friends. For the general audience of people who consume my content, for those who don’t have the chance to have a long phone conversation or in-person chat with me at the end of a stressful day, life takes on an alternate reality. Like television, my life is then seemingly only made of my biggest breakthrough moments or grandest failures. For ETAs in Korea, that can sometimes mean a Facebook news feed filled with endless comments about amazing co-teachers, superb students and perfect host families, or, conversely, hellish examples of being unsupported by the system and outright avoided by students. Entertaining story arcs take the forefront over daily realities and more mundane examples.
My failures are defined not by epic tragedies, but by feelings. There are days when I wonder if my students left the class with more knowledge or less. Often a day feels long after slogging through four unruly and unmotivated classes, but the week goes by quickly in a cycle of repetition as I present the same perhaps-flawed lesson 20 times over. There is the internal burst of anger when a class of first graders I haven’t seen in four weeks is cancelled and the only thing I can do is indirectly lobby my co-teacher that “maybe” I can “possibly” teach them soon. Sometimes, it is a feeling that, even surrounded by friendly faces and warm hearts around a dinner table in Seoul, I am very alone.
One positive of our new social culture is that it pressures everyone to write about themselves often, whether through a 2,000-word blog post or a 140-character tweet. In that same vein, the call to tell stories is also one for authenticity. After reading and writing many vaguely positive or negative stories, I realized that a textured life can be just as, if not more, insightful as a manicured one. It’s taken some time, but in learning to not compare within Korea’s social culture, I have also realized that emotional expression should come at the forefront of storytelling.
Mrs. Shim tells new ETAs, “Don’t compare.” While that advice refers to habits of media consumption, as storytellers, we also need to ask ourselves: who is the audience that each of us is trying to reach with all of this content? For me, it is my family, friends and potential employers back home. I want to convey my accomplishments, successes and newfound cultural experiences. As wonderful as highlights and lowlights can be, the more mundane and real struggles matter. I owe it to my family, friends, colleagues and the public to share my truth. Life in Korea isn’t perfect. My homestay and school are often wonderful, but also at times frustrating and upsetting.
As someone trying to navigate both Korea’s social media culture and my interactions with the greater Fulbright community, I have found the key to avoiding the comparison issue and remaining true to the experience comes from balance. Inevitably, I am tempted to present a cleaned-up version of my life. Sometimes, I indulge — an Instagram of the hand-written note from a student. However, when a week goes by and every class just feels subpar, that is a moment to turn toward social media too. Instead of looking to present myself positively, sharing that slightly unfavorable experience leads to advice and fellowship from others. Sometimes, it’s important to be honest and share that I couldn’t control my class or that my host family seemed to be avoiding me. I lift the reality-distortion field for a moment and, instead of a comparison or a perfect story, we have an exchange of ideas — a conversation.
Jonathan Rice is a 2013-2014 ETA at Gakri Middle School in Ochang, Chungcheongbuk-do.