Teaching assistant learned much from Koreans

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Teaching assistant learned much from Koreans


When I first applied for a Fulbright grant I was skeptical of the program’s ambitious mission statement. I knew I wanted to live and teach in Korea for a year, and was excited to receive the fellowship, but remained unconvinced that the lofty ideals of Senator Fulbright, those of international education and cross-cultural understanding, could be achieved in such a format. Could an English teacher on a 12-month contract really serve as a cultural ambassador, moreover as an effective and positive representative for the United States in Korea? It sounded good, but as my plane departed for Seoul I still wasn’t sure it was a realistic goal.
Now, having nearly completed my year in Korea, I am happy to say I have been convinced of the value of the scholarship many times over. The past 10 months have been an invaluable learning experience unlike any other in my education.
The Fulbright English teaching assistant program is designed so that grantees can fill many roles during their time in Korea, and this structure has allowed me to form many meaningful relationships with the Korean people. Perhaps the deepest has been with my host family, from whom I learn about Korea in every facet of my daily life. I owe so much to their generosity and enthusiasm for teaching me about Korea’s rich culture. Every meal, weekend hiking adventure and trip to the norebang is not only an opportunity for me to practice my Korean language skills, but also a lesson in the etiquette, routines and eccentricities of family life in Korea. My host mother and father affectionately call me dongseng or younger brother, and the two boys in the family call me hyeongnim, or older brother.
Despite being part of the family at my homestay, at my high school I have a different set of relationships. I work with roughly 40 Korean faculty members, who have invited me into their homes, introduced me to new foods, taken me hiking, fishing and even to their families’ ancestral burial sights, all so I might better understand Korea.
At school, I also play the role of a teacher for 200 high school students who have undoubtedly been one of the highlights of my year in Korea. Their determination to learn English has inspired me to be even more diligent in my Korean language studies, and their insatiable appetite for learning about American culture has been the source of many fun discussions about American music, movies, sports and high school life.
In addition teaching throughout my year in Korea, I have also been lucky enough to see this country as a student. Both in Korean language classes at Korea University, and in the International Relations masters program at Gyeongsang National University, I have developed an even greater appreciation for the emphasis that Korean culture places on quality education. I have learned from and become friends with my Korean professors and classmates and, particularly in my graduate school class, have debated issues such as how the international community should deal with North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. These discussions have shown me a lot about the South Korean perspective on North Korean issues, and forced me to refine my arguments in defense of American foreign policy.
Ultimately, whether it has been as a student, teacher, co-worker, family member or friend, I have always been an American with a genuine desire both to learn more about Korea and to teach Koreans about the United States. In doing so, I think I have fulfilled one of the primary goals of the Fulbright program, which is to promote a deeper cross-cultural understanding between Americans and other cultures.

by Nathaniel M. Adler
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