Just How Much I Have to Learn: A Visit to the South Korean Fulbright Commission

 

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One of the many crowded streets of Seoul.

I have had bountiful opportunities to travel throughout my life, from trips to other parts of the U.S. in high school with 4-H, to studying abroad in London during college, to somehow being able to live in Indonesia for now three years in a row.  I don’t know how to fully express how thankful I am to have had the chance to explore the globe, and learn so much about other parts of the world, and myself, along the way.

Since coming to Indonesia, I have focused most of my personal travel on exploring other parts of Indonesia itself.  I have more than once had the opportunity to visit Singapore for Visa reasons, and during the holiday season last year I was able to attend a friend’s wedding in Sri Lanka, but beyond that all of my travel in Asia had been here, in this country that has become my second home.  But on my way back to Indonesia this time around, I was able to visit yet another country in Asia: South Korea.

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My colleague and I (the two of us are in the center) surrounded by members of the Korean Orientation Team.

This visit was different from any of the travel I have done before: this was a work trip[1].  I was there with a colleague from AMINEF to meet with the South Korean Fulbright Commission and observe part of their ETA orientation, to learn different approaches to training and support of ETAs, and bring some of what we learned into our own work in Indonesia.  And I cannot emphasize enough how much we learned, and how thankful I am to have had the opportunity to go on this trip prior to the development of orientation during my own year as RC.  Having been an ETA twice, I already had two years of participating in the Indonesia ETA Orientation to help me as I helped to plan this year’s, but being able to see part of and talk to the orchestrators of a completely different orientation gave me even more tools in my toolbox as I, along with the invaluable AMINEF Team and SETAs, set forth to try to create a more complete and useful orientation for the incoming cohort of ETAs, building on all the hard work of the RCs before me.

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Korean barbecue… delicious AND fun.

And in between meetings and observations, we were able to explore a little bit of South Korea.  The South Korean Orientation is hosted by Jungwon University in Goesan, a smaller city towards the middle of the country.  The surrounding area was beautiful, and I loved the opportunity to wake up each morning and see a completely new landscape outside of my window.  One our way in and out of South Korea, we of course had a stopover in Seoul, a city unlike any I’ve had the opportunity to see before.  The AMINEF Team member I traveled with is a die-hard foodie, so we also did plenty of culinary exploring along the way: and Korean food is delicious.

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yo, a traditional Korean bed.  It was incredibly comfortable: I loved it.

Throughout my time in Korea, I was constantly confused as to how to respond to the situations I was in.  At this point in my life there are really only two contexts in which I feel comfortable, American and Indonesian, and I am forever making mistakes in even those contexts.  My understanding of South Korea, while perhaps microscopically better than the average American, especially after spending time in Asia, remains extremely limited[2].  As such, I kept defaulting to either American or Indonesian norms, jumping through any of the cultural hoops within my reach in the hope that one of them would allow me to land upright in the circus of cross-cultural understanding.  I realized quite quickly that bowing was a sign of respect, but was never able to stop bowing in the Javanese style, with my hands in front of me, and instead switch to the Korean manner, with my hands at my side.  I cannot count the number of times I tried to communicate to someone in English, then instinctually switch to Indonesian when it became clear they did not speak English, a language arguably less helpful in this given context; I would then realize my mistake, tease myself in a mix of languages with an apologetic smile, and the person I was talking to would usually laugh and smile in return, catching my blunders and handing them back to me wrapped in the most human of understandings: that we all miscommunicate and misunderstand.

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Some beautiful views from Jungwon University, where we were for most of our visit.

The entire experience echoed the Aristotle quote I’ve seen on the walls of hundreds of classrooms: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”  It may seem trite and overused at this point to some, but I cannot help but believe there is a reason it has been plastered across my education.  Because though I have learned so much in the travel I have had the opportunity to do, what I now know is still far less than what I do not know.  Intellectually, I have known this is the case for a long time, but I always relish concrete experiences that emphasize how this plays out in real-life situations as seemingly ordinary as ordering a cup of coffee.  The more I travel, the smaller I feel, and I have done nothing but gain from this diminishment, for which I am forever thankful.

 

 

[1] Because if I already wasn’t incredibly lucky to get to travel as much as I do, I now have the opportunity to travel to whole other countries for my job.  I am the luckiest girl in the world.

[2] This is something that always makes me very uncomfortable in the U.S.: I am constantly clarifying, as I am talking about my time in Indonesia, that I have only lived in certain parts of the country, and only for a short time, and I have never formally studied the country, so I am certainly no expert: I can only speak to my own experience.  Occasionally, I am asked to make generalizations about Asia as a whole, and this is something I really cannot do, with as limited an experience as I have.

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