Fulbright Grantee ‘16
ETA Program Coordinator for the Korean-American Educational Commission
I didn’t know exactly what I was about to encounter, but I grabbed my pink visor hat and sprinted to the gate, ready to embark on this new journey. It was the summer of 2004. My family and I had two carts stacked with suitcases, and we were trying to get through the bustling crowd at Incheon Airport. South Korea, the land of the morning calm, my parents’ home, the motherland – I was finally here.
My parents raised me in a conventional Korean family setting, but as residents of the United States, some practices were unorthodox. Mixing two very different cultures, I simultaneously practiced Korean and American customs and mannerisms. Thanksgiving, for example, was an interesting combination of not only making sure that we had turkey, but also bringing out the rice cakes and other Korean traditional food. Two languages were spoken under the same roof, and I picked up on (most) subtle nuances between words, but I always felt a lack of full in-depth knowledge and understanding of the Korean language and culture. Little did I know that my perspective would be changed when I moved in with my host family.
August 2016 – I could not believe it. Twelve years later, and I was returning to Korea. I clenched my fists and eagerly waited to meet my homestay family in the teacher’s room of the elementary school I was going to teach at.
As Fulbright grantees in Korea, English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) are required to reside with a homestay during our first year. My situation was no different from other ETAs, and I spent ten amazing months with my family (mom, dad, aunt, and their two daughters, 10-year old Shiyoon and 8-year old Eunbin) in Gyeongsan, Gyeongsangbuk-do. They provided me with all the things that I needed to live comfortably while I was staying with them and within a month, we got extremely close. While living with my host family, I was able to reflect and grow not only as an educator and cultural ambassador, but also as a family member, student, and individual.
Teaching is my passion, and it has always been for as long as I can remember. I came into the Fulbright program knowing that I wanted to leave an impact on the Korean children that I was going to encounter. I desired to learn and celebrate the differences and diversity of the Korean and American culture. Living with my homestay family helped me grow in ways beyond my imagination and gain an authentic outlook on life in Korea.
I never formally learned Korean, but a lot of my speaking skills came from interacting with my parents, grandmothers, and friends. One day, when I was sitting at the kitchen table with my host mom, she told me that I had a subtle Jeolla-do dialect.
“You know, you sometimes annunciate certain words like a Jeolla-do person.”
“Me? Really? That’s weird. There’s no way because my parents are from Seoul.”
“Yeah. Your intonation has a subtle Jeolla-do dialect.”
This caught me off guard, but then again, I never really knew what life my parents lived before they immigrated to America. This then made me wonder about my grandparents’ childhood, so I gave my parents a call to ask all these unanswered questions that were running through my head.
“So…my host mom said I have a Jeolla-do dialect. Are any of us from there?”
“Yes…your maternal grandmother lived in Jeonju when she was little, and your paternal grandmother is from Boseong.”
“What?! I thought Waehalmuni was from Incheon and Chinhalmuni was from Seoul! How come I never knew this?”
It felt like the puzzle pieces were finally coming together. I also used a lot of words that my host mom said were old-fashioned, and it was only later that I realized that I picked up the vocabulary from my grandmothers. My Korean was a combination of the Seoul and Jeolla-do dialects with some outdated, uncommon words, an eclectic mix of the Korean language—just like my heritage.
Through this interaction and many others with my host family, I was able to discover something new about my family background and about my identity as a Korean-American. Things naturally manifested itself, and I felt like so many layers of my upbringing were being exposed and brought to light. Subconsciously, I realized I grew up seeking some sort of validation and reassurance about who I was and where I was from. I never really belonged to a group because I was a blend of multiple cultures, so I always starved to fit in somewhere. However, I came to realize that it was okay to be in various groups. I was uniquely molded and created from a diverse background, and living under such conditions helped me quickly empathize and acknowledge different cultures at a young age. Knowing that my grandmothers were from Jeolla-do gave me a stronger desire to travel there to better comprehend the culture.
Aside from my Korean-American identity, my host family helped me grow as a mentor and teacher. As Nelson Mandela mused, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” While living with my host family, I was able to teach my host siblings in an enjoyable and authentic way. For example, when we made grocery store runs, my host sisters took turns buying foods with me in English. Through these encounters, they were able to learn conversational English without the use of a textbook and enjoyed doing it. I was also able to teach them the phrases “bless you” and “you’re welcome” and when it was the appropriate time to use these words. After explaining it to them, I was then able to discuss some cultural differences and where “bless you” derived from. Once again, all these “lessons” were natural; my host sisters were being exposed to not only a new language, but also a different culture.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
I grew and learned so much from my host family, but the laughter and joy that my host family gave me over the last year is something that resonates with me the most.
I do not mean to say that everything was perfect during my time in Gyeongsan. There were times when I was misunderstood or discriminated against because of my ethnically Korean face, but American behavior and status. Some people gave me looks when I spoke fluent Korean, but did not understand some basic vocabulary words. I was questioned when I did not know how to use a shopping point application system on my phone. I was able to open up to my host family about my encounters, though, and they were the ones that consulted me and helped me to take these experiences as learning blocks and reflect on them.
My host family never treated me like an outcast. They embraced me with open arms and showered me with genuine respect and kindness. Loneliness was not something I experienced often, but there were definitely times when I missed the comfort of my family and friends and the familiarity of a language and culture I grew up in for 22 years. My host family made it so easy to transition and adjust to the Korean lifestyle, though, and never failed to show me unconditional love and support. I found a second family in Korea and built so much jeong, so it was extremely saddening when it was time to leave.
June 2017 – I prepared some gifts for my host sisters before my big move to Seoul. For Shiyoon and Eunbin, it wasn’t the American candy that they liked the most, though. It was the scrapbook that I made for them with pictures from our adventures together and little notes about what we did there. When I started shedding tears as I read them their letters, I could not forget the look on their faces. It was not a look of pity, but of understanding. At such a young age, they knew—they could genuinely feel and share my sentiments.
They reminded me that at the end of the day, it is not the material possessions that will resonate with people. It is about the way you connect with them through the memories you share and the emotions you feel.
I did not see my move to Seoul as the ending of one chapter and the beginning of a new one. I saw it as a continuation of my journey and goal to further understand the Korean people and the land of the morning calm. I viewed it as an extension and opportunity to push myself and approach everything with cultural sensitivity, understanding, and respect. My host family planted the seeds for me, and now, it was time for me to nurture and build upon them.
August 2017 – my journey was only beginning.
Jenny Choi is the current ETA Program Coordinator for the Fulbright Korea program at the Korean-American Educational Commission in Seoul. She taught English to elementary school students in Gyeongsan as a Fulbright Grantee from 2016-2017. Ms. Choi earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education with a STEM Concentration and ESL Add-On Licensure from North Carolina State University. She plans to pursue a Master’s degree in TESOL/International Education to work with university students in South Korea.