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Box of Chocolates December 16, 2010

Posted by Matt Miller in Fulbright, Korea, Undergraduate.
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The dulcet sounds of a third grade middle school student crooning “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” are still ringing in my ears. I just sat down after Neungin Middle School’s end of semester English Pop Song Contest. Last spring, when I decided to go to Korea, I did not imagine that I would participate in a spectacle like that. In fact, Monday morning when I got to school I didn’t expect it either. Forrest Gump would know just what to say about life as A Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Korea. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

students participate in a singing contest

Neungin Middle School’s end of semester English Pop Song Contest

I didn’t expect the celebrity status. My first few weeks in school, the first of any foreign teacher in the century-long history of Neungin Middle School, were filled with standing ovations just for walking into classrooms and cheers instead of “hellos” in the hall. (Some ETAs receive different special greetings. One friend gets a full bow accompanied by an “I respect you.” I’m not sure which I would prefer.) The thrill of the American teacher has subdued a bit for the students, but I still get loud, grand greetings. Sometimes, particularly when a student is surprised to see me, his greeting will be laced with profanity.

I didn’t expect all the swearing. In English. American movies and songs are played uncensored, often at large, family-oriented events. My students eat that up and spit it back out in the hallways, outside, on the bus, and, on occasion, even in class. Once the shock wears off, it’s at least as cute and endearing as it is grating and offensive. They use profanities as intensifiers and because, quite simply, that’s often what they hear Americans saying in popular culture.

students in a classroom

Neungin Middle School students learn English in Matt Miller's class

I didn’t expect a grand American Thanksgiving feast, but when November rolled around I found myself, and the other ETAs invited to Ambassador Stephens’ home in Seoul for a sumptuous dinner.

I didn’t expect it to be so cold. The temperature is probably considerably lower in Ann Arbor than in Daegu, but you wouldn’t know it in school here. In the late afternoon, the heat is completely shut off. When I arrive in the morning, my classroom is the same freezing temperature that it is outside. Fortunately, I have a decent heater in my room and a warm place to wait in the main teacher’s office, which early arriving faculty members heat before I get there. Students still bring jackets, blankets, and hand warmers to class. The unheated, open windowed hallways will remain frigid until spring time. I suppose it all builds character.

One of the International Institute’s prompts for this post called on me to consider the expectations that I had for my grant year in Korea. It is these surprises, however, that have done the most to color my time here. There will surely be more.

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