June 27, 2012 by travelinggrits
Hair tousled and rubbing sleep from my eyes, I bounded down the stairs and slid into the creaky wicker chair at the kitchen table. The sunshine from the bay window threw a soft glow over the table set with Saturday morning breakfast, and steam wafted from the hot meal before me. Eggs, bacon and…
Here is where you might say the development of my worldview began – with the taste of grits.
As young children, it is hard for us to imagine an experience for anyone else that is unlike our own. We never believe the claim of “walking uphill to school both ways in the snow.” So the suggestion that our parents didn’t have color TV or computers at their disposal? Impossible.
But this is a comparison across generations, and we eventually begin to understand once we grow old enough to see more than the generations behind us. On the other hand, each individual passes through a distinct moment that makes him or her aware of geographic differences in experience, and for me, it was grits that first sparked this realization.
“You’ve never eaten grits?” I asked incredulously of an elementary school classmate who had moved from another portion of the country. Granted, I didn’t like sweet tea, but grits are a staple of my home in the American South. It was a mental exercise to remove grits from my concept of a hearty breakfast – I mean, what did people eat with their eggs if not grits?
This simple question initiated recognition that what was commonplace to me could be considered strange in other places. Once I grasped this concept, deeper reflection on cultural differences has continually fascinated me. Not just food, but music, social interaction and whole belief systems in other locales, both national and international, move in unique rhythm. I always wanted to learn how to join the dance – I was just waiting for the right invitation to take the floor. My high school international club, a summer study abroad program, foreign language classes – they all left me searching for more. The opportunity finally came in the form of a grant through the Fulbright Program.
After conferring with my university’s national fellowships advisor and several past Fulbright participants, I chose to apply for an English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) in South Korea. Following seven weeks of intensive language, teaching and cultural training, I will receive a school assignment and live in a homestay while I teach 15-20 classes of 30-45 middle or high school students each week. The ETA program in South Korea is reputed as one of the best, and I am so excited and honored to take part.
Here is where grits take on new meaning in my life: courage, resolve, strength of character. While my friends considered jobs and graduate schools, I was in pursuit of the unconventional, a path no one in my family or hometown circles has traveled before. I won’t say that I didn’t hesitate; I handled the Fulbright grant offer like a fragile document requiring delicate examination and consideration. My best thinking comes while running, and as I made my decision I pounded the pavement often, letting my mind explore every possible direction for my future and assess the risks and opportunities. In the end, all other options could not satisfy my desire to seek such an incredible chance to live with ears, eyes and heart wide open.
After my study abroad, I know that new environments surround me with an invigorating sensory overload. At the same time, I develop a keen sense of self-perception, and my true character comes into sharp focus – an identity that can also be represented by grits. To this young woman well versed in the language of “ma’am” and “ya’ll,” grits are more than a familiar stick-to-your-ribs substance. They represent a piece of my heritage, even for my Italian side, which has its own variety known as polenta. “Grits” can even be an acronym for this “girl raised in the South.”
Something about South Korea reminds me of my home state of South Carolina. South Carolina can be pigeonholed by its past and present status in health, education and politics, but those who do venture to the Palmetto State can appreciate its enduring pride built on a foundation of hospitality and community. South Korea is also establishing a new identity, and this nation deserves respect for its rapid growth, resilience and strength of character – its grit.
As I prepare to embark on this daunting and amazing journey, it feels like I’m inching up the first incline of a roller coaster. My adrenaline is pumping and my gaze sweeps over everything I am leaving behind, but I’m energized about the thrill ahead.
To my knowledge, the Korean language doesn’t have a word for grits – I’ve already checked the dictionary. But I believe its meaning could not be fully conveyed through a translated word – to truly understand, one must experience the taste of grits.