August 13, 2012 by travelinggrits
A curious onlooker might have found the crowd assembled for this weighty occasion somewhat peculiar. Eighty Fulbright grantees, clad in their business best, stood solemnly in an arc shape at the front of a vast marble auditorium. The participants in the ceremony outnumbered the audience almost ten to one; the audience gathered consisted of a few key Fulbright staff and our Korean language teachers. The echoes of children’s laughter from the English camps where we had been practice teaching during the previous two weeks drifted up from the floors below and faded out over the rows of empty chairs.
The placement ceremony marked our first large milestone since our arrival in Korea. At random, each grantee was called forward to receive his or her placement location (town/city and type of school) for the coming year. The air buzzed with electric anticipation; each grantee imperceptibly leaned forward, ears perked up for the sound of his or her name. In succession, chosen grantees would break the line to stand front and center, bow toward the executive director, cross the stage to place a marker on the map in their new location and take a seat.
Throughout orientation, we had been coached on the knowledge and skills needed for our Fulbright experience: life in a homestay, cultural understanding, classroom management and many more pertinent topics. Although we developed expectations for our positions as teachers and cultural ambassadors, our coming adventure was still an abstract concept in the indefinite future. At the placement ceremony, a mere strip of paper with a school name and location finally brought reality crashing down in a deluge of excitement and nervousness for what was to come.
As I waited, my name scrolled through my brain like a CNN news update at the bottom of a television screen, but this did not make the sound of these familiar syllables any less startling. My name was called, and an invisible, inevitable thread of energy pulled me toward my long-awaited future.
The results: I am proud to share that I will be the next Fulbright English teaching assistant at a co-ed middle school in Gumi, Gyeongsangbuk-do. The school numbers around 800 students, grades 1 through 3 (the American equivalent of 7th, 8th and 9th grade). I will teach weekly 45-minute conversation classes with each of the 21 classes at the school.
I knew little about Gumi until I was able to research the location on my own. My priorities for my placement were proximity to cultural and historical sites and ease of transportation, and these seem to have been adequately matched. To best take advantage of the cultural immersion opportunity Fulbright has provided, I want to get to the heart of the Korean people by visiting the national treasures they hold most dear. Gumi is located within a few hours’ bus ride from Gyeongju, the cultural capital of South Korea and the origin of the Silla Dynasty. I can easily take a day trip to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, like the Tripitaka Koreana depositories, Bulguksa temple and several landmark folk villages. Gumi is about 30 minutes away from Daegu, where any extracurricular opportunities or needs not met in Gumi can likely be found.
Some call Gumi the Silicon Valley of South Korea, and electronic giants LG and Samsung have branches of their industrial operations in Gumi. My placement size is classified as “suburban,” but this city of 400,000 is still nearly twice the population of the capital of South Carolina. While I did not seek a manufacturing or commercial hub for my placement, I am interested in observing this center for technological development. My love of the outdoors can still be satiated, however; nearby Gumo Mountain is within sight of the city’s streets.
The Monday following the placement ceremony was my last day of calligraphy class. During our first few sessions, we had been completely absorbed in practicing sweeping brush strokes and graceful blot marks before we advanced to entire characters. But on our last day, we were able to choose a proverb for a piece to be presented to the class.
The master walked around the room to demonstrate the appropriate characters for our desired phrases. He stopped behind my chair and waited for me to give direction. But some mental inclination made me hesitate from selecting my own words of wisdom, and I asked for his suggestion with the help of a fellow student with more advanced Korean skills.
He took the brush from my ink-smudged hands and drew a four-character pattern with a sense of confidence that would take me years to acquire. Some of the meaning was lost in translation, and I am sure that what I repeat here does not have the grace with which he described the proverb. Essentially, his words for me were: Apply everything you have learned toward the future.
How appropriate were his words of wisdom. In just a little over a week, I will enter my new home for the year. Despite the preparation, I know it will be an experience beyond what I can imagine. But I have acquired much information and experience during this orientation period, and I must remember to apply this reference material toward both my professional and personal life. And my previous 22 years of life are an additional resource that should not go untapped. What games did I use as a camp counselor that I can apply in my classroom? What made my favorite teachers during my schooling so successful and engaging, and how can I embody their spirit?
I will certainly make mistakes – accepting items with the wrong hand, poorly timing a classroom lesson, misreading a sign and going in the wrong direction. But I have to keep learning, and most importantly, putting it into practice. To be forward thinking, I have to look back.
When doing my own research on Gumi, one of the first pieces of information I came across on the city’s website was the following:
“The character of Gumi city is a personified turtle named “Gumi.” The turtle represents intelligence, showing the city’s progressive civil spirits. The turtle’s bow tie symbolizes courtesy and humanity. Combined, the character represents Gumi as a city harmonized with high-tech and human beings.
This embodied image plays the role of a message bearer in promotions, campaigns, and various events by showing a familiar and dynamic feeling. ‘TOMI’ stands for ‘Tortoise Of Millennium Intelligence’ and represents Gumi’s combination of intelligence, emotion, and technology for the new millennium.”
My first thought: if this city has a mascot of a turtle with a bow tie, then fun times are definitely in store. But on a more reflective note, there’s something here that also reminds me of the calligraphy master’s words. Gumi seems to be seeking a way to combine its forward-thinking, technological mindset with its civil character and roots in tradition.