Contributor on ‘2020 – A Year’s Worth of Ruminations’

Kyle – Korea

January 31, 2020

Question 1: How did you feel today? (What thoughts are on your mind on this last day of each month and what stimuli caused you to feel that way?)

January 31st this year is a Friday, and in that sense it flies by because I’m so busy with school and trying to figure out plans and transportation for the weekend. Classes get out at 1pm and everyone’s brains are done well before that during the lectures. I abruptly moved January 7th into the first advanced section of my Korean courses and the burnout from studying so hard to score high enough on my intermediate final exam just in order to move into the advanced class is being felt even after 3 weeks. With no break and adjusting to the new classmates, teachers, and difficulty followed only one week later by the Korean Proficiency Exam (TOPIK), my usual drive to preview all material to be covered the following day has waned to a pitiful one or two incomplete attempts per week as the problem is further exacerbated by switching to completely different textbooks which are harder to follow.

Everyone is anxious because the TOPIK results come out next Wednesday and while us graduate students have potentially another semester, the undergraduates must pass January’s test to move onto university lest they potentially lose their scholarships. It’s a high pressure environment as there are also a few graduate students who want to achieve the highest levels (five or six) to move to their programs early (and one person even has to do this because their program won’t admit people for the Fall semester).

Personally I’ve already passed the requirements set for me in November and I’m mostly trying to be supportive and sympathetic to those around me. Everything is much lower stakes for me because I’ve lived in Korea for almost two and a half years, have some money saved, and know my way around almost the entire country. Most people in my program haven’t studied Korean, came straight from undergraduate, and are struggling with the limited living stipends and adaptation that needs to occur for them to thrive and succeed here. The gaps between us are big enough without being strained by the fact that I still have many friends actively in the Fulbright program here that I make time to see, thus taking time away from seeing friends and making new ones at this language school.

Above all, I feel anxious, because I’ve recently been thinking more about how I will always feel slightly uneasy unless I organize my life better and start living more productively and purposefully. I’ve kept myself very busy and done a lot of worthwhile things in the last few years, but I know I need to start long-term goal planning, alongside being more regular and scheduled with my time so that my leisure time doesn’t jeopardize my academic and work goals and so the time I spend in leisure is better able to be enjoyed and spent helping and growing my relationships with others.

Question 2: How would you frame your day (answer to the first question) to a complete stranger?

January has been an odd month. I passed my required Korean test last month so in some sense you could say I’m “done” with what I came to language school to do, but I really like studying Korean and want to improve my skills more. I made a good number of friends in my new program early on but have struggled to really connect with people in my program outside of those core people, and have had to divide my time between them and my old friends who continue to teach in programs here, alongside trying to keep in contact with friends who have returned to the US or gone to other countries. I’ve become a part of now a 3rd “cohort” in Korea and each one is very different and challenging in adjusting to the different dynamics between them.

Overall each day is regulated here and that can itself be a little overbearing. Our scholarship rules dictate very strict policies for leaving the country, missing school, and how we are taught in the classroom, which has been tough for some of my friends trying to learn in lower levels, some trying to become proficient in higher levels, and me because as I have spent many years in education I can clearly see many moments where teaching time and class time in general could be used more effectively.

Overall I’m just glad it’s Friday and I get to see my friend race their first 5 kilometer run tomorrow! It’ll be another weekend outside Cheonan (the city I live in) but I’ve planned to have a movie night with friends tonight (Howl’s Moving Castle) and am hoping to make that a weekly occurrence! Here’s also to hoping I can hone in my study habits to prepare for our final exams starting on February 11th!

Question 3: What are some aspects of your routine now (daily/weekly) that you think should be changed (for health reasons, stress, etc.) and what are some things you do that you would recommend to someone else? What are a couple things you would want to add to your routine to enhance your lifestyle?

My current routines are quite sustainable in the sense that I can continue to live my life this way and continue passing my classes and get along well enough socially. However in contrast with how I actually feel, they are remarkably unsustainable. I need to better regulate when I go to bed, when I wake up, when I exercise, when I do my homework and preview for the following day’s studies, and budget for how I’m going to eat more cost effectively and really just budget in general. I’m cushioned by work I’ve done in previous years financially and academically but am extremely dissatisfied anytime I find myself unprepared or stressed because I planned poorly. This bleeds over into other aspects of my life and limits my abilities to truly be present for my friends. Along those lines I’ve already deleted or hidden a few apps on my phone in order to stop wasting so much time mindlessly perusing the internet.

Things I do that I would recommend to others are things I’ve generally done well in the past. I have a history of running 5 out of the 7 days in a week (a ‘lazy’ habit given in college I ran 6 or 7 days a week when competing for my college cross country and track team). This has allowed me to have an outlet for stress, and playlists during running have really energized my enjoyment of those times running and particularly helped me get through times when running alone has been tough since no one where I live runs at the level or intensity I do. I’ve recently gotten friends to bike alongside me to chat while I do some easier runs and that’s been very lovely.

Additionally, when I’ve been studying well I noticed I excelled in class when I’d gone over all the material we would see the following day, grammar, vocabulary, and reading/listening sections. It can take 2-3 hours to thoroughly do this but I feel I learned really well by doing so and was happier in class and less stressed than usual. Teachers also seemed happy with me and I participated more, which I know as a teacher is really what I’d hope for in a student as low energy and participation can make teaching days really tough.

Finally, as stated before I want to add purposeful scheduling into my life to feel like I am in better control and to utilize my time effectively so that my preview, in-class exposure, and review models can help me best optimize and retain my learned material. I hate forgetting things I’ve learned or seeing a word I know I learned but can’t recall the meaning of. The same goes for names of people I’ve met and things they’ve told me, so I want to add in journaling at the end of each day to solidify details better retain general memories since I do so much every week here that I’d rather have a record of even the little things to look back on later and keep track of the things that worked well and the things that led to success or failure in the future.

February 29, 2020

Question 1: How did you feel today? (What thoughts are on your mind on this last day of each month and what stimuli caused you to feel that way?)

February has been a very tumultuous time in South Korea. With China being so close and the Coronavirus outbreak occurring there, lots of worries have surfaced over the spread and how it will affect society given the massive lockdowns that have been implemented in China and the lack of treatment options for people afflicted with the illness.

My semester ended on February 14th and since then I was supposed to be on a two-week vacation and begin language study classes again on March 2nd. Everything changed when the fire nation attacked. I departed Korea on February 18th for a trip to Japan scheduled until the 25th in Osaka and Kyoto. At the time this was seen as slightly risky, given that Japan had more Corona cases than South Korea, but concerns at the time mostly were tied to travel within China and many of Japan’s cases included the tally of afflicted people being quarantined on a cruise ship, so Osaka checked out and my trip continued. It was honestly a wonderful time and I did a lot more casual sightseeing than I had the previous time I’d visited 2 years prior. 

During my time there however, Patient 31 emerged in South Korea (Daegu, specifically) and the media went ablaze in the following week when it was revealed that the patient had refused testing and had attended several congregations of a mysterious church. South Korea has a number of churches many people would be inclined to label as ‘cults’ and with my university being one that was founded by such an organization, the wariness that has been felt by the public at large and my friends at our school was amplified.

My flight home was cancelled.

Travel advisories were issued.

Countries forbid entry from those who had traveled from Korea.

Everything was a mess.

Thousands of cases blossomed from that one incident, with Daegu bearing the brunt of it. Many friends expressed nervousness and I cancelled my birthday plans in Seoul to spare anyone traveling during that time. As I write this, I have seen that many of them went to Seoul anyways and feel… a little salty? I wonder if I was too cautious or if they weren’t cautious enough. I can’t condemn then really, we’re all getting through this the best we can, but this was another birthday I feel didn’t meet expectations when I didn’t have high ones to begin with, but that’s life I guess.

On top of all this, Fulbright issued a notice allowing voluntary leave of grant recipients in the country and many have decided to take the offer. I continually find myself feeling a bit upset by this for many reasons. 

First, the US is going to be hit by the virus soon, and many Americans don’t have health insurance. I have no confidence the government will act in time to make tests available or that they will be free. Certainly, those returning from abroad are less likely too, but I suppose that’s up to each person. Americans avoid going to the doctor whenever possible as a result of exorbitant costs and those habits won’t die easy. I’m worried the poorest and least off will suffer the worst as is always the case.

Second, many Fulbright recipients just finished their first semester. This is notoriously the worst and most difficult part and almost unanimously those who have made it through a full grant year report that their second semester was a time of extreme growth and positivity, of developing the deeper ties they felt in their placements and solidifying memories with friends that would last a lifetime. 

I’m very sad those who leave won’t get that chance and that they may leave BECAUSE they don’t know that such a time lies ahead, or what it feels like. I know many will be worried about disruption of society and delays in teaching, and certainly these are exceptional times, but my program has also offered a 6-month delay-of-study leave, and I won’t be taking it. Health insurance is top-notch and free in Korea, including testing if you have any symptoms. 

Fulbright grantees are lucky in that their trip home is funded and they will still receive pay as members of a government-sponsored program (this is another reminder that I was unceremoniously shit on when Fulbright withdrew my offer to renew a 3rd year when I asked them about aiding me in deferring my current scholarship offer). I can see how the offer is tempting, and I’d even recommend it to renewees starting graduate school in the autumn or pursuing other ventures since they’ve already been here so long, but it is such a convoluted emotion whirlwind.

So here I sit, birthday cancelled, wondering which friends might leave next and trying to prepare myself for online classes that will start after a 2-week delay (another fear, since my Korean isn’t great even in-person). Lots of great stuff happened in February, but the world is getting thrown into chaos and the myriad obstacles that will result are only something I can guess at for now.

Happy Leap Day

Question 2: How would you frame your day (answer to the first question) to a complete stranger?

I was planning to be with my friends today to eat and rest off celebrating my birthday yesterday, but sadly because of Coronavirus fears, I had to call it all off and lose a bit of money along the way. I feel like Leap Day should be special but it’s mostly just sedentary now. I’ve done a run today to get that feeling out, and that went as well as it could, but I’m also self-isolating due to recent travel to Japan. The city of Daegu is exploding with cases merely an hour away and, well, going outside isn’t easy when a lot of shops are closed and people are all avoiding each other, wearing masks, and it’s still a bit cold out. Studying has been hard to focus on despite wanting too, and as a result my Korean feels like it’s slipping a bit. I’d love to practice speaking and listening, but with everyone avoiding each other… this is a struggle for sure. Hopefully things improve soon, but while I see Korea recovering in a month or two, I feel the world still has only begun to be affected by this.

Question 3: Two paths diverge in a yellow wood… which do you choose? One winds into a dark canopy headed towards a beautiful valley, and the other heads straight for the top of the mountain. Choose wisely 😉

The dark canopy overhead is certainly appealing, if not a bit scary for what it could be concealing. Knowing a beautiful valley lies ahead really changes the game. I love a mountaintop view but there is not much else to do once at the top. I suppose if I could snowboard down it’d be worth the trip, but given no such guarantee I’d love to marvel at the valley and perhaps go find a waterfall to swim around or enjoy the serenity of a forest.