I finished off Fulbright Taiwan with my hilarious fifth graders dumping frigid cold water on me during our last field trip together. While I will cherish this particular memory and the many more I shared with my students, the grant turned out not all that I expected it to be. Big surprise? Initial culture shock aside, not really. What happened on this journey that promised glory, honor, and honest-to-God cultural exchange?
image via Emily’s Quotes.
Most days, I spent in an empty classroom whiling away the minutes in humidity that a tropical fish could swim in. Even with the time spent lesson planning and coordinating classroom management, many hours I mostly felt dazed, having done all I could for the few classes in the grade I taught. Of course, I also battled the seeming un-achievable standards set before me. Not only did I have to be better than every single ETA before me, any creative idea automatically warranted someone else’s credit.
To the bitter end, my co-workers continued to ask me if I actually spoke Chinese. That was, usually, their only question to me. I spent an entire 6th grade graduation luncheon in the middle of teachers laughing and talking, but clearly in their own clique. I’m not saying this is country-specific or even school-specific, but I am saying that I have never felt so isolated amongst so many. Lunches were a sad affair, whether sitting alone in the lounge or in the classroom. It was everything I could do not to weep at my desk during Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Fulbright isn’t for everybody, especially not for a college student used to being well-respected and liked in a classroom setting. I never realized how much I took my professor’s good faith in me for granted. Here I was with a competitive scholarship and my coworkers treated me like I was one of their students. As an Asian-American, many of the students and most of the teachers just saw me as an incompetent version of a local teacher…or a pseudo-American. I’m still not quite sure which version is worse, but when people do not even acknowledge you in the hallway or sit at a different table even after making eye contact with you…there’s something wrong with that. I thought I was a professional, but instead I ended up back in the hallowed halls of a suburban high school.
I am thankful to be among the lucky few to receive such a prestigious award, but I am certainly not going to sacrifice frankness for a politically correct generalization. Yes, I got to travel to amazing places, and I met students I continue to miss. An average day was hours of loneliness followed by the consoling arms of Netflix. Reality hurt like slamming your head into a wall repeatedly, which I felt like doing…repeatedly.
Of course, I learned quite a bit about myself and cultural exchange. I think that part of the deal was an honest promise. I was far too comfortable with certain “Americanisms,” and it was refreshing being pushed into the deep end for once. I realized I was a lot more ignorant than I thought, and my students had to work way harder than I did in elementary school. For once, nothing came naturally. Teaching kicked me into gear. Even with all the pain and the endless printing, it was amazing to see how excited kids got after a fun lesson. Was it worth the loneliness and the neglect? I don’t know.
I guess I’m just saying, if you’re preparing to go on Fulbright, know that many times, it’s going to be an unnerving, solo uphill battle. Many experiences will be offensive only to you as the minority. You might not know what to do or say at times. Maybe we need that in our lives though…the feeling of not being completely comfortable.
Maybe that’s the difference that changed me. For the better? I’m not sure, but I will tell you I will never make the mistake of not welcoming someone with a smile or a simple conversation. If it takes going halfway across the world to learn that, who am I to say it wasn’t worth it.