The Incandescent Fulbright Program

In one of those interesting appellative quirks of life, the Fulbright Program is supposedly full of bright people going off to study or teach in other countries. But actually this is not quite true. First, those of us who have had a Fulbright consider ourselves, not bright, but lucky and very conscientious (which is a curse of sorts, and a black-tie, sequined-dress synonym for “neurotic”), and the Fulbrighters I’ve met seem, on the whole, a fairly bemused-to-the-point-of-baffled lot. Or at least that describes myself.

For example, why is it life has so many truth-telling names? When my father’s appendix ruptured decades ago and he was rushed to R. T. Jones Memorial Hospital in Canton, Georgia, guess who took out his gangrenous organ? Yes, our family friend, Dr. William Cutts. Somehow it seemed better to have a Dr. Cutts take it out rather than, say, a Dr. Flower or a Dr. Hugs. I mean, if you need something poisonous cut out, then, by all means, have Dr. Cutts cut it out. It’s destiny. I also have a friend named Danielle Buckley, and her original living and writing buck, step by step, every known trend.

The way of digression is a comfortable, dimly-lit path. Second, Fulbrighters do indeed teach, study, or do research abroad, but they are meant first-and-foremost to be ambassadors of good will. To understand the heart of the Fulbright Program, then, we can turn to its history. I met its founder, Senator J. William Fulbright, when he was an octogenarian and I a twenty-something Fulbright grantee at University College London. Senator Fulbright was born in 1905 and died in 1995. I met him in 1990 when he and his wife came to London for a visit. I took my nose out of a tenth-century manuscript long enough to trek over from the British Museum to the Fulbright office to meet him, and I’ve always been glad I did. Although Senator Fulbright was 84 then, he was vigorous, and his speech passionate. All the London Fulbrighters sat around with him and his wife in the Fulbright office then near Baker Street tube station and just talked. We had our picture taken with him, and I was given one; but I don’t know where mine is.

Which just goes to show that the Fulbright Program has long outgrown any one man’s seminal idea. But Senator Fulbright’s internationalist spirit lives on. Fulbright believed, “The prejudices and misconceptions which exist in every country regarding foreign people are the great barrier to any system of government.” As a Rhodes scholar himself, he studied at Oxford University for a Master’s degree and traveled throughout Eastern Europe. Later, when Fulbright was a freshman senator from Arkansas, he foresaw that far-reaching global educational exchanges could transform the world for the better, and so he introduced a measure to the United States Congress “for the promotion of international goodwill through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” Congress passed his measure, and President Harry S. Truman signed it on the 1st of August 1946.

The Fulbright Program, then, began as one politician’s echt creative response to the end of the Second World War, and its main purpose is to nurture and strengthen the global community. In 1965, Senator Fulbright said the aim of the program bearing his name was “to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”

One way the Fulbright Program does this is that it administers its programs binationally. In Korea, Mrs. Shim, Jai Ok, the Executive Director, and her amazing, friendly, and hard-working staff have helped us with everything from how to pay our cell phone bills (at the bank, by the way) to how to write an address in Korean (very helpful when you need to get somewhere by taxi and don’t speak Korean), and everything in-between. They are the smartest, nicest people you could ever hope to meet. And, though Mrs. Shim would never tell you, she earned an MBA from Seoul National University, Korea’s finest. Mr. Hong was the first person from the Korean-American Educational Exchange Program (KAEC-Fulbright) that we met. He drove two hours through Seoul traffic to the Incheon airport and helped us load our 10 or so gold-heavy bags into the van. Our children are eight and three, and we were very thankful not to have to negotiate our way through the thicket of Hangul and into Seoul with them at that weary point. We communicated with Mr. Hong by smiling and pantomiming our thanks, and he understood how appreciative we were that he had come to get us after that long, long flight from the U.S. East Coast. The KAEC website is chockfull of Fulbright-in-Korea information.

Since the establishment of the Fulbright Program over fifty years ago, more than 42,000 Americans and 158,000 participants from other countries have benefited from the Fulbright experience. Currently, the U.S. Student Program annually awards approximately 1,000 grants to U.S. citizens to study overseas, and about 3,000 non U.S. nationals are currently in the U.S. on a Fulbright Grant. Prominent American alumni include writers and poets like John Ashbery, Rita Dove, Jonathan Franzen, Galway Kinnell, Jane Smiley, Mark Strand, and Charles Wright, as well as former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, opera singer Renee Fleming, and others.

But the point is that most of us Fulbrighters are quietly living our lives in a perpetually baffled state and hoping to be good ambadassors wherever we may be. I am certain world peace is a little nearer now that I have tried, for example, to call roll in a class of students named Sinae, Eun, Ewn, Kwang-seo, and Jin-hee. After two names, I noticed no one had said, “Ne!” (Korean for “Yes!”) That was because no one recognized their name in my mangling pronunciation.

And world peace is closer also because I have tried to buy dishwashing gloves at Grand Mart in Seoul’s Sinchon Rotary section, a few city blocks from our apartment here. Many things are perplexing in a country where you don’t speak or read the language–I can’t make out the large, scrolling advertisements on the sides of buses, I can’t read the back of my Frosted Flakes cereal box, and I can’t read even my bills. I discern it’s the cable bill by the tiny picture of a TV with antennae in the bottom left corner of the bill, and in that sea of Hangul, I can make out a certain amount of won I’m meant to pay. In America I used to see explanatory pictures on items in stores and kind of think, How silly is that. How hard is it to read the instructions for heating up this frozen dinner? I did think that, and, worse, I never realized I thought something that plebian, but I did. But the beauty of a Fulbright is, I’ll never think that again. So all things considered, I’m still thinking, how hard can buying dishwashing gloves be? I only need one. The thumb on the right hand of my old pair got cut by a knife I was washing and so I only need one, I think. No problem.

So I find myself reduced to staring at the assortment of plastic gloves in Grand Mart, which is a wonderful store some nine stories high. I’m staring at the actual gloves, not the indecipherable writing on the packages. I’m in the basement, and I’m staring at a wall where row after row of bright pink plastic gloves hang, easily available for purchase. I see they are sold individually and also in pairs. I say to myself, “Well, I’ll just buy one. I only need one, so that’s easy.” I buy one. Then that little nagging Wimberley-area (1) of my brain says, “But you need to get a spare, don’t you?” So I buy another one. So I buy two singles. This is important, but I don’t know it yet.

I get home with the 57,000 won of groceries (or about $57.00 with the weak dollar), and I proudly pull out my new dishwashing gloves, and I take the first out of its wrapper. My old surviving glove is a left, and this, too, is a left. No problem. Still optimistic, I designate that new one as the spare. Not thinking I may have a problem, I open the second individually-packed plastic glove. It, too, is a left. So now I own three left gloves. And these are Korean plastic gloves, I mean, they are (in the vernacular of the S.E. Hinton classic, The Outsiders, “tuff.” They are made of thick plastic and have bumps to help you hold whatever you’re washing, so when you turn one inside-out to make a right glove (which of course I had to do), you have bumps against your skin which don’t bother me but bug the heck out of my daughter, who does, on occasion, don them. The inside of each glove is white, by the way, so when I wash dishes now I have one pink and one white plastic glove. When this left-left-left glove experience happened to me, I got so tickled, I couldn’t continue washing dishes. I had to sit down and drink a cup of tea to recover. That’s what being in a foreign country is like for me. It’s one left glove after another, and much laughter.

I’ve often thought that if George W. Bush could be dropped in the middle of Seoul, Korea, without his protective entourage (maybe he could dye his hair red and come incognito), and if he could spend some time in a place where he would be unable to read even the simple directions that come with his new toaster or his new iron, then more compassionate, more intelligent global policy could be forged in the White House with places like the Blue House.

Mind you, my family and I have all taken Korean. Nothing better for humility than studying a language you didn’t grow up speaking. I was privately tutored for several months before the needs of my Sogang University students (who were coming to my office quite regularly, thankfully) and my own bewilderment with trying to keep up with what-is-definitely-a-very-difficult-language-for-anyone-not-Japanese made me stop. My husband persevered much longer than I. He took an intensive course at Sogang University and made B’s, which I pledge to you is like an A+++++++++++++++++ in any other subject. The deceptive thing about Korean is that learning to read Hangul is easy. Hangul is amazing. It’s the pronunciation that’s hard and also remembering what those words-you-can’t-pronounce mean. And of course learning to manage with verbs at the ends of sentences and clauses is quite stressful for those of us who grew up with SVO sentence structure.

Still, we have learned many necessary phrases. The first I learned is “You are so smart” (“dock-dock-hahdah”), which a student on a bus trip to Incheon taught me. That has come in very handy, and I say it with genuine fervor each time. “It’s cold” (“mah-knee-chwah-yo”) is useful in winter. We’ve also learned “Hello” (“Anyang-hah-say-yo!”), of course, and “Goodbye” (there’s one way to say goodbye to the person who is staying put as you are leaving–”Anyang-he-kay-say-o!” or “Peace stay with you!”), and there’s another goodbye that you say when you’re staying put and the other person is leaving–”Anyang-he-gah-say-o!” or “Peace go with you!”). And we’ve learned all sorts of words for “beautiful” and “cute” and “thank you.” The Germans say, “Mit dem Hut in der Hand geht der Mann durch das Land.” “With his hat in his hand, a man makes his way politely through a country.” And here in Korea, we all bow a lot, too. That and these few phrases added to Koreans’ kindness help see us through.

Our children are both taking Korean, our daughter has Korean language and culture class once a week, and our son goes to an English-speaking Korean kindergarten, where Korean is the language of instruction the first 2.5 hours of the day, and English is the language of instruction the last 2.5 hours of the day. One day recently, I was telling my son just how handsome he is. He is Korean, we adopted him when he was a baby, and we feel very fortunate to have been able to do so. I pointed at his nose, lips, cheeks, and eyes, saying, “Your nose is so handsome, your lips are so handsome, your cheeks are so handsome, your eyes are so handsome,” but he stopped me to say, “No, Mommy,” and he pointed at his lips, “my ip (said ‘eep’).”

My son sometimes drops letters when he speaks, so I corrected him, “No, honey, your lips,” and I gave the “l” for “lips” special emphasis. “No, Mommy, IP,” he shot back. This “lips-ip” dialogue went on for a while till he finally said, “Mommy, Barbie Teacher says IP!” Barbie is the English name his Korean teacher has chosen. That’s when I went to get my Korean dictionary, and, sure enough, he was teaching me “lip” in Korean. And now my son has changed our “nose” kiss to a “tol kiss.” When he wants to rub noses, he says, “Tol kiss!” And he’s also taught us how to make the sound of a train in Korean: “Che che poke poke tang!” And when I put him to bed at night and give him a kiss, I smell kimchi, that red-chili-peppered fermented cabbage served at his school every lunchtime. It’s a Korean staple.

And one day when we ordered a pizza, I was admiring the bead ring on the finger of the woman who owns the shop and works it along with her husband (who drives the motorcycle for pizza delivery), and her nine-year-old daughter is always around doing homework on an empty table. I wanted to say, “It’s beautiful!” But I didn’t know how. My daughter whispered from beside me, “YEEpoodah, Mommy.” I said, “YEEpoodah!” Instant communication. Smiles all around.

Later, I asked my daughter, “How’d you know to say that? Did you learn it in Korean class?” “No, Mom. People are always saying that to me on the street when they pat my hair.”

And this is why the Fulbright Program is important. When the pizza came out hot from the oven, we were given a large pizza to go, and my daughter was also given a choice of bead rings that the owner herself had made. That’s the best international diplomacy. Well, that and buying plastic dishwashing gloves.

Or, as Senator Fulbright said in 1963, “The preservation of our free society in the years and decades to come will depend ultimately on whether we succeed or fail in directing the enormous power of human knowledge to the enrichment of our own lives and to the shaping of a rational and civilized world order. . . . It is the task of education more than of any other instrument of public policy, to help close the dangerous gap between the economical and technological interdependence of the peoples of the world and their psychological, political, and spiritual alienation.”

(1) Wimberley is a sweet worry-wart girl in a children’s book.

About Carmen

I teach English at Shorter College in beautiful Rome, Georgia.
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One Response to The Incandescent Fulbright Program

  1. Danielle Buckley says:

    Thank you so much for the kind comments! I hope I am still “bucking” just enough to keep these Shorter people on their feet. Look at this creative nonfiction magazine, Brevity, for an excellently amusing essay on a Korean woman from Seoul! in America. I was having to read some of the essays for my Advanced Composition class. It’s a wonderful site!

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