By Bekah Graham
Bekah Graham, Fulbright scholar. Photo by Luke Rutan.
I froze. The email began “Dear Fulbright Applicant.” My heart rate doubled. “Please give me a call to discuss the status of your Fulbright application.” Suddenly, the school project I was working on couldn’t be any further from my mind. I read the email. Read it again. Ran downstairs to look at my last letter from the Institute of International Education (IIE), the one bearing the nerve-destroying title of “alternate” that I had filed away to the back of my desk drawer. Yep, there it was: “If we have any news regarding your grant status, we will contact you by email or telephone.” I ran back upstairs. Read it again. Studying was no longer a possibility.
It was June 2011, just a week before graduation, and I had been waiting to hear back from the IIE for months. I had been fantasizing about the possibility for more than a year, ever since I first heard about the Fulbright Program and decided to apply as an English teaching assistant (ETA). That summer I scoured the descriptions of every country with ETA positions, considering such far-flung places as South Africa and Nepal.
Taiwan won. I wrote and edited my personal statement and statement of purpose, and asked for recommendations. Then, in October, the week before classes started, I hit “submit.” And waited.
And waited, and waited. It was terrible. I was a senior; all my friends were making plans, getting into grad schools, and making real steps toward their futures, while I was stuck doing nothing but hoping and praying that I would get in. I’d gone as far as my plans could take me.
In January, I told God that I was giving up. The next day, I received an email from IIE saying that I was a “recommended” candidate. My application was going to Taiwan for consideration. I was ecstatic! Then I settled back into waiting.
In April, I told God that all I wanted was an answer, either way. The next day, IIE’s letter arrived — the dreaded “alternate” letter. It was the least conclusive news I could possibly have heard.
Which was why, two months later, as I prepared for finals and graduation, I nearly had a heart attack when I finally mustered up my courage and returned IIE’s call to learn that I was, officially, a Fulbright scholar.
Two months and 14 hours of flying later, I — along with the 11 other ETAs assigned to the area — arrived in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, bleary-eyed and desperately seeking caffeine. We were met at the airport by our Fulbright liaison, Fonda, and a wall of impossibly superheated air.
I spent the next month in Kaohsiung (pronounced “gowshyong”) getting to know my fellow ETAs. I also met my new Taiwanese co-teachers, with whom I’d be teaching fifth and sixth grade. We prepared, supposedly, for every possibility. But from Day One there were plenty of fun surprises! For example, one sixth grader welcomed me to my first day teaching at Qingshan Elementary with, “Do you have a boyfriend? I a handsome boy!”
As a new, young American teacher, my de facto job was to mix it up a little. For Halloween, I spent a week in a pirate get-up as my co-teacher and I read a bilingual version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” For Thanksgiving, my kids drew flames all over their first-ever “hand” turkeys. (The literal translation of “turkey” is “fire chicken.”)
On a more ordinary day, we would teach condiments with a taste test, hold tournaments of “American hand-clap game,” such as “Down by the Banks,” or have clothing relay races. Between classes, I found myself talking about Facebook with Kiki and Sherry, studying Chinese with Peggy, or facing a line of students that curled out of my office, all eager to ask me, “What’s up?” … in return for a piece of candy, of course.
Stories like these filled my daily blogs, and ensured I would never go long without a smile. When I asked one fifth-grade class what they were wearing, one boy replied, “A black bikini.” Another time I asked a group of fifth-graders, “What do you do at the hospital?” and someone’s enthusiastic response was, “Die!”
Just a day in the life of Bekah 老師. Who needs plans when you’ve got a job like this?
Of course, some things I could have planned for better: language, for instance. I came to Taiwan with a Chinese vocabulary of maybe 20 words, mostly consisting of “hello” and “thank you,” and I had to learn quickly how to do basic things like order food. Even going to Starbucks was disorienting: Everything looked familiar, exactly as if I were at home, so why couldn’t I tell them what I wanted?
I enrolled in Chinese courses and soon learned enough to get by, but language was just one of the many differences I encountered moving to Asia. In my first week of teaching, I almost walked right past my co-teacher, Maggie, without recognizing her. Why? Well, because 100-degree heat and humidity notwithstanding, she was covered from head to toe in a hat, visor, face and neck mask, detachable sleeves, and gloves. In Taiwan, this is not uncommon. White skin is the epitome of beauty, after all!
As a very Caucasian Westerner, complete with light hair and blue-green eyes, I stood out and got comments — and I was looked at in horror whenever I went sun-seeking. They just couldn’t fathom me wanting to tan my “beautiful white skin.”
But I got used to that and became fully assimilated to local culture. I no longer balked at being stared at. I could order food and follow conversations. I was still white, sure, but could I navigate Taiwan? Kě yĭ.
I could never have foreseen how having “Fulbright” affixed to my name could change my daily life so much. Being a Fulbright scholar opened unexpected doors. Overnight, I went from being a student to being a VIP, a “cultural ambassador” to my host country. I attended Taiwan’s national independence day celebration, where I met foreign dignitaries and stood one person away from Taiwan’s President Mă.
The sheer volume of amazingness contained in a Fulbright grant can never be completely expressed in writing — it’s everything I experienced, every day, for an entire year. Because of my Fulbright, I have driven a scooter in a typhoon; swum in clear, warm water in April (not likely in the Pacific Northwest); seen lanterns raised over the Love River for Chinese New Year; and helped sing the American National Anthem at the MLB All-Star Games hosted in Kaohsiung.
Whenever I met someone and we traded stories, I always got the same reaction: “Oh, you’re a Fulbrighter?” They nodded and said, “That’s awesome.”
The awesomeness will soon end. I have another month and a half in Taiwan; when you read this, I’ll be back in America … for now.
But now I know the world is just a whim and a few saved paychecks away! Now I adjusted to living in a culture while in an infantile state of non-knowing, and it doesn’t really matter where I display my ignorance. It’s liberating, really. I’ve learned to just let go of my plans and free-fall into the unknown. It’s worth it.
My year as a Fulbright scholar was one of the unquestionably big events in my life. It has changed me as a person, making me both more independent and more able to rely on others and God; more confident and more aware of my limitations. It has taught me to view myself and my place in the world in a new way. At Seattle Pacific University, I was encouraged to engage the culture and change the world. But what often went unmentioned is how, by putting this credo into action, the world could change me.
Editor's Note: This article was first published in the autumn issue of etc magazine, Seattle Pacific University's magazine to students that serves as a bridge between the SPU community and high school and college students. Read more etc stories at spu.edu/etc.