Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Thoughts on AAS conference


This trip has been eye-opening in many ways. I’ve reaffirmed my distaste for traveling, discovered that the ability to speak Korean is impressively useless to ever-present Chinese and Japanese-speaking tourists, and realized that becoming a Korean history go-to guy may not be in the cards for me.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself; well, actually, maybe that’s precisely it. Yes, I didn’t enjoy myself. But, I must allow into consideration that I had many factors stacked against me. Taking a travel-hating country boy far away from the comfort of long, open highways, the Dallas Mavericks and locally brewed Shiner Bock, I was already cranky by the time I left Dallas. Away from my picturesque wife and stunningly sweet little girl, I was missing home mere moments after takeoff. I attempted to remedy this by calling and/or texting every five seconds. Think I went over on my minute plan. Is that even possible anymore?

Regardless, traveling is expensive I usually don’t feel more enlightened as a person after I get back. I usually just feel a little fussy. I mean, really? An eighteen dollar hamburger? What do you mean twenty five dollar “checked baggage” fee? And you, how do you sleep at night, Mr. Overpriced Surfing Instructor? I didn’t mean to put my head through your windsurfing sail; it just happened during one of many falls off your one hundred thirty dollar windsailing board. You don’t have to rub my nose in it. I already did that, clearly.

Secondly, I didn’t know anyone at the conference other than my hotel rooming buddy. All other social engagement responsibility rested solely on my sunburned shoulders. I tend to give up easily when it comes to making friends. Call me shyly introverted, please, but don’t call me cynical; I’d hate to start avoiding you, too. Making friends is hard.

Finally, and most importantly, I was out of my professional element. I was at a conference with some of the world’s most brilliant academics; men and women who have dedicated the better part of their lives on a hyper-specified subject that has questionable real-life application. Multilingual and perfectly drilled to recall random facts and figures, I was but an unwelcome fly on the wall.

The conference was for Asian studies academics, which I am not. I knew that going into it but I didn’t realize the level of detail and hair-splitting involved with post-doctoral panels pursuing the difference between 노예 and 노비 or Joseon dynasty codes of punishment; let alone arguing the value of said distinctions over the course of several hours. In truth, I found several panels delightfully stimulating while others seduced me into believing I was at my grandmother’s house relaxing in the back bedroom on Thanksgiving; the only place on Earth capable of bringing even the most pill-popping, energy-drink fueled teenager to a gentle lull. Some non-native speakers spoke almost poetically while others struggled to finish a coherent sentence. Some had dazzling visuals while others monotonously read right off their paper with nary a powerpoint slide or handout. Shame.

Most of all, I found myself in utter mediocrity. The “Independent Scholar” label stamped on my name badge was ambiguously mysterious and erroneously led to some asking when I finished my dissertation. I humbly corrected them by meekly replying that being an “Independent Scholar” actually meant that I was a bottom feeder located snugly at the bottom of the academic food chain – just above summer interns but decidedly below pretentious first year grad students.

What could I have expected, though? I haven’t formally studied anything yet. I suppose that the aspect of trying to hang with the big boys in the future is almost too much to live up to. No matter if I started grad school today would I ever be able to live up to some of the panelists I met. Yes, I’ve read their books. Yes, they are rock stars to my world. No, I can never match their linguistic ability let alone academic ability. I am Jack’s sense of defeat.

I’ve rethought my (future) position very much this past week. It all comes down to a few basic questions that are still not adequately answered: What am I? Who am I? Am I a school teacher? A future professor? A would-be scholar? Am I a sailor? Or am I just a husband? A father? A family guy? Is there room for a real balance?

When I get in ruts like this, I try to count the good in my life and I’m relieved to be able to list so many blessings. I’ve got a good job, a good looking future job with the Navy, health insurance, a car, clothes on my back, a college degree, and, most importantly, an incredible family. I am the world’s luckiest guy just to know my wife and daughter, let alone be a part of their lives. I got it good, it’s just not the same type of good that I was aspiring to.

I know that graduate school is still very much a goal for me, but as far as what type of profession I want to get into later in life, which specific field of Korean studies do I want to focus on, or if I even want to go past the master’s and go for the PhD is still up in the air. I come away from this a little more wise and a lot more open to possibilities. Oh, and sunburned and jet lagged. That too.


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