The end of the beginning – Well, it’s finally over—my first semester of my doctoral studies is finished. Of course, I still have to go to class next week, and there are a few loose ends to be tied up, but yesterday I gave my last presentation and completed the fourth of four major projects I had lined up for this semester.
In my last journal entry I mentioned (OK, maybe “obsessed over” would be a better term) my upcoming entrance to Korean academia, so I think it’s only fair that I describe how things went at the recent meeting of the Society of Korean Oral Literature.
About a week before the meeting I found the schedule in my inbox, and I was surprised to see that I was the first presenter. I was also surprised to see that there were only three papers being presented. Suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps the reason they asked me to present a paper was that there was no one else to present. I’m at the bottom of the academic food chain at the moment (being a first semester doctoral student), and it’s very likely that the buck got passed all the way down to me. For some reason, the idea made me feel strangely comfortable—perhaps because it would mean I wasn’t being singled out, I just happened to be next in line. It was a slight blow to my ego, of course, but it went a long way in relieving my paranoia.
At around the same time that I received the schedule, I received another e-mail telling me that it looked like I was going to be interpreting after all. Not asking me if I could interpret, but telling me that there was no choice. This confirmed my bottom-of-the-academic-food-chain theory. Fortunately, I would be working with a Korean who would handle most of the English-Korean interpretation, while I would deal with the Korean-English interpretation.
I was pretty stressed the day of the meeting. My presentation was scheduled for shortly after two in the afternoon—I arrived at about half past one and sat around for a half an hour, trying to pull myself together. I have a tendency to get nervous when giving presentations, but considering the importance of this presentation “nervous” is a severe understatement for how I felt. My mouth was dry and my hands were damp, and I felt as if I were a condemned man waiting for a firing squad to assemble. Yes, I tend to get dramatic at times like this.
Academic society presentations in Korea follow a specific format, at least in my field. The presenter reads the presentation while everyone else reads along in their copy. Then, when the presentation is finished, the person in charge of discussion reads a number of questions from a handout that is distributed beforehand. The presenter then answers these questions, and the moderator then opens up the session for free discussion. When the allotted time is up, the moderator summarizes the content of the presentation and discussion.
When the time came I took my seat in front of the assembled members of the Society. Like I said, I usually get nervous before presentations, but it went beyond mere nervousness—I had to take a deep breath and collect myself before I started. When I finally did start reading, I was horrified at the voice I heard coming out of my mouth. I couldn’t seem to get through a sentence without stumbling. My tongue may as well have been made of sand, and I gulped water from the glass in front of me at every opportunity, trying to use those few seconds to compose myself. I didn’t look up from the paper once during the entire presentation.
I think part of the problem was that I received the discussion questions about a minute before I began my presentation, so all I could think about during the presentation was how I was going to answer the questions. That obviously didn’t help me concentrate on the present, which is what I needed to do. Still, I managed to calm down as I read, and by the end I was more or less composed. When I finished I looked up, and I realized that the people sitting in front of me were just that—people. And, as far as I could tell, none of them had rifles aimed at my heart.
I took notes as the professor in charge of discussion read the five questions from the handout, and when he finished I took another deep breath and dove in. After managing to get through the first question I paused to look down at the remaining questions. I looked up at him and said, “Boy, these questions get harder and harder, don’t they?”
It wasn’t all that funny, of course, but everyone laughed, perhaps looking for a release from the tension I had built up during my presentation. I laughed too, and then began to answer the second question. As I went through the list I gained confidence, and when the session was opened for free discussion I was in complete control of myself. Only after the session was over and I left the front of the room to return to my seat did I realize that I had held my own for an entire hour of discussion. I can even say I was enjoying myself by the end.
When I sat down in my seat I felt like collapsing in a pile on the floor and laughing. I had done it. I had climbed into the ring and taken my punches, and when the bell sounded at the end of the round I was still standing—with a smile on my face. In my last journal entry I expressed my concern that I would get no response, but I got a better response than I could have ever imagined. I did what I set out to do—I made people think.
My presentation was a discussion of Korean trickster research, an examination of what has been done so far, and ideas for what is to be done in the future. My main point was that Korean trickster research has so far focused on the trickster’s deceptive nature—on the tricks that he plays and the tricks that fool him. It had gotten to the point that trick-playing was considered to be the trickster’s primary characteristic.
I spoke against this in my M.A. thesis, but it was more of a passing mention than a focused discussion of the problem. I saw this presentation as an opportunity to deal with the problem head on, and to hopefully begin to rectify what I felt was holding Korean trickster research back. I showed specific examples of tricksters who did not trick, and trick-players who were not tricksters.
Ultimately, I feel that the primary characteristic of the trickster is his liminality—this is one of the reasons that I chose that word for the title of this site. The trickster does not exist within society like the rest of us, but on the borders, in the spaces in between. He possesses a dual nature that combines good and evil, sacred and profane, wise and foolish—and it is this dual nature that has led him to choose the liminal state over a more stable position within society. In this liminal state he has ultimate freedom—he is not bound by rules or restrictions, and he is free to live according to his desires and whims. He challenges fixed perceptions and conceptions, shaking the foundations of everything we hold to be certain, and in doing so simultaneously tears apart and reinforces the bonds that hold us together.
It is impossible, of course, to attempt to explain the trickster’s nature in a single paragraph. I have been so wrapped up in the trickster for the past few years that the above may make sense to me, but may be gibberish to everyone else. It is all in my head, though, and one day it will come out in the form of my Ph.D. thesis and—hopefully—a nice, big book.
I have now taken the first step toward that goal. I have stirred the pot, I have shaken things up, I have challenged preconceptions. There were even times when I thought of myself as a sort of trickster. After all, as I explain in my about page, I have always felt that the idea of liminality applied to my life as well, to some extent at least. But this experience has been as humbling as it has been enlightening, and I realize now that I am no trickster.
I often tell people that I live in between two societies, my native American society and Korean society. I was rather forcefully reminded, however, that I do not exist outside of Korean society. Perhaps years ago, when I first came to Korea, I had a certain amount of freedom from the norms and mores of Korean society. But when I was asked (told, really) to present a paper, and later again told to interpret, I realized that I had become a part of that which I looked on from the outside. True, I may not be as deeply tied to Korean society as most Koreans, but I must still follow the rules and regulations of a strict, Confucian society.
Had I been a trickster, I would have laughed in the face of the rigid hierarchy and gone my own way. Then again, if I was a trickster I wouldn’t have achieved everything I have achieved so far, and everything I will achieve in the future. And so, as much fun as it may be to compare myself to the trickster at times, I realize that he is dancing there, in the spaces in between, laughing at me. I have committed myself to chasing him, and although I may never pin him down, I learn more about him every day—and thus more about me, and more about humanity as a whole.
Having taken these first steps on the big stage, I feel a lot better than I thought I would. The road ahead looks brighter and brighter each day, and there is a spring in my step that comes from a new-found confidence. The summer lies before me and, as always, there are so many things I want to do. There were so many things I wanted to write in this journal during these past few weeks, and now I can finally begin to let them out. Look forward to more from me here, and more in other areas of the site as well. I think it’s going to be a good summer.