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20 May

Another milestone – As my dear mother pointed out to me today, it has been nearly a month since my last entry. As luck would have it, I have a little time today and thought I would use that time to write a journal entry. Nothing especially deep or thought-provoking, just a little bit about what I’ve been doing with my life for the past month and what I’ll be doing in the near future.

“I am a nervous wreck the entire day until I actually start presenting, and then everything is fine.”

One of the reasons I have some free time is that I’ve put a big milestone behind me on the road of “things I have to get done this semester.” That milestone was a paper on trickster gods I presented yesterday at a meeting of the Society of Korean Oral Literature. This topic is going to be part of my dissertation, which will be written in a frenzy of academic activity this summer.

The day started out with me waking from a poor night’s sleep—I probably woke up every half hour or so the night before. My original plan was to eat a hearty breakfast and skip lunch so that everything would be digested by the time I was scheduled to give my presentation at shortly after two o’clock. After only a few bites of breakfast, though, I realized that I wasn’t going to be eating anything at all. I spent the rest of the morning writing some notes for my replies to my discussant’s points and questions (designated discussants submit their discussion points and questions beforehand, so I got a chance to see what my discussant was going to say in advance). I was relieved to see that he wasn’t going to ask any vicious questions—that’s not to say that he was going to go easy on me, of course, but I’ve seen discussants get mean and nasty. It was nice to know that I wouldn’t have to go through that.

I was taking the bus into Seoul, so I left well in advance to make sure I got there in time. As it turned out I arrived a full hour before the conference was scheduled to start, and I spent much of that time trying not to pass out. With nothing in my stomach, I didn’t have to worry about getting nauseous or anything, so that was a small comfort. About ten minutes before the conference began, I spotted a large creature lumbering toward the conference building—it was the Big Hominid himself. I had mentioned in an email that I was going to be presenting and he could drop by if he wanted, but I didn’t expect him to take the offer seriously. He did, though, and I greatly appreciated his presence and the moral support he offered.

I was the first presenter, which was very good news considering what nervous anticipation does to me. To cut to the chase, the presentation went fine. I knew I was going to go over time if I read the entire paper, so toward the end I started skipping over non-essential parts (mainly recaps of Korean myths that everyone present already knew). I did my best during the discussion, but when it came time to address the most critical point (namely, my application of the concept of liminality), I could see that the moderator wanted me to wrap things up. I was able to explain a few of the points I wanted to get to, but as I looked at my notes and then at the moderator I realized that it just wasn’t going to happen—there was no way I could explain everything that needed to be explained in the time I had left. So I pledged to give the matter some more thought and that ended the designated discussion. My academic advisor then spoke up and suggested some other research possibilities, and that was it. It was over.

If that seems like a rather anti-climactic description, well, that’s only because it was rather anti-climactic in real life. As soon as I started reading the paper I realized the same thing I realize every time I do something like this—that I was going to be fine. All the horrors and fears that had plagued my imagination in those minutes leading up to the moment of truth faded away, and I did what I was there to do. The funny (in the way that an enema is funny) thing is that this happens every single time. I am a nervous wreck the entire day until I actually start presenting, and then everything is fine. I don’t suffer from stage fright—I don’t think I ever have—so actually reading or talking in front of people doesn’t really bother me. It’s the anticipation that kills me. You would think that I would remember how everything always turned out fine in the past and just chill, but for some reason that doesn’t work for me. If there is a bright side to all this, I guess it’s that I would rather be this way then the opposite way—fine all day and then a bowl of Jello once I’m in the spotlight. That would be far worse.

Once my presentation was over I was able to relax for the other two presentations. Kevin left to get some work done after my presentation was over, but that was cool by me. I just appreciated the fact that he was willing to sit through what must have been a fairly boring experience. When the conference was over, most of us went out to a kalguksu (lit. “knife noodles”) place for dinner. A handful of us continued on to “2-cha” (Korean outings are divided into “cha,” which can roughly be described as “stages,” “locales,” etc.) in Insa-dong. I normally don’t stick around for 2-cha, but since I had been a presenter I felt that it would be best for me to hang around. I was right, as I got to talk more informally with a bunch of the professors there and they all agreed with the basic premise of my paper. I must admit that I wasn’t sure if I was on the right track, so it was nice to get that confirmation and hear their suggestions about how to improve the paper.

I’m not sure what it’s like elsewhere, but in Korea, the “dwipuri” (“dwi” means “after” and “puri” (in this case) kind of means “to unwind”) is sometimes more important than the conference itself. Of course it is important to hear what your designated discussant has to say, especially when you consider the fact that they have carefully read your paper in advance and taken the time to prepare discussion points, but some of the most helpful advice comes out in the dwipuri. Once people get a few glasses of soju in them they start to open up, and it’s a lot easier to talk about things over soju than in the somewhat rigid environment of an academic conference. I found this to be true once again yesterday. The trick to a successful dwipuri is to drink enough to create the right atmosphere, but not so much that you forget everything you heard. I managed to strike the right balance last night—by the end of 2-cha I was one of the few people who could walk without weaving.

With this presentation out of the way, I have one less thing to take care of in the next month. I still have to finish my final paper and project for the two classes I am taking this semester—the project, a team effort for a religious studies class, will be presented on the 1st of June, while the paper, a study of Kim Dongri’s short stories from the 50s and 60s, will be presented on the 7th. After that I will have maybe a week or so to tidy up the paper and submit it, and that will be the end of my final semester in my doctoral coursework. At times it seemed like this day would never come, but it is so close now I can taste it.

I have other things to take care of in the two weeks following the 7th. For one, I need to finish up my indexing/proofreading of the Korean literary history book I’ve been working on for the past few years (for those not up to speed, it is a translation of a five-volume work by one of my profs). I should have had this done a long time ago—in fact, I’m kind of surprised that I haven’t gotten any impatient notes from the publisher—but this semester got very hectic. The good news is that I am mostly finished and should be able to wrap it up relatively quickly, but it will still take up most of those two weeks.

The other thing I have to do is make some “final” changes to my translation of a novel I did last year (or was it the year before that?). I say “final” because this will be an official end to the project and I will finally receive the second half of the grant for the translation. The corrections will be based on feedback I received from two judges, one Korean and one Western (native English speaker). The Korean judge gave me very high marks (near perfect) for my understanding of the text and accuracy in translation. The Western judge scored the translation much lower, but a lot of what he had to say had more to do with the work itself rather than the translation. Still, he noted that the translation could use some polish, but he didn’t give too much in the way of specifics. I figure that if this ever gets published (which won’t happen for a few years if at all, mainly because the market is saturated with this author’s works at the moment) I will go through it again without referring to the original, just to see how it reads on its own merits. It can be very hard to do that when you’re still close to the translation, but I figure that after a few years it will be easier to view it more objectively.

And that should pretty much finish up the month of June for me. At the end of the month Hyunjin and I will be heading to Taiwan for That David Guy’s wedding, and we’ll be spending about a week there before returning on the first of July. Then it will be a mad dash to the finish line (i.e., finishing my dissertation). It’s not that typical to complete one’s dissertation so shortly after finishing one’s coursework, but my academic advisor is retiring at the end of the year, and in order for my research to go into the record books under his auspices (and, by extension, for me to become an official part of his “academic lineage”), I need to get this done before that happens. There is no question that I will succeed—failure is literally not an option. After everything I’ve gone through with my advisor, and after all that he has done for me, I would honestly rather abandon my studies than have to publish my dissertation under a different academic advisor. So the dissertation will be done this year, and that’s all there is to it.

Fortunately, I’ve been working on this for quite some time now, and I’m feeling pretty good about where I am right now. The hardest part is figuring out what you’re going to write about and how—once you have that down pat, everything else falls into place. Where I am right now, I have the what and the how down, and I’ve done quite a bit of research on the various themes and topics I’ll be covering. I have more research to do yet, but basically I just have the writing left. I realize that it’s not going to be easy going, and there will probably be times when I will be tempted to despair, but I will get through it. Six months from now, it will be mostly over. A year from now, I will be a Ph.D. and hopefully doing something useful with myself.

Anyway, I just thought I’d let all my faithful readers know what I’ve been up to and what’s coming up for me. I’ll probably write at least one more entry before we leave for Taiwan (and hopefully get some very belated photos up), but things are still going to be very busy. We’ll have to see how it goes.

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