Great expectations – Last week I went to an orientation session for a translator training program, sponsored by the Korea Literature Translation Institute. I am currently being sponsored by them for a year-long translation project, but this program is more of a workshop where we will spend six weeks listening to lectures, talking with writers and translators, and even taking trips around Korea. All in all, a very good deal. And, from what I’ve been told, the competition to get into this program was fairly stiff—only one opening for every four people who applied.
At the end of this orientation session, the woman leading the program closed by saying how much she was looking forward to the program, and how the institute expected great things from each of us in the future. On my way home that day, I thought about how often I had heard those words. Just two days earlier I had attended a meeting of the Korean Literature Society, and during the obligatory drinking session one of my professors told me what great expectations he had for me, and what an important role I would play in the future of Korean studies abroad. This was not the first time I had heard something like this from one of my professors, of course.
That particular day, though, after the orientation session, I felt a bit overwhelmed as I sat on the subway. It seemed that everyone in my life had great expectations for me. The Translation Institute expected me to become a great Korean-English literary translator. My professors expected me to become a great Korean studies scholar. My parents, of course, expected me to succeed, as did my wife and my parents-in-law.
I must admit that this is infinitely better than everyone expecting you to fail, but there are times when I wish people didn’t expect so much from me. I feel like I am being pulled in too many directions at once, and that I might snap at any moment. I feel a weight of responsibility, as if I automatically feel I must meet people’s expectations for me. To tell the truth, I can’t stand to let people down.
In my later years in high school, I was presented with the opportunity to go to the United States Military Academy at West Point. My father was excited. West Point is not the sort of place you apply to—you have to be invited. I don’t remember exactly how I got invited, but apparently someone mentioned me to someone, and I received the invitation in the mail. The way my father told it, once you were in West Point you were pretty much set for life, and apparently this appealed to him. He was very proud, and never failed to bring it up when someone asked about me.
Honestly, though, it did not appeal to me very much. Outside of my childhood fantasies of becoming a fighter pilot, I had never seriously considered the military as a life path. Like I said, though, my father was excited, and I figured there was no harm in going to a few meetings, as long as I didn’t have to commit to anything yet. So things went along like this for a while, and before I knew it we were driving home from the last orientation meeting. The next step was to take the physical exam, at which point I would be committed.
I don’t remember much of what was said on the way home, except for one rather important part of the conversation. I remember not being sure how to broach the subject—after all, we had gone to all the meetings, and I had never said a negative word. Finally I decided to just spit it out.
“Dad,” I said. “I don’t think I want to go to West Point.”
“What do you mean?” my father said. “Of course you want to go to West Point!”
“Dad, did you hear what you just said?”
My father was silent, and I feared that he might explode at any moment. When he finally spoke, though, he was quite calm.
“OK,” he said slowly, “You don’t have to go.”
It was not until many years later that I realized what it must have been like for him at that moment. And it was also not until many years later that I realized that much of what I thought was pressure from him was actually pressure I was putting on myself—because it is what I thought he wanted. I remember choosing to become a computer science major for the same reason (it was his field, and I thought he would want me to follow in his footsteps), only to find out years later, after I had switched to an English major, that he never even considered pressuring me into computer science. All along I had been conjuring up my own phantoms where none existed.
And now here I am, over a decade later, and I still can’t shake these phantoms. I know people mean the best when they say they have great expectations for me, but to me it is a weight, a burden in addition to that which I already place on myself.
Years after we married, my wife told me that she married me based on my potential, which is a the same time both a comforting and rather humbling thought. In truth, though, I was not very impressive at the time. I was merely a poor English teacher who wandered from place to place like a leaf on the wind. This freedom of mine was what actually attracted my wife to me in the first place—for her, it was romantic. But I had to explain to her that the amount of freedom one has is directly disproportionate to the amount of security one has. In other words, I had all the freedom in the world, but not an ounce of security—and that is generally not what most women are looking for in a husband. Still, she believed in me, and apparently saw something in me that was not readily apparent at that time, and we were married.
Not long after we were married, my wife had a dream that she related to me. She probably does not remember this, but I remember, because it scared me half to death. In her dream the two of us were lost in a labyrinth, and we were trying to find our way out. As we went along we met other people (Koreans) in the labyrinth, and they ended up joining us and following me as I led the way. We finally came upon an old Korean man who was sitting in a corner, but unlike the others he showed no sign of joining us. My wife pointed to me and said, “Only he knows the way out! You have to follow us!” The old man, however, said that he would never follow me, and stubbornly stayed where he was. It was at this point that my wife woke up.
Now, you can interpret that dream any way you want, but you don’t have to be a German psycho-analyst to see the trust my wife had in me expressed in the dream. I remember the morning she told me about the dream. She related the story to me as if it were any other dream, and she made no attempt to guess it’s meaning. I merely nodded and said, “That’s interesting,” but deep down inside I was horrified. Lost in a labyrinth? Only I know the way out? The symbolism was just too much for an English major like myself to bear.
Of course, it may sound like I am reading too much into the dream. I also remember, though, what my wife said to me when I asked her what she wanted to become.
“A professor’s wife,” she said.
I shook my head. “No, I mean, what do you want to be?”
The idea, though, was strange to her. Not that she never thought of becoming anything herself, but identifying with what her husband did was just as important to her as anything she might do. In the years that we have been together, she has learned more about individuality from me, but I have also learned much from her. I have realized that I am responsible not only for myself, but for her as well. This is a burden I bear with no grudge, but at times, when it is compounded with the other responsibilities I feel, it seems to weigh very heavy on me.
So who am I? What will I become? And for whom? Yet even as I consider these questions, it occurs to me that what I do is not as important as who I am. In the greater scheme of things, it will matter far more what sort of person I am than what career I choose to pursue—if I can treat others with love and respect, then I will consider my life a success no matter what I may become. It is sometimes hard to keep things in perspective, and it is easy to get caught up in dreams of a grand future, but I try to remind myself at times like these what is most important in life. In the end, it is not how may books I may translate or write, or even the contributions that I may make to my field, but whether or not I can touch the lives of those around me and make them a little better.
I find this thought rather comforting. While the grand dreams that I may have, and those that others may have for me, depend on many factors that may be out of my control, no one can effect the type of person that I become—only I can determine that. Remembering that helps to ease the burden of expectations I feel at times like these.