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10 Nov 2023

Back from Portland – I returned from the conference in Portland on Monday evening and have been working my way through this write-up since then. I did not take any pictures during my trip, so this is going to be solely a written recollection, not to mention a rather long one (this one is nearly 5000 words).

“ turned out to be a great conference and a great experience for my students as well.”

I always look forward to the American Folklore Society (AFS) annual meetings, but this time around my schedule was so crazy with deadlines leading up to the meeting that I don’t think I was in the right head space when it came time to leave. I didn’t mention this in my hasty pre-trip note, partly because I didn’t want to be negative, but also because I just didn’t have the time to write a lot. The frenzy continued right up to the late minute: On Tuesday morning I taught my morning class, rushed home, ate a hurried lunch, finished throwing the last bits into my bag, and then rushed back out to the airport to meet my students. If I’m being completely honest, when I was getting ready to leave the apartment I suddenly had an overwhelming desire to not go. I was already tired and stressed, and I knew I had a long trip ahead of me. I also had the extra burden of being responsible for my students. They are, of course, all adults, and I know they can take care of themselves, but still—it’s quite a different experience from going to a conference on my own. I won’t keep you in suspense, though: Despite my weird head space at the beginning of the trip, it turned out to be a great conference and a great experience for my students as well. (I should clarify that when I say “my students,” I mean students in my major—not that I am their advisor. One of the students is mine, but the other three are my colleague’s. There were three girls—whom I refer to as Y, H, and E—and one guy—whom I will refer to as P.)

From Incheon we flew into Vancouver, where we had a long layover (although not quite the six hours that I mentioned in my previous note). As often happens on connecting flights to AFS destinations, we met some folklorists at the gate and flew to Portland together. My original plan was to take the light rail into town, but my colleagues insisted on getting two large Ubers and splitting our party up among them. I offered to reimburse them, but they said they were happy to pay for the students. I promised to buy them beers to reimburse them for my costs, at least.

When we finally got to the hotel we checked in and then made plans to head out to the Deschutes Brewery Public House. I invited our colleagues to join us, and we all had a very lovely evening out. It was Halloween, so they had a special Halloween-themed menu for food; Y got the “Vampire Hunter Burger,” which of course had a garlic sauce. The last time I brought students to AFS, I tried to drag along other folklorists for as many of our meals as possible, so it was nice that our very first meal in Portland was shared with three other folklorists. When we got back to the hotel we hung around in the hotel bar—that was where I was able to make good on my promise to buy them beers.

The conference officially began on Wednesday, the next day, but the opening ceremony wasn’t until the evening, so we had the whole day to explore Portland. The girls had breakfast in the hotel buffet, but P and I decided to head out to try a local place. Then we all met up back at the hotel and took the bus out to a section of Hawthorne Street, on the other side of the river, that is famous for its various shops. Normally I join one of the organized tours on the first day of AFS, but unfortunately this time the tour we were interested in sold out pretty much as soon as it went live. Thus, it was up to me to be the tour guide. I did try to do my research, but apparently I missed some details—for example, when shops open. It was about ten o’clock when we reached our destination, only to discover that most of the shops didn’t open until eleven or twelve. It wasn’t a disaster, though; we just found a nice coffee shop and had some coffee and tea while we waited. H in particular was very enthusiastic about this idea, and all of the students seemed to enjoy just chilling out and chatting on a rainy Portland morning.

Oh, yeah, I guess I should briefly discuss the weather. As I said in the previous note, the forecast called for rain throughout our trip. It did rain quite a lot, but it only ever rained enough for me to consider pulling out my umbrella once; the rest of time I just put the hood up on my waterproof jacket or simply walked through the sprinkling rain like a local. We knew going in that it was the rainy season, but it honestly wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be, and we even had patches of nice weather along the way that were all the more welcome due to their scarcity, especially on our last day.

After our coffee and tea break, we hit the streets again and browsed various shops. There was a huge vintage clothing shop that I suggested we check out; I was thinking that the girls might like to do some shopping. They did indeed seem to have a good time walking around and looking at all the clothes on display, but they ultimately had no interest in buying anything; H confessed that she didn’t think she could pull off the styles. So the girls didn’t buy anything... but the guys did. P bought a buffalo-plaid (red-and-black check) flannel shirt; buffalo plaid seems to be the local uniform around these parts. And, yes, I bought something, too. This may surprise those who know me well, because I almost never buy clothes for myself, at least of my own volition. But we were walking through the racks and I spotted a 1970s suede jacket in a natural leather tan, with wide lapels and everything. It even had a removable furry lining. Why did this particular jacket speak to me? I don’t know, but my feet stuck fast to the floor when I saw it, and I watched in fascination as my hand reached out and pulled it off the rack. Had I been by myself, I probably wouldn’t have bought it—I have a tendency to talk myself out of purchases rather than into them—but when Y and H saw me with it they urged me to try it on. “It’s so you!” they said, adding that it went well with my skin tone. There were no mirrors, so they took some pictures and showed me, and I have to admit it looked nice. I looked it over and found no defects or damage, so I bought it, and for a pretty good price at that. The next morning, when video chatting with HJ, I told her that I finally understood what she meant when she said that a piece of clothing called to her. She said she was proud of me.

There were other shops along the way as well, including a chocolate shop that was apparently equipped with a tractor beam, because we found ourselves being pulled inside against our will. I bought a bar of local chocolate with Sichuan pepper. That may sound weird, but even the ancients knew that chocolate and spice went well together, and Sichuan pepper in particular can elevate just about anything. That was my thinking at the time, at least; we have since tried the chocolate, and while it is certainly not bad, I think that chili pepper is a much better pairing. The students also wanted to stop in a souvenir shop, where they bought a number of postcards and other mementos. I have a tradition of buying HJ a pair of earrings whenever I go to a conference, and I was transfixed by a local brand that used natural materials in 14k gold and sterling silver settings. I ended up getting a pair of gold earrings with reclaimed bourbon barrels staves and a blue resin made to look like waves. It’s kind of hard to explain what they look like, but they were beautiful (and HJ loves them).

We continued on to the Portland Mercado, where we got lunch from a number of food trucks there featuring Cuban, Mexican, and other food. There wasn’t much going on inside the Mercado itself—I think it’s a bit more lively in the evening—but they did have a small altar for Dia de los Muertos with photos of loved ones left by locals. It was actually quite touching. We left the Mercado, still in the rain, and took a bus back downtown. There was one final destination on our tour of Portland: Powell’s City of Books. They bill themselves as the world’s largest independent bookseller, and I wanted to see how they compared to the Strand in New York (my go-to destination whenever I am in the city). We actually passed by Powell’s on our way to Deschute’s the night before, and I remember thinking when it first came into view that it didn’t look that big. Then we got closer and I saw that it took up the entire block. But we hadn’t had the chance to go inside, and my students and I wanted to check it out for ourselves.

I will again spare you the suspense: Powell’s is absolutely huge, and it is definitely bigger than the Strand. You could probably spend days in there, and that is no exaggeration. We did not have days, however; in fact, we only had a couple of hours before we had to get back to the hotel to register for the conference and attend the opening ceremony. Aware of the limits on our time, I went to the information desk and asked the guy there if they had a folklore section. He tilted his head and thought for a moment before saying, “Well, that would probably be in Anthropology. But we do have a Mythology section.” I went to check out the latter first, although I wasn’t too hopeful—“mythology” sections in bookstores generally contain collections of mythology and very little in the way of theory books or studies, which is what I am interested in. Powell’s was no different, but I did browse through the shelves to see what they had. There were some interesting collections that I might have been tempted to buy had I been in the market, but I was not.

I went on to “Anthropology,” where I was not at all surprised to find a folklorist friend of mine. We tend to flock to certain sections, after all. Then I went on to the Social Sciences section and found their books on ethnography. Social Sciences and Anthropology is usually where I find my books at the Strand, and I was able to score some books at Powell’s as well: Ernst Cassirer’s Language and Myth, a rather old study at this point but something that I wanted to have on my shelf given how much I’ve been doing on mythology lately; a collection called Humor & Laughter: An Anthropological Approach , both because I am interested in the topic and because it contained a chapter on the trickster I’ve never seen before (my original research interest is the trickster, and I pick up pretty much anything related to it that I come across); and a book published last year called The Chaos Machine, which is explained by its subtitle: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World. This last one dovetails with my interests in digital folklore and digital humanities in general (not to mention my general hatred for social media).

We all gradually made our way to the registers and bought our books, although when we were gathered together again we realized that H was missing. I had seen her earlier, so I went back to that same section and found her still staring spellbound at the shelves. She bought her books and we all went back out into the rain. Once back at our hotel, we registered for the conference, which is conveniently being held in the hotel. We had a little time left before the opening ceremony, so we went back to our respective rooms to rest a little before the conference officially kicked off. The opening ceremony was followed by the welcome reception, where I went around introducing my students to as many people as I could find. I also made sure to let everyone know the time and day of their panel.

I won’t go into great detail on the rest of the conference. Basically, we split up to attend panels based on our own interests and then met up again in the evening for dinner, where we usually tried to grab people to go out with us. We sometimes got together for lunch as well, but I wanted them to go off and do their own thing and hang out with the people they wanted to hang out with. To that end, I also expressly forbade them from coming to my panel, which was at 8:30 on Thursday—the very first session of the conference. Had I not said anything, I’m sure they would have all felt obliged to come to my panel, but I had told them before we left Korea that I wanted them to attend the panels they were most interested in. By now my students know that when I say something I mean it, and they all listened. My panel ended up having a pretty decent crowd for 8:30 in the morning on the first day—I think we had about five or six people—and there was a significant amount of interest in my talk (on the relationship between history and mythology in Korean foundation myths), so I was happy. I got to see some old friends and make some new ones, too, which is always nice.

I did end up in some panels with some of my students—two with E and one with H, if I remember correctly. To my immense delight, in every panel I attend with one of the students, they asked a question during the discussion. They were all worried about their English speaking ability, and I tried to encourage them and tell them to just go for it, but I wasn’t sure how that would work in practice. Turns out it worked quite well, and I was very proud of them for their bravery. Were I a Korean student visiting the US for the first time, I don’t know if I would have the courage to speak up during discussion to ask questions.

As usual, I heard a lot of good papers and got to talk with a lot of interesting people, many of whom I’ve known for years, but some that I was meeting for the first time. That is why I go to AFS, after all: for the fun and intellectually stimulating interactions with fellow folklorists (who really are the most interesting people). I wanted my students to have the same experience, which is why I tried to introduce them to everyone I knew at every opportunity, but they also took the initiative themselves to meet new people and make new friendships. There was a grad student “social hour” on Thursday evening, so after dinner at a very good handmade pasta place I sent them back to attend that while I took a bus across the river to the Cascade Brewing Barrel House. Cascade specializes in sour beers, which are my favorite; I’ve had one of their beers here (Vlad the Imp Aler) and was really looking forward to trying more. I think I ended up trying six or seven and then bought a bottle of my favorite, the Manhattan NW, to take back to the hotel. Unfortunately, my phone battery died, so I had to wander around for a bit before I found the stop for the bus back. I did eventually make it back, though, and made my way to a dessert reception where I had arranged to meet up with my students. I found them there, along with some more old friends, and we popped open the bottle.

And the conference went on—panels during the day, drinks and socializing in the evening. One highlight of the socializing was a cocktail bar called The Raven’s Manor, a spooky, Halloween-themed place that really pulls out all the stops. I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises in case you ever decide to go there. I’ll just say it was a lot of fun, and the cocktails were great. Not only did they taste great, they were also quite theatrical. My first cocktail was a whisky (specifically, Monkey Shoulder) cocktail called the Ghost Story, which came in a large tome-like box. I opened the box to release a dry ice fog and find a flask labeled “oxalic acid.” This I poured over the large cube of ice in my glass, as instructed. My second cocktail was the Crystal Ball. Our server asked me three questions (“Do you like dark or light spirits?” / “Do you like citrus or bitter?” / “Do you like sweet or dry?”), and I was served a cocktail based on my choices (dark, citrus, dry). It came out in a long-stemmed, wide-bowl glass with a bubble over the top and dry ice smoke inside. I don’t know how they did it, but it was a very cool effect.

My students didn’t go out with me to the bar. I was a little sad that they missed the experience, but at the same time I knew they were tired and probably wanted to make sure they were ready for their panel the following morning. This panel was, at least for me, the high point of the conference. As the panel chair, I showed up to the room early to get set up and make sure everything was working properly. My students came in not long after that, and I gave them their last pep talk before the big game. I wasn’t worried that they wouldn’t do well, but I did wonder how many people would show up. Would all my PR efforts pay off? There were about five or six people in the room when it was time to start the panel, but people quickly began to trickle in, and before long we had a crowd of at least fifteen or sixteen people. After the students gave their papers, we had about forty minutes for discussion, and that was filled up with a lot of good questions. There was a lot of interest in the papers from the audience, which was great to see. I suppose it has something to do with Korea’s recent popularity around the world, but flaunt it if you’ve got it, right? All in all, I was extremely pleased with how things went.

This was the last day of the conference, so we made the command decision to skip the final session and do a little more sightseeing. We grabbed another friend of mine from the lobby and headed out for lunch at another nice pasta place. We followed this up with a shop that my students had discovered the day before that sold “sipping chocolate.” I bought everybody small cups and we took them into the lounge of the hotel where the shop is located. The lounge was basically my dream study—a roaring fire in a hearth surrounded by high-backed chairs in one corner, tall shelves of books amid wood paneling, a marble chess set sitting on a table, etc. The chocolate was rich and delicious, and we all chatted for a bit as we sat around the fire. My friend then went back to the hotel for the final session while my students and I went to the Oregon Historical Society Museum to check out their exhibits, which were very interesting and informative. The students then wanted to go to Safeway to get some cookies and treats for their classmates back home; I picked up some snacks there as well. Finally, we returned to the hotel and talked about our experiences as we rested for a bit in my room. Because we were leaving early Sunday morning, my students had not booked rooms for Saturday night and had lugged all their luggage up to my room. At seven o’clock we went back downstairs for the last official event of the conference, the presidential address, during which we all took turns nodding off (which was of course due to us being wiped out, not the quality of the address!).

This was the last official event, but not the last event. There was the closing reception, where we socialized and had some drinks. There was a little food there, but not much, and we decided that we needed something more substantial. It was after eight o’clock by this point, so when we went out into the (surprise!) rain we discovered that most of the nearby places were closed. We remembered that there were some food trucks in Pioneer Square, so we walked over and found one that was still open. We got some food, brought it back to the hotel, and ate it in the lobby. Afterward I hung out with some of my friends while the students went off to socialize with their new friends. I went upstairs to the top floor of the hotel for the closing dance party and found Y and P there; apparently E and H were wiped out and had retired to my room to take a bed each. Dancing isn’t really my thing, but I did find another friend whom I hadn’t had the chance to talk to much yet and sat down next to her. Shortly into our conversation, she surreptitiously pulled a bottle of bourbon out of her bag and raised an eyebrow at me. Yes, this is pretty standard practice for the last day of the conference.

When the dance party ended shortly after midnight, we went down to the main conference floor (the “plaza level”) to continue hanging out, talking, and drinking bourbon. Y went off to hang out with some of her new friends; I dragged P down just long enough to get him some of my friend’s bourbon, as he’s a whisk(e)y guy like me, and then I let him head off to hang out with his friends. I remember looking at my watch at one point and seeing that it was 1:15 in the morning. Our flight left PDX at 5:40 in the morning, and I had arranged for two cabs to come pick us up at 3:30. I figured I would hang out until about three, go back up to my room to finish packing, and then head down to the lobby. So I sat around for a while longer and engaged in some very interesting conversations. Some time later I got up to go to the bathroom, and on the way I checked my phone to see what time it was. Imagine my confusion when I saw that the clock read 1:15. Wait, what? I shook the phone a bit, thinking maybe it hadn’t updated or something. Nope, that was the correct time—but how could that be? I thought back to make sure it had really been 1:15 when I had checked my phone an hour earlier. Yes, I was certain. My next thought was that I really hadn’t had that much bourbon. I was very confused and somewhat concerned for a while until I got back from the bathroom and mentioned this to a friend. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “It’s daylight saving time.” Oh, right. I’ve lived without that for so long I had forgotten it was a thing. This gave me an extra hour to chat and drink bourbon, but it did also mean that the night was an hour longer than I had been expecting. Not that that would have changed anything, of course

Slowly but surely, people began to call it a night. One friend of mine dropped by before heading up to his room to tell me that P was passed out in a chair on the other side of the floor. In the end, there were three of us left, and a few minutes before three we decided to wrap things up. I found P still passed out in his chair and gently woke him up. Poor guy—with the girls taking up the beds, he had no place to rest his weary head. Y, being the most energetic of the group, had been down in the lobby talking with some friends and was the only one besides me who never slept. We went up to the room and woke E and H, and then I finished packing my bags. Our cabs arrived at half-past three and we were off to the airport. We flew back to Vancouver, where we had plenty of time to eat breakfast before wandering aimlessly around the airport for a few hours. (I don’t normally eat breakfast, but when I’m traveling I often will because my internal clock is messed up.) We of course browsed their duty-free shops; their single malt selection wasn’t terribly impressive, so instead I got some local stuff: a bottle of Canadian whisky cream (which I just tried earlier this evening in some hot chocolate—very good stuff) and a bottle of rhubarb gin distilled on Vancouver Island. The flight back to Incheon was long and miserable, as it usually is after staying up all night, but it did eventually end. When we emerged from the arrival gate, it was time to split up. P’s parents had come to pick him up, while Y had a dinner appointment to get to. E, H, and I decided to eat dinner at the airport, as half-past six in the evening is an awkward hour to leave. It’s still rush hour, so the streets are going to be busy, and we probably would have been hungry by the time we got home anyway. After dinner, though, it was finally time for our fellowship to come to an end.

Before we split up to catch our respective buses, H handed me an envelope with a postcard from the group as a whole and a letter from my own student. I took a quick look and recognized the postcard and the card is ones my students had bought in the souvenir shop on Hawthorne. I didn’t have time to sit down and read these until Wednesday, but when I did I was touched. I won’t go into details other than to say that they wanted to express their thanks for the experience. I felt thankful as well; they could have allowed their worries about their English and their fears of the new and the unknown to keep them from fully experiencing everything Portland and the conference had to offer, but they bravely jumped in with both feet and honestly surpassed my expectations. I couldn’t be more proud. As I read the postcard and the letter, I realized that this was probably the closest I would ever get to knowing what it feels like to be proud of a child. It’s quite a different thing, of course—after all, I didn’t raise these students—but as I do not have children of my own, I can’t imagine getting any closer to that feeling. Maybe that’s the best of both worlds: I don’t have to raise them, but I still get to be proud of them when they do well.

Anyway, that was the conference. It’s been a very stressful semester, and like I mentioned at the beginning of this entry I was not feeling very enthusiastic when it was time to head to the States. But once I arrived and started seeing old friends again, all that stress and fatigue and worry left me. At one point my students commented that I looked like a different person at the conference, and I suppose that’s no surprise. First of all, AFS is a rather special experience: short, intense, and packed with people to meet, places to go, and things to do. But there are also the cultural differences. Naturally, I act differently when I am in Korea than when I am in the US. I am aware of this, too—I can feel myself being more gregarious and outgoing at AFS. In Korea I tend to be more reserved. This doesn’t mean that I have to hide my “true self” when I am in Korea. Neither the outgoing part of me nor the reserved part of me is my “true self”; they are both just different aspects of my personality, and different cultural contexts bring out these aspects. While I love going to AFS and letting my hair down a bit, I am also pretty exhausted by the end of it, and that’s not just the jet lag. It is a carnivalesque experience that I need every now and then, but I am always glad to come home again.

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