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18 Sep

Anxiety – I am taking this semester off to finish some translation projects, but this will be my last break from my studies. I have two semesters left, which means I should finish my coursework by the end of next year. My professor (academic advisor) is retiring at the end of 2007, so that leaves me an additional year to write my thesis.

“I feel like I am rolling downhill in a car with no brakes, and not only can I not slow the car down, I can’t really see where I am going either.”

On the one hand, it is quite daunting, but on the other hand, the end is finally in sight. I entered the graduate school at Seoul National University in the beginning of 1998 (I studied for a year as a research student before officially beginning my M.A.). It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost eight years, and that when it’s over it will have taken me a decade to get my two degrees.

For the past eight years, I have been working (more or less) toward this goal. It was comforting to know that the goal was there, and that I could keep plodding toward it, however slowly. Now that the goal is in sight, though, I am feeling a bit nervous. I told my wife recently that these days I feel like I am rolling downhill in a car with no brakes, and not only can I not slow the car down, I can’t really see where I am going either. I realize that the next two years or so are going to be rather excruciating, but time has a way of slipping by and I know that they will be gone before I know it.

To be honest, the feeling is similar to how I felt in my senior year at university. Then, too, I woke up one day and realized that the sheltered, unrealistic life I had been living for nearly the past four years was about to come to an abrupt end. As is the case now, I found myself having to play catch up with my credits, which is probably pretty good evidence that I have always been a procrastinator. But even amidst the havoc and hassle of classes and studying, reality was looming in the background, waiting for me to arrive. The future was unknown then, as it is now. Finishing university was a major turning point in my life, and I imagine that finishing my doctorate will be equally important, if not more so.

I already discussed the freedom/responsibility equation in a recent entry, so I won’t go into that in any detail here. Suffice it to say, though, that while I had no ties holding me back when I finished university, I don’t have the same freedom now. I can’t just take off to some far corner of the world and wing it—which is pretty much what I did when I came to Korea. But that’s not what makes me nervous. In fact, I feel more confident now about the future, especially with my wife at my side.

People in academia here often ask me what I plan on doing after finishing my doctorate. Mainly, they want to know if I’m going to go back to the States or if I am going to stay in Korea. My answer is that it doesn’t make as much sense for me to stay in Korea as it would for me to go back to the States (or elsewhere in the English-speaking world). I could easily stay in Korea. There would be plenty for me to do. I could teach at a university here, continue translating, write, whatever. But I think the best way for me to fulfill my potential is to teach outside of Korea and contribute to Korean studies abroad.

Up until now, though, the answer has always been theoretical—that is, it was something that might happen in the distant future, but didn’t affect me at the time. That future, while still some way off, is not so distant any more, and I’ve had to face up to something that I think I’ve known for a while but have never wanted to admit. I expressed this thought for the first time last week. My wife and I were talking about future plans, and I finally said, with some hesitation, “You know, I think I’m a little afraid of returning to the States.”

You can’t tell, but it took a lot of effort for me to type that. I never admitted that to anyone before last week—I don’t even think I admitted it to myself. It’s embarrassing. I was born and raised in the States. How could I be afraid to go back there? Looking back now, though, I realize that I’ve never been keen for the day to come when I would leave Korea and return to the States. Even thinking about now makes my heart sink.

I was surprised, though, when my wife wasn’t the least bit fazed by my admission. “That’s normal,” she said. “We saw it in Mongolia, remember? None of the Koreans wanted to return to Korea because they had grown so used to life in Mongolia. The same thing happens with Koreans who go to the States.” I guess it makes sense. People get used to a certain lifestyle, and the more time they have to grow acclimated, the more they will resist change. And I suppose that it’s harder to pick yourself up and plant yourself in a new place the older you get.

I did have one opportunity to return to the States before now. When I began to study for my master’s degree, the plan was to return to the States to get my doctorate, mainly because I had heard that American universities prefer degrees from other American universities. When I finally finished my M.A., though, I started looking for ways to justify staying in Korea. I didn’t think about it like that at the time, but now I realize that is what I was doing. One of my professors told me that I would be hard-pressed to find a better environment for studying Korean literature than Korea, and it was difficult to argue with that. I spoke to the heads of some East Asian studies departments in the States, and they said that, considering my field of study, I shouldn’t have any problems in the States with a degree from Seoul National. I was considerably relieved when I made the decision to study for my doctorate here.

Now the day is not far off when I will have to make this decision again, whether to stay in Korea or not. Honestly, I cannot see myself staying here, for the reason that I mentioned above. As a sort of transitional period, I’m considering doing some post-doctoral work at an American university, both to familiarize myself with the system and to familiarize the system with me. Although I am fairly well-known in my small slice of academia here, I am an unknown in the States. I’m going to have to publish some papers in English and get to know the community before I think about trying to find a teaching position there.

When I told my wife that I was afraid of returning to the States, she said that there was no reason we had to go as soon as I finished my doctorate. I remember feeling quite relieved at the thought of staying in Korea for a little longer and postponing my return to the States. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I am starting to wonder. I had every intention of returning to the States after finishing my master’s degree here, but I didn’t. When I finish my doctorate, a lot of opportunities will open up for me here. It would be easy for me to just stay in Korea.

Right now, my mother is probably having a hard time breathing at the thought that I might not return to the States and over a decade of waiting will have been in vain. Perhaps this is small comfort, but the option to stay in Korea for my doctorate was something I had always considered. On the other hand, neither of us (my wife and I, that is) have ever really considered staying in Korea indefinitely. I happen to know that my wife is looking forward to going to the States.

And, to be honest, so am I. I am nervous, even a little frightened, at the prospect of having to travel halfway around the world and start a new, uncertain stage of my life, but I do want to go back. It is my native country, and though I am sometimes dismayed at the direction it takes, it will always be home in my heart. Korea will always be home, too. I have spent too much time here to simply leave, not to mention the fact that my field of study will pretty much guarantee that I’ll be returning here fairly often. It’s still going to be hard when the time comes, but I—we—will be able to do it.

I feel a bit silly now, like I have made a mountain out of a molehill. I feel like that a lot, actually. I am an over-thinker, and the world I carry on my shoulders tends to grow heavier the more I think about it. I do feel better about having gotten this off my chest now, but I still feel silly. I know it’s not just me, but sometimes I feel like it is. If you’ve ever had this experience or these thoughts, drop me a line. I’d love to hear how others in similar situations have reacted.

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