The new semester is now underway, and I am slowly but surely adjusting to my new environment. It is not a completely new environment, of course; after all, I studied at SNU for over a decade. So the buildings are familiar (except the new ones) as are some of the professors in my department (again, except the new ones). But I am now on the other side of the equation, and that is a very strange feeling. I wonder if the familiarity of the place makes it even stranger, like going back to a childhood home as an adult. On top of that there is everything that comes with starting a new job, so I think it will take a while for me to really settle down here. Until then I will once again be liminal, caught in the space in between here and there.
While I knew that the transition was going to be difficult, as transitions tend to be, one part of this transition that I had not really considered was the reactions of people around me. I think this is one of the many areas where Korean society and American society differ—namely, in the perception of university professors. Professors don’t have the same level of prestige here that they used to, but they are still respected a lot more than I think they are in the States. I will admit that most of this judgment comes from what I see in the media (television, film, etc.), but the occupation of professor seems to be one that is mocked more often than it is revered. Professors are often thought of as ivory tower intellectuals with no connection to reality—and I guess a lot of the time they can be. Here, though, being a professor carries a certain amount of prestige, and when news spread that I had gotten a professorship at SNU, reactions were very enthusiastic.
I appreciate all of this, of course, but at the same time some of it makes me a little uneasy. I have a feeling that I see my new position at SNU somewhat differently than many others do. I was talking with one individual who congratulated me and said something to the effect of: “In Korea, when someone becomes a SNU professor, people see them as having entered the ranks of the great scholars.” I don’t want to belittle my education and the professors who guided me along the way, of course, but I am still a relatively new PhD, and the idea of being thought of as a “great scholar” makes me squirm. Those who taught me are great scholars, and at this point in my career I can only hope to emulate them.
I think the difference in perception can be boiled down to this: a lot of people seem to think of my position at SNU as recognition for my achievements and thus a sign that I have “made it,” but I think of it instead as an opportunity to achieve something. Granted, had I done nothing prior to this I would not have gotten the job, so in a certain sense it does involve recognition of what I have done. I would like to believe, though, that SNU hired me not for what I did, but for what they hope I will do in the future.
I try not to be too ambitious, but if I am to be honest I must admit that I am. That ambition, though, is not about becoming something, but about doing something. In other words, getting a professorship at SNU is not the end goal for me—instead, the position will give me the opportunity to achieve my goals. I am now teaching in the field of Korean Studies, I have more time for research, and SNU as an institution has a lot to offer me in terms of connections, influence, etc. I hope that our relationship is symbiotic, and that I can make use of what SNU offers me to contribute something back to the institution—and by this of course I mean the people that make up the institution.
I think one of the hallmarks of ambition is that you always believe that your best is still ahead of you. Logically speaking, there will come a time when this is no longer true, but the truly ambitious person seeks to postpone that moment for as long as possible. Right now I feel as if I am at the beginning of a long, climbing road with the peak still far off in the distant mists of the future. Perhaps someday I will actually earn the descriptor of “great scholar,” but for the time being I am just interested in getting through this transition smoothly and in slowly but surely marching toward my goals.
That’s it for today, I think: just a disjointed jumble of thoughts that I haven’t quite been able to bring together into a cohesive whole. Maybe that is a reflection of my state of mind at the moment. There’s a lot going on, as there always is in a liminal period. Whatever else it may be, you can never accuse liminality of being dull.