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3 Sep 2011

I’ve got a brand new piece of paper – Well, it looks like my closing comment of “see you in a week and a half” last time was somewhat optimistic. The week and a half (eleven days, actually) was time we spent in China, where we visited Shanghai, Xian, and Beijing. I took over seven hundred photos and even kept a journal, so look for more on that in incremental updates soon (“soon” meaning, “hopefully sometime before the end of the year”).

“I have this brand new piece of paper that says I have a doctorate from Seoul National University.”

We returned late on the 24th of August and spent the next day trying to recuperate. Early on the 26th, though, we were back at the airport on a plane to Jeju for a weekend with Hyunjin’s family—her mother celebrated her sixtieth birthday this past Sunday, and the trip was in lieu of the usual banquet-style celebration.

We got home from that trip late on Sunday night, and this past Monday was the start of classes for the semester. Unfortunately, it also happened to be when my graduation ceremony was taking place. I figured that it was a pretty important ceremony to attend, especially since I haven’t actually participated in a graduation ceremony since high school. (Long story short: I graduated after summer session in university and didn’t know that I would have been allowed to participate in the ceremony with all of my friends who were graduating on time, and I just plain skipped the graduation ceremony for my MA at Seoul National University.) My parents also seemed to think it was important, and I figured it was the least I could do after leaving them to move halfway around the world sixteen years ago.

So I canceled my Monday classes and went to the graduation ceremony instead. Hyunjin and I left home at around 9:00, and it took the usual hour plus (close to ninety minutes) to get down to SNU. I took the shuttle bus to the school first while Hyunjin stayed near the subway station to search for a suitable bouquet of flowers (tradition in Korea—and perhaps elsewhere... after all, how would I know?). I went to the appropriate building in my college to get my gown, hood, and mortarboard. This process seemed to go very quickly for everyone else who dropped by, but they had trouble finding a doctoral hood of the right color (white, for the humanities) and eventually had to give me the one they had on display to demonstrate how it was to be worn. I had about fifteen minutes left before the ceremony when I finally had my kit in hand, and I walked down to the gymnasium, where the ceremony was to be held.

There we waited for Hyunjin’s father to arrive. Already it was getting hot, and I was sweating profusely in my suit—it’s definitely hotter here than it was in Beijing. Then again, I didn’t walk around Beijing wearing a suit. When Hyunjin’s father arrived (he had to park quite a distance away and then walk) I took off my suit jacket and donned the gown. We walked toward the entrance of the gymnasium, but a guy there said that only students were allowed on the floor; everyone else had to go up to the bleachers (although I suppose they technically wouldn’t be bleachers, since they’re indoors—bleachers get their name from the fact that they were “bleached” by the sun). So I went in to the floor of the gymnasium and Hyunjin and her father went up to the bleachers.

I will not bore you with the details of the ceremony; I was bored half to death just sitting through it, so I can only imagine how it would affect my readers were I to write about it. Now I can hear you saying, “But that’s why I’m reading this right now, to hear about the ceremony!” And my reply is, “I understand that, Mom, but trust me when I say it was tedium ad infinitum.” OK, fine, a quick recap.

It started off with the singing of the national anthem and saluting of the Korean flag, which I simply observed. Then there was the saluting of the school flag. I didn’t even know we had a flag. I saluted (hand over heart), though. After some announcements and awarding of prizes, it was finally time for the awarding of the degrees. Let me preface what comes next by saying that I knew I would not be walking down an aisle and receiving my diploma. There were 428 doctoral candidates receiving their degrees, to say nothing of the thousands upon thousands of undergrads, so personally handing out degrees to everyone would have taken the entire day. Instead, they had representatives from each of the schools go up to receive their degrees. Which is great, except they had one representative for the entire College of Humanities, and I had never seen or heard of this person before. It felt a bit weird to have a complete stranger represent me.

What felt even weirder, though, was that the rest of us just sat there while the representatives received their degrees. I thought at least we might stand up (as a group) and be recognized as the representative from each school went up, but nothing like this happened. I mentioned this later on at lunch, and Hyunjin’s father said, “That’s true. Usually everyone takes their tassel and moves it from one side to the other.” But I had known straight away that even this was not going to happen—I paid close attention to the faculty as their entered in their academic garb and noticed that their tassels were on the same side as all of ours, the left side.

The particular form of participation, though, was not really that important to me. What was important was that I be part of this ceremony in some way. Isn’t that the point of a ceremony? That you participate in some way to signify passage from one stage in life to the next? But there was nothing at all. I just sat there the whole time and watched stuff happening up on the stage. To make things worse, I noticed that there were plenty of non-students down on the floor as well. It quickly became apparent that we were all merely spectators. The only difference was that some of us were wearing very stuffy gowns.

At one point I text-messaged Hyunjin to tell her that I was bored out of my mind and she should come down. So she and her father did come down, and we took a few photos as the ceremony ground to its conclusion. This involved the singing of the school song. I didn’t know we had a school song, either. When this was over, we left the gymnasium and waited for Hyunjin’s sister to arrive. She hadn’t been able to get out of work until too late for the ceremony, but as it turned out she didn’t miss anything. Apparently the real task of the day is to wander around campus in your gown and have your picture taken. And that’s what we did (I’ll put up some photos at the end).

It didn’t help that the entire ceremony was really aimed at the undergrads. In retrospect it makes sense, since they made up the bulk of the students present, but it had not occurred to me before. All of the speeches, though, spoke of how the students would now be entering a world that was much harsher than the university environment, etc. I just sat there thinking, “Tell me about it. I’ve been living in that world for the past decade and a half.” To make matters worse, many of the speeches focused on the (Korean) students’ duty to their nation and other such nationalistic rhetoric. So I was doubly left out of the proceedings.

This probably sounds quite bitter, but I am not really that distraught. Am I disappointed that I played absolutely no part in a ceremony that was supposed to represent a significant point in my life? Yeah, I am. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t. But to tell you the truth, my annoyance at having canceled my classes for this outweighs my disappointment. I took a look at the schedule for this semester, and due to various holidays and testing schedules, we are already going to miss three Mondays. And since this was the first day of class, I couldn’t schedule a makeup class, which means I’m going to have to try to cram one in very soon. It’s just a big mess, that’s what it is.

Well, that was cheerful, wasn’t it? Shame on me, I suppose, for expecting something more, even though I knew deep down that it probably wasn’t going to be anything. At least I did have my picture taken in the gown, and I had a nice lunch with Hyunjin, her father, and her sister. I also have this brand new piece of paper that says I have a doctorate from Seoul National University. I am genuinely proud of that, and no lame ceremony can diminish that.

What will this piece of paper do for me? What does it mean for the future? I honestly have no idea. A lot of people have asked me what’s next. In fact, just about everyone has asked me that. I tell them that I now have my doctorate and they say, “So, what’s next?”—as if this piece of paper is a magic crystal ball that will allow me to see into the future. I do know that I won’t be scrambling for a faculty position, since I already have one, and that is a huge comfort. Beyond that, though, who knows?. But I think that’s always been the case—whatever course I may chart, where I end up depends in large part on which way the wind is blowing.

I think that about wraps it up for now. Now for the promised photos.

Hyunjin took this photo of me unawares. Notice how many people have their phones out—that’s how exciting all of this was for us. It looks like I’m looking at my phone here, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. I don’t have a smart phone (I like to say I have a “stupid phone”), so I really don’t have too much reason to look at it. I’m probably looking at the program and trying to figure how much longer I have to sit there.

The ceremony is still going on, but a lot of people were getting up and taking pictures (we had to wait in line to get this spot). What you can’t see here is that over half of the people who had been sitting in the seats on the floor are now gone. I was sitting up front, so I couldn’t really see it, but Hyunjin told me later that a slow but so-massive-as-to-be-embarrassing exodus began about halfway through the ceremony.

This is the pond in front of the building where I took the vast majority of my classes at Seoul National University. You can’t really see the building through the trees, but trust me, the pond is prettier. If you’ve been paying attention, you can probably figure out who each of the people in this photo are.

And if you’ve really been paying attention, you’ll notice that something important is missing from all these photos. That’s right: the diploma. I didn’t actually get the diploma until after I returned the gown; I had to drop by the department office and pay some dues and fill out a government survey (SNU is a state school, after all) before I could get that.

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