5.11.2011

On Grandma INP's grand ideas or: how Korea is selling myself short.

I love my grams. I have a lot of this woman in me. And maybe that's why she tends to drive me up the wall a little bit. You see, I left home when I was 18 and still pretty stupid. We've only had the odd couple of weeks a year here and there together since then, and she's had almost no opportunity to see me in my Real Life as an Adult. It's not something she's had a chance to get used to. So. This week so far has been full of why I do need to take a jacket because she says so, how I'm probably not really sure where that bus is going, how surely this taxi driver could take a better route that I'm not aware of, and all kinds of other various things she's pretty sure she knows better than me.

Fine. Fair enough. She's the elder. And I'm pretty good at just taking this in stride. No matter how batshit it might make me.

But the one thing that's come up this week that hasn't come up for a long time with her is how I need to finish up my time here in Korea and come back to the States to start my proper life.

It was weird timing -- I came home from having this rather frustrating conversation with her at a coffee shop last night to wake up and read this post by The Korean this morning. And I was struck by how eerily the original article he's responding to exactly mirrors my situation, and how I agree more with TK.... and how that's ultimately the root of the problem.

First, a little about my background to explain:

I always did well in school. I never made a single B in my life. Once I got to middle school, and the option of taking advanced classes was open to me, I not only took them -- I aced them. Because I worked hard? No. Because it was easy for me. I skipped more class than the lowest of low life burnouts during high school. I never cracked a book to study. I did my homework in the passing period between classes or at lunch time. I aced exams on material I was taught during classes I spent doodling long, gossipy notes to my friends. My teachers mostly doted on me, despite my general apathy, because I was never directly disrespectful. But they knew I didn't really care beyond doing the bare minimum it took to keep on the A honor roll (which wasn't a lot).

As a result, I had a constant rebellion throughout my school life toward all the honors I was constantly being handed. I watched my little brother (who had a number of very severe learning disabilities and narcolepsy) struggle and fight his way through barely being able to pass. Yet, I sat around on my ass and made straight As. So now you want to give me an award for that? Big deal.

My senior year in high school saw me constantly tormenting my grandmother by systematically getting myself kicked out of every honor society I was accepted into. I refused to attend the induction ceremony for one. I refused to pay the dues for another. I wrote a scathing opinion piece for the school newspaper undermining the entire advanced English department, and another stating that I would be rejecting my selection as one of the "faculty top ten", because that award was supposed to go to students who showed advancement in character, yet it was always the students with the top grades who were selected. When it was time for me to take the SATs, I didn't study one single thing. I didn't buy one single book. I didn't even take a calculator with me to the exam. I took it once, and I was finished.

Basically, I behaved like a spoiled brat. It must have blown my brother's mind to sit there and have to watch me reject one after another of the things he had worked so hard with no hope of ever achieving. And I stand behind the sentiment that drove me to behave that way -- I didn't deserve to be honored above my brother, or others, who were working much harder than I was. But I do regret the arrogance with which I carried out that "cause". Severely.

Then, when it came time for me, the first in my family to ever have the opportunity, to select a university and a major, it wasn't the Ivies I was gunning for -- I decided to go completely off the map. A private art school to study, of all fucking things, poetry.

I don't regret that. Because in the years that followed, I learned an important lesson. One that has led me to and kept me in Korea.

You see, I thought I was going to be A Writer. And, although my pursuits were now in the creative rather than academic realm, I was still mostly a darling among my pupils for the professors. What I started to see was that the creative world was not much different from how it had been at school. It was still full of favoritism and self-importance -- the students who received praise for the professors still waltzed about all over campus as if they were gods, not stopping to question what it meant to be a big fish in a small pond. I was rewarded for, yes, my talent and yes, my dedication and yes, my character -- but also because I was an easy choice. I was handed internships with the closest of their friends, some of the best American poets and most important poetry journals of their day. I was chosen to receive the prize for best poetry manuscript thesis the year of my graduation. Another honor which I tried to reject. The difference this time was that my main mentor corrected my arrogant behavior.

He had asked me to stay after in his office one day after studio had finished, because he had something he wanted to talk to me about. He told me that I had been chosen, and I immediately became flushed with frustration. I spoke far too directly to a man who had gone out of his way to lead and guide me with nothing but brutal honesty about feeling favored and like it wasn't right. He told me that my general idea about the writing world was correct, but then, with the same brutal honesty he brought down on my work, he took me to task for the way I was behaving in that moment. Did I not trust and respect my professors? Who was I to question their choice? How could I make those kind of condemnations toward the people who had worked so hard to help me develop as a writer over the past four years? Who was I to place them and their characters in the same category as all that other nonsense I had observed? He put it bluntly -- I was being remarkably arrogant and disrespectful to call their judgment into question that way. And he wasn't just playing a little psychological game -- he meant it. And I suddenly felt ashamed.

Then, seeing that he had made his point, his tone softened. He looked me in the eye and he said, I want you to understand one thing -- you are receiving this prize because you have worked hard for it. There are other writers in this program who are just as talented as you are, but they haven't worked as consistently and as hard as you have over the course of the last four years. The progress you have made is not a result of raw talent -- I was your first year professor. I saw what you walked in here with. What you're walking out with was not given to you by God -- you built it with hard work and dedication. You built it by listening with humility to what everyone around you had to say, by taking all of the criticism into account and by working, working again, and working some more.

In the end, I accepted the prize. Not that I had much of a choice. Later on, I sat in that same office and talked about how I was conflicted about what to do with my future. I could stay in New York. I could take the predictable path to grad school -- not a single one of the successful writers we were surrounded by had ever dodged that path. I could continue on with the internships, the networking, the connections and the favoritism. I could play the game. Within five years, I was pretty much guaranteed to have something on the presses, something headed for the shelves with my name on it.

But -- And now I spoke with my head lowered. I didn't want to risk entering the same territory I'd entered before and offending this man again. But -- I can't help but feel like this world is just too small. Too claustrophobic. The same people who had taught me my style would be the people who would be judging me as worthy of publication, based on the very style they had taught me. The personal was all mixed in with the professional. New York Poetry was New York Poetry written by poets in New York about New York published by people in New York read by New Yorkers.

And what was more, I was tired. I was tired of the combination of ego and poverty. I was tired of feeling proud of being poor. I was tired of being patted on the back by everyone around me, while barely having enough money to make my rent every month. I was tired of making self-important excuses for the life situation I felt I was growing entirely too old to still be in.

I might lose. I might lose everything I had built up. I might lose my momentum. I might lose my writing. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I just had to get out.

Go. Get out, he said. If that's what you feel, then that's what's right. Just go and don't ever look back.

A couple of days before our final reading as graduating seniors, the administrative director for our department came by our studio to snap polaroids of us to display at the reading. We were instructed to skim through our manuscripts and select a line of our poetry to write across the bottom. When I handed my photo back to my professor, the one who had told me just to go, he looked down at it and chuckled to himself. Then, he cut his eyes back up at me and smiled. I had written, across the bottom of my photo, "And one left and never came back."

Flash forward to yesterday. Sitting at a table in a coffee shop with my grandmother. My dear grandmother who believes that I am the single most special person ever to walk the face of this planet. With a talent that would no doubt put Hemingway to shame, were it brought to its full potential. And my professors were so proud of me, as well. What ever happened to that? Why hadn't I stayed in the States and made good on the success and specialness that was obviously coming to me? Teaching is great -- teaching is fine. She's happy to see that I can meet all of my financial obligations now, but what about how famous I was supposed to be? How could I walk away from that?

My face got flushed then in the same way that it got flushed in my professor's office four years ago nearly to the day.

You see, Grams, I don't want to live in that small world. I don't want to be a big fish in a small pond. I'd rather be a small fish in a massive ocean. I don't think my writing will suffer from that. The only thing that stands to suffer is the recognition I receive for my writing. And who gives a shit about that anyway? Having something mediocre that's called great is not nearly as nice as having something great that no one knows about. In my perhaps-still-not-humble-enough opinion.

At the end of the day, writing is just a symbol for the things that we know and understand about this world and the people in it. The symbol, we know, is never greater in importance than what it signifies. Without the signified, there is no symbol. Right now, I'm working on my signified. If the symbol never comes, then I'll be okay with that.

6 comments:

Chris in South Korea said...

Great post - but at the same time, what exactly is a 'proper life'? Like myself, you've spent more than your first year here - and you've made a life for yourself in the process. Were I to return to the US I'd carry back a lot of experiences, but materially speaking I'd be starting over. My 'proper life' is here now.

Further, there's something to be said about the wisdom of old people - but only in matters they tend to know. I wouldn't trust, say, my grandfather, with matters dealing with computers. I might, however, seek his advice on what's changed over the past several decades. It's one thing to offer advice on matters you know - it's a completely different thing to assume that taxi driver doesn't know where he's going.

Mr. Spock said...

I identify with a lot in your article and I am really confused about how I feel personally. I love this country a lot more than I ever loved living in my own country. My opportunities here are much more intriguing, and yes I am building a life here. BUT no matter what, everybody talks about it like I am supposed to go back -- like this is a parenthesis in my life... Why can't it just be the first step on a road? Why does it have to be a side-trip?

Hasani said...

Really lovely post, particularly when read with The Korean's post. Can I ask which college you attended?

karisuma gyaru said...

i really liked this post. it was very touching and honest. i can relate to you a lot as i was a smart lazy brat too.... although not destined for great writing. i think there is also something to be said about being content with the life that you got, and not always striving to achieve great things or please othe people.

anyhow, hope you figure things out for yourself!

prettyroser said...

Good post, reminded me of something my father once told me and I believe this as well now. He said when he was growing up, he always believed he was destined to do great things. Everyone gets taught that a little in America. That we are all supposed to do something big and grand to matter. Yet as he was growing up, he realized it was the small things that made the biggest differences. That sometimes someone just needs a little encouragement on particular day to lift their spirits and make them realize they can succeed at something. So I think, you're right. The big, important things in the grand scheme of things may not be what are really worth doing in life.

k2 said...

I found your blog today and just got to this post... I could write a novel on this, but let me just say it's scary how similar your story with school is to mine.
(And your line with the beheaded chicken.)
Nice blog!