💫 week 5: quiet joys

1.

My friend recently wrote to me in a letter, View your months in Oxford as the relationship you are currently in. A relationship with a city is a beautiful thing…the hardships, the trials, the exploration and the novelties that come with tasting, seeing, feeling, doing. 

2.

I am coming to fall in love with this city built on books and the desire to learn. There is something both humbling and uplifting about walking down St. Giles as a young student, listening to the church-bells toll solemnly. Oxford is such a kind, patient place, and over the course of a term, it invites you to take life a little slowly, a little more whimsically. Why not stop by the Ashmolean Museum to say good afternoon to a plaster Nike of Samothrace, even if she has nothing to do with your studies? Why not take a detour into this lovely old bookshop? Why not tremble at the grace of a poem floating through the lines of a book you happen to pick up there, and carry whispering in your head all the way home?

3.

Like all relationships, falling in love with a city is confusing. You get lost in wrong turns. You hesitate on taking new steps, in venturing too far. You slant your habits and language around your beloved: this library is too deathly silent to breathe, and this café makes the softest and sweetest of waffles to enjoy once an essay is over. The tutorial system offers so much more time, like a smooth cube of clay to chisel at will. Education comes from more than the classroom: a scintillating talk given at a neighboring college, or a local poetry slam, or a long, thought-provoking conversation with a friend on activism and free speech…

Oxford continues to surprise me.

4.

It was an academically stressful week, with one four-thousand-word essay and another two-thousand-word essay due. But it was pleasant to curl up in my chair and feel the soft smear of my pencil against paper. It was pleasant to sit under the soft glow of my lamp as I sipped tea and listened to the pattering rain, as I thought about vengeful Miss Havisham in her mansion of cobwebs and cold wedding cakes. The space around me shivered with her spidery candles and storm-swept rage, and I wrote and wrote, and was warm, and quietly happy. And when my tutors read my essays and declared that they were pleased—no, impressed, a compliment they gave for the first time this whole term—I felt immense relief balloon in my chest. So I am learning and growing, after all.

5.

Valentine’s day has dawned and died, and I am gazing at a red rose I received from my off-campus studies program. Taped to my wall, it is drying to a papery semblance of its first beauty. Even so, it retains a quaint charm.

6.

Sometimes, being abroad alone can be terribly lonely. (And I’m not talking about Oxford so much as most of my college life away from my family and country, even while I was in America.) Sometimes, I wish I could just stop running, running, endlessly running—whether to gulp down another massive book, or churn out another essay. There are times when I just want to lay down my head and feel at home. For growing is glorious, but you cannot really feel at home inside it. This temptation has been so strong: to settle for peace, to stay where I am, to choose what will make me happiest (at the moment) rather than what will help me grow.

Yet I am so, so grateful for Oxford, where I am continually pushed out of my comfort zone, and can belong in a place where I know cannot be home. In growth, everything becomes worthy of gratitude: the glisten on the edge of a teacup, the rich weight of a favorite book in my backpack—the kind of books I could not have afforded in Korea. Everything is worthy of attention.

7.

So, yes. I want to keep running, even if so many wonderful, far more brilliant students are running miles faster than I am, and accomplishing so much more. I want to keep growing, even if that means always being a little homesick. And I want to allow myself to take detours along the way, to get surprised by life, and cherish gratitude for all the little memories. After all, isn’t that what falling in love is all about?

week 4: remembering north korea

(Um, disclaimer: this video has nothing to do with my blog post this week, haha…)

In the midst of the glitter and glamor of Oxford, I was deeply grateful for the opportunity this week to reflect on one of the issues nearest to my heart: the state of North Korea.

It’s rather lovely how famous speakers so frequently stroll casually into Oxford to give talks, a fair share of them completely free! One such talk this week was by John Everard, the former British diplomat to North Korea, and of course I skipped lunch to run there breathlessly. It was a funny, insightful, and gratingly realistic talk that reminded me forcibly of how urgent my country’s crisis still was.

John Everard was a tall, elegant man with white hair and bright eyes that were simultaneously gentle and fiercely alert; he carried himself gracefully, laughing easily and sympathetically. He opened his talk by reminding us of two vital things. “Firstly, North Koreans are people,” he stressed. “Day-to-day people who aren’t obsessing about how to obliterate the US or dominate the Korean peninsula. They’re people who worry about marriage, families, how to send their kids to school. And secondly, they’re Koreans. They’re not just defined by North Korea, but by their heritage of a very long, rich history. Also, they’re just generally nice people with a wicked sense of humor.” He flashed us a smile.

He went through photographs he had taken during his visits to North Korea, explaining the state of North Koreans’ current poverty, education, and love lives (he showed us a delightful photo of an ordinary North Korean couple on a date, staring mesmerized into each other’s eyes). He also said that their subways were much deeper underground than ours (in the US and in the South), because they also served as bunkers in the event of nuclear war. “If you get a power outage in there, it’s very nasty, I can tell you,” he said. “It gets so dark you can’t even see your own hand, and then you get a chance to hear every North Korean swearword at once.” He chuckled.

I loved his stories of the passionate North Koreans who survived in the midst of their hardship—like the teachers who copied out entire textbooks for their students by hand, and the young women who waded through bug-infested water to harvest their rice. But I also felt tears rise to my eyes at his photograph of the pretty young pharmacist, who had shown him a completely empty medicine cabinet and said that the only things she could offer to the sick were green tea and sympathy.

He was kind enough to answer my questions about several communist conspiracy theories in South Korea very insightfully, and ended his presentation with a sober reminder that the current state of North Korea was simply not sustainable, and that North Korea could actually start a nuclear war, especially in the light of recent tensions. The possibility of Trump attacking North Korea was also high, with estimates from White House insiders coming in at 30%. Everard remained suspicious about the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics this week. He reminded all the Britons in the room: “If this sucker goes down, the UK goes down with it. Don’t think we’re in any way exempt.”

Walking home, I felt myself burning hot and cold all over with all my unspoken thoughts. I felt sad, helpless, angry, grateful—how could I study at Oxford, while my people were copying out their few textbooks by hand and shivering without a fire? And yet, what an undeserved blessing, for me to be at a place where I could speak firsthand to a diplomat about the current state of my country! I wanted to rush out of school and do something—anything—to help my people. And yet, trying my best in my current situation, I supposed, was the first step to doing so. When I reached home I spent several hours writing applications for volunteer work with North Korean refugees during the summer. Lying in bed, I thought about one of the photographs Everard had shown us—a stark, barren wasteland in North Korea, with the faint outline of Chinese skyscrapers rising like a hazy mirage on the horizon. “North Koreans aren’t stupid,” Everard said. “Imagine sitting hungry and cold on this wasteland and looking out to those glittering skyscrapers, a rich world so far away—how would you feel?”

Indeed, I thought. How would they feel? And I promised myself sadly, all over again: I won’t forget. I won’t forget. However hard I study, however much I enjoy my life in America and in Oxford, I won’t forget what they endure, and what I owe to my country.

💫 week 3: conversations & curry

I love listening to conversations. People seldom realize the brightness of their own words: how they drop, glittering, from their lips without second thought. Like a magpie, I love catching each precious phrase in my palms, so that I can reflect over their flushed colors in private.

Conversations at Oxford are all the more interesting to think about, as they are so integrated with academic learning. People stroll around casually debating the usefulness of an omniscient being in thought experiments or the political ramifications of an economic model. Just a few days ago, as I waited in line for lunch, I listened to several students arguing fiercely about the different definitions of reality.

“So let’s say it’s true that the sun has a certain diameter. But that’s not the same as being necessarily true. Or being possibly true. It could be necessarily possible that x is true, or possibly necessary that x is true.”

“Yes, but for different semantics in objects…”

“I know, but I’m saying, the question is, how can we prove that there are six maximum possibilities for the reality of…”

Whoops. This was getting beyond my comprehension. Cradling my pasta in my hands, I edged gingerly away from them, as edified as I was entertained.

//

Outside the classroom, of course, such discussions tend to derail with all the elasticity of youth. My visiting student friends and I were enjoying curry and ramen together when we noticed Lynette carrying Heidegger’s Being and Time with her. “For fun,” she said, cheerfully. “I really enjoy reading Heidegger.”

“For fun?” we cried, gaping at her in horror.

“Heidegger? Do you mean Heineken?” interjected Lou helpfully. “Oh wait, that’s a beer brand.”

“For shame,” said Jess sternly, “it’s common table manners to know your Heidegger.”

“Yes,” said Lynette, smiling, “I enjoy him and Albert Camus very much.”

“Albert Camus?” Lou exclaimed. “I know an Albus. Albus Dumbledore.”

“Yes, Camus was a famous French philosopher,” said Berlin, nodding. “He had some very interesting views.”

“Camus’s The Stranger is so disturbing,” I said with a shudder.

“Yes,” Lynette said gravely, “with its famous first lines: ‘Mother died today.’”

“—‘Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure,’” I joined her. Those two lines carried such unsettling meaning—or lack of meaning, as Camus might argue. We were silent for a moment, and then Lou said, “Camus? Do you mean Caboose? Albus Caboose?”

Berlin smiled mildly and stirred his ramen, ever the peacemaker. “Let’s talk about the weather instead.”

//

It is difficult not to talk about academic subjects, however, as so much of your time is spent reading, writing, breathing them! As I wrote several essays on the boundaries of reality and theatricality in Jane Austen and the impact of 18th-century female namelessness on Freudian theory, I found myself also thinking about my life, and writing to my sisters, in the light cast by my recent studies.

My philosophy professor at Whitman once said that our everyday life is “stereoscopic”: that there is someone living within this embodied imagination as if this scene could be right out of this novel and yet is just this scene. That I should pay attention to deja vus, where my past conflates with my present, and when the theories I learn or the novels I read echo loudly into my own life.

And isn’t that, after all, the joy of learning? To reflect and know more about how the world works, so you can begin to know yourself? Oxford has compelled me to think not only more deeply about my favorite authors, but also about this complex, self-contradictory thing called my own life. I have come to question my own performativity: to what extent am I adapting myself to societal structures, or sacrificing sincerity for survival? And my own relationships: if I feel so uncomfortable with the “happy ending” marriages for Burney and Austen’s heroines, what kind of “happy ending” do I really want for myself?

Like literature, life is never easy to analyze. Both resist easy answers. Yet I am grateful for the opportunity to do so, and to continue to be amused and moved by the way other students also grapple with everything they learn, as they shape their supple and ever-growing lives.

💫 week 1-2: studying, scones, statues

In a new place, there is comfort in finding little pockets of home. The 1738 Tea Room has become my reading nook, as I sit sipping rose fig tea and feeling very elegant and ladylike, although I daresay I look like a ravenous, dead-eyed college student munching furiously through my scone like a hungry rat. The English Faculty Library is also a favorite place, although a bit of a walk: I can turn around in a room full of the words of every author I love, and feel like I deeply belong.

The Ashmolean Museum, where all the statues in my video are housed, has also become one of my favorite places in Oxford. One evening, the museum extended its hours to later than usual in the evening, so my visiting student friends and I dropped by to briefly explore. The museum offered something to pique everyone’s interest: I was struck breathless by ancient Greek art, and realized why it had inspired so many eulogies and poems; Emily and Jess were drawn to the earthen-colored mummies and ancient Chinese relics; and Berlin and Lou were eager to see the famous Stradivarius violin. On the way to the museum, I heard them plotting details of the greatest heist of the century. Unfortunately, the museum guide politely crushed their high hopes by explaining that the violin was not on display that night for the after-hours event.

“OK. Why don’t we just go home now?” Berlin stood up in disgust.

Lou laughed. “Yeah. The whole point of coming to the Ashmolean was to stare salivating at the Stradivarius for an hour.”

They were eventually persuaded, however, to stay and explore the rest of the Ashmolean’s treasures; and we were soon convinced that it was certainly worth the stay. I had never been to a Western art museum before, and the experience was overwhelming. “Oh,” I whispered, almost painfully moved, to see hieroglyphs and sculptures from thousands of years ago. I had never been very convinced by the philosopher Heidegger’s enthusiasm for the “thingliness of things,” but I saw now a little of what he meant. The artifacts around me weren’t just objects you could toss or buy at a moment’s pleasure: they were things, brimming with the weight of their thingliness—their stories, the pain of long and silent centuries, the caress of hundreds of hands through which they had passed and passed again…

I have always been moved by the power of old things. When I was doing my summer research in the National Library of Scotland, I felt deeply moved to touch the crumbling paper of a beloved author’s manuscript in my hands, actually feel the contours of his handwriting beneath my presumptuous fingers. Until then, I think James Hogg (the 18th-century novelist) had never felt quite real to me; he was just the Ettrick Shepherd, the fanciful genius, the man of myth and legend, who lived in scholarly editions and introductions to his novels. But his letters and the smudged ink of his pen suddenly made me realize that he had been human, just like me, in a flesh-and-blood, intimate way that was inexpressibly shocking. If something from the 18th century was already so full of story, imagine the richness and almost otherworldly mystery of objects from thousands and…oh, thousands of years ago. I felt like I was standing in the presence of something beyond comprehension, something almost like the brink of deep time.

“So how did you like the museum, Esther?” Jess asked as we walked out into the cold open air. The street lights glimmered silver in the dark night, like starlight expired from light-years away. I shivered and drew my coat closer around myself.

“Museums are so beautiful, yet they make me so…sad,” I murmured. “History just seems like a complex, compelling fiction we tell ourselves, you know? But when I see it before my eyes in handwriting, or objects made with such tenderness, it seems so real. I almost get tears in my eyes at how splendid but short life is, when I know that there were actual human beings just like us who lived and loved and created so much, and then died…”

“It freaking hits home.” Jess nodded, quietly. We were silent for a moment, pondering.

“Whoaaa. That’s way too deep.” Lou laughed nervously, and we snapped out of our reverie, laughing. Life may be short, I thought, looking back at the pillars of the museum, but there was something tragically courageous about what beauty humans could make in its short span. Without forgetting the transience of my individual existence, I, too, wanted to leave behind something in this fleeting and fragile world. Something beautiful. Something with a story. Something to remind people of the tenderness and intensity of life, something with all the thingliness of a thing…

💫 week 0: ot, oxford, the college cat

In Oxford, almost every building has a story. A history rather—several centuries, I think, confer the right to be graced by this word. Almost like people, the buildings gaze down at you with eyes gentle and weary with age. Steeples tall enough to plunge through the sky, spiny turrets the color of coffee, dainty little shops from the 1900’s in pastel colors and painted doors, with the most fanciful little doorknobs in gold and bronze and red. When you stop to admire them, they greet you patiently, in a mellowed voice rich with years: Hello there. Hello visitor. Hello, old friend.

Walking home from the library, staggering under the weight of seven books to read, I still feel faintly woozy by the fact that I’m at Oxford University. It seems unreal. Even more than America, Oxford seemed so far away, when I dreamed at the distance of South Korea. The many nights I sat curled up in my apartment verandah in Seoul as a child, looking out the window into concrete apartments and more apartments, I knew so little about England it might as well have been a place in a fairytale. I only knew that it was the home of my closest childhood friends and cherished mentors—keen-eyed, tongue-in-cheek Miss Austen, earnest, lovely Frances Burney, the uproarious and avuncular Dickens—and to enter the country where they were born, or even where their books were published, was so far away an idea it could hardly have been called a dream. Yet dream I did, vaguely and wistfully, as heroines twirled in ball gowns and danced on the steps of Bath, fresh from the printers of Oxford University Press. When I found my way to Whitman College, where the school was so kind as to extend and expand its scholarship to a semester of study abroad, I found a small dream coming true ere I had ever articulated it completely. In this roundabout, unexpected way, through a liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Washington, I stepped, in a sense, into the heart of my childhood in Korea.

Orientation went by in a blur. One fact that had me reeling was the sheer size of Oxford University. I was accustomed to Whitman College, a campus that one may explore in fair detail from one end to the other in the space of an afternoon’s stroll; for Oxford, the town and the university are so integrated, it is difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. Indeed, it would be misleading to talk about the university’s campus—rather, it is a flock of many different smaller colleges, churches, institutions, and libraries, all grouped together beneath the wings of the university’s name. I seriously wonder whether I will be able to see even half of Oxford University before my two terms are over. After all, this is a “university” with its own map for the hundred libraries on its “campus”!

My first week passed all the more swiftly, and with more pain than pleasure, because of a difficult situation with my youngest sister’s host family in America. In staying up talking to my sisters in worry, phoning various acquaintances at unholy hours to figure out her housing, emailing my professors to search for resources, and reassuring my parents over the phone that yes, I was fine, and yes, my sisters would be fine, I found myself agitated and sleepless in a way that did little to break my jet lag. Perhaps due to the worry I felt, a few days into orientation I was seized with a fit of illness that kept me rather distracted and depressed. Yet neither family anxiety nor sickness could completely quell my excitement over arriving at Oxford, and thankfully, as both family situation and my health improved, my sense of gratitude also increased rapidly. I was able to go out on longer walks, shift cheerfully into the everyday pace of student life, and begin the morning with a fresh burst of motivation and a well-cooked, sunny-side-up egg and traditional Korean dwenjang soup to start my day.

When starting grows daunting, start small. I’ve started with Hertford College, the two retired, modest-looking, yet dignified brown buildings that constitute my home turf at Oxford. And within Hertford I’ve started with Simpkins, the skittish, snappy, yet inexpressibly adorable college cat. I saw one whisk of its puffy black tail and my heart was robbed. Stolen. Gone. Crouching down to stare into its lovely eyes, I spent a good half hour of my first week in England stroking its furry head and pouring out endearments to its indifferent ears in both Korean and English. When in doubt or anxiety, my first comfort will be to head to the porters’ lodge at Hertford College. There, Simpkins will be waiting, perfectly happy to ignore me.