Monthly Archives: January 2018

đź’« 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…

đź’« 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.