Thursday, April 14, 2011


Last week I marked the completion of one full year of employment at the best job ever. Meanwhile, over the weekend our research institute celebrated the 20th anniversary of its founding.

It's been a wonderfully fulfilling year for me. I've always felt appreciated and the work itself is usually enjoyable. I get to work in a library that is smallish but filled with exactly the sort of books and magazines I'm interested in, and I spend most of my time translating articles and learning new vocabulary - something I've done for years, but now I get paid for it. In the last year I've been responsible for either proofreading or translating the text of three whole books, two journals, over 50 short articles, and numerous academic presentations. Occasionally I also attend fancy conferences and meet all sorts of interesting people. On one memorable occasion, I even had the opportunity to moderate a workshop at a conference on North Korean human rights. In the midst of all this, with my former professor's help I was able publish my first paper in an academic journal. Although there have been some stressful moments - especially the painful, drawn-out visa application saga - the amazing opportunities of the past year were well worth it.

In the meantime, I've gone from being that foreign girl on the bus that everyone's afraid to talk to, to being known as "our Changmi" and freely consulted on all manner of English-related questions. I've developed some solid friendships with some of my co-workers. I've also been treated to countless lunches by research fellows whose work I've translated, and through their work I've gotten a better insight into the actual process of academic research.

Shortly before starting this job, I passed level 4 of the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK). With the daily practice I've had over the past year, I would guess that I could probably reach level 6 now with a bit of intense cramming. My Korean still lags behind my Japanese ability in some areas - it's most apparent when I hear Japanese spoken on TV or the subway and it suddenly sounds so much clearer to my ears - but in other areas, particularly writing, I'm nearly at the same level in Korean as Japanese.

In honor of the 20th anniversary, our institute celebrated with a bit of mandatory fun last week - a group hiking excursion along a small portion of the trail that circumnavigates Mt. Bukhansan, which happens to pass by our offices. In preparation, we each received gift certificates to a nearby hiking goods shop, so that the uninitiated could stock up on expensive hiking clothes and shoes. This led to the surreal experience of going shopping with my boss and co-workers. The hike itself was a two-hour stroll along a moderately sloped course, followed by Japanese-style box lunches with beer and makkoli, and another two hours back for the small group of genuine troopers who didn't opt to slink away to the bus stop. To mark the occasion, as always, we had a photo together holding one of those ubiquitous printed banners.

Group photo!

Me wearing expensive new hat & shirt!

Then on Friday we had our annual bonanza international conference at the Plaza Hotel, which this year featured speeches by former PM Lee Hong Gu and the ambassadors of the US, Russia, and Japan (the Chinese ambassador was scheduled to speak but canceled). After the speeches, a roundtable talk, and a few impassioned questions/rants from audience members, we all moved to the top floor of the Plaza Hotel for a fancy dinner. I sat with some of the newest batch of fresh interns, and I enjoyed regaling them with stories, from the vast height of my superior experience, about how this dinner differed from last years'.

Fancy dinner with violin accompaniment.

It's kind of a bittersweet moment when an organization such as ours celebrates its 20th anniversary. After all, our stated purpose is to aid in achieving Korean unification, a goal that still seems remote. I doubt that the original founders would have been pleased to hear that twenty years on we are still struggling with the same basic issues. Certainly it makes the celebratory speeches a little awkward; one can't exactly make a jolly toast to "another 20 years!" as one usually does at such events. Still, as many of the speakers pointed out, the work our researchers do is essential to understanding our neighbor to the North and preparing for a unified future, even if it does take another 20, 30, or 50 years. I feel very lucky to be a part of this organization at this pivotal point in time.

1 comment:

  1. Getting paid to learn words and spend hours in a library: your job does sound like fun!

    I just stumbled upon your blog and am earmarking it so I can come back and haunt the place some more.