Sometimes we encounter criticisms and other times compliments. Both are beneficial: From criticisms, we can learn valuable lessons, whereas compliments encourage us to continue what we have been doing all our lives.
Looking back upon my life, I have received many notable corrections and encouraging words of praise. When I visited SUNY Buffalo, I proudly told my mentor, professor Marcus Klein, “Some people in Korea think I am an authority on American literature.” He replied with a solemn air, “No one is an authority on anything. You should try to learn constantly.” From his reprimand, I learned the importance of modesty.
When I studied at Columbia University, I was a student of Tzvetan Todorov, the renowned French literary critic who had been a pivotal influence on structuralism, but later became an important theoretician of post-structuralism, as well. Thus one day, I asked him, “Do you think you are a structuralist or a post-structuralist?” The great scholar gave a wise answer to my frivolous question: “You shouldn’t categorize anyone. If you belong in a category, you cannot become a great man.” From his words, I learned that no great man belongs to a faction or a group.
At Columbia, I was lucky to have Edward W. Said, author of “Orientalism,” as my academic adviser. Once I told him, “Since you are a renowned literary critic, you must have numerous disciples.” With a stern face, he told me, “You don’t want to be a disciple to anyone. If you remain a disciple, you will never be able to excel your teacher.” From his scolding, I learned that a great teacher would not want disciples. Instead, he would want his students to surpass him. In addition, whenever I sounded overtly patriotic, professor Said also chided me, “You should be a self-appointed exile wherever you are. You should be a border intellectual who transcends boundaries.”
As for compliments, I was especially touched by the one from the State University of New York, which graciously conferred on me an honorary doctorate in humane letters in 2017. At that time, the University Center in Albany, New York passed out the following for the news media, “Kim has been a cultural and literary bridge between the US and Korea as a master interpreter of American literary culture for Korean readers and a US Cultural Ambassador to South Korea.” I was particularly pleased to find here the three keywords I have pursued all through my life: “bridge,” “interpreter,” and “cultural ambassador.”
Indeed, I have always tried to be a mediator between the East and the West in general and between Korea and the United States in particular. In that sense, I also appreciated the following comments from the George Washington University, who invited me to be the Dean’s Distinguished Visiting Professor in 2018. The GWU website states that it valued “the profound impact Professor Kim has had as a cultural and literary bridge between Korea and the United States.”
Through my writings for newspapers, I have also tried to build a bridge and play the role of an interpreter between Korea and the world. I have always tried to stand in the middle and write based on common sense, instead of taking sides. In fact, I have tried to help provide a window onto Korean society to people throughout the world, which I consider part of my responsibility as a Korean citizen who values international cooperation and good will.
The same thing goes for other columnists, as well. A columnist would be encouraged if an American in Seoul wrote him or her when anti-American sentiment pervaded Korean society, “I am a dedicated fan of your column. Having your column to read often helps me get through the tough weeks when I’m tired of defending myself.” A newspaper columnist would be happy if he received an email from a foreign diplomat, “I have been a voracious reader of your columns. I am always waiting anxiously for your next columns to appear.”
A newspaper columnist would also be pleased if someone from a foreign country wrote him or her, “I just finished reading your article and once again find myself agreeing with you almost entirely. I love your articles and perhaps someday when I am visiting Seoul, we may be able to have a coffee.”
If the columnist’s point of view was not only useful to foreigners living in Korea, or diplomats involved in government affairs, but even detached observers who read the column out of interest and learn more about the potentials and challenges of Korean society, then the columnist would feel he had done his job.
Last year on my birthday, I received a crystal plaque from my daughter and American son-in-law, which said, “World-class scholar, greatest husband, amazing father, fantastic father-in-law, best grandfather” Their vastly inflated commendation flattered me, even though I knew, “You should be” was omitted from the phrase.
We should appreciate both criticisms and compliments.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.