Sok Koo Rhee

Sok Koo Rhee

Sok Koo Rhee
1989 Fulbright Graduate Student Program, Indiana University Bloomington, American Literature (PhD)
2002 Mid-Career Research Award, University of Oregon
2009 Senior Research Award, UC San Diego
Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Yonsei University

In the summer of 1989, I attended a three-week orientation program offered by Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. There were 30 Fulbrighters at the program, representing countries around the world. The program left an indelible mark on me. Even today, it pops up in my mind as a refreshing memory of my days in the United States. Two rooms and a kitchen were assigned to four participants, and I shared a room with a Nigerian Fulbrighter. Another room was occupied by Swedish and Greek Fulbrighters. During our stay in the dormitory, a mysterious event happened. The Swedish participant was not seen for a couple of days in the dormitory. However, we eventually came to realize what made him disappear: he was with another Swedish female participant. This couple aroused our curiosity whenever they appeared, though their affairs had nothing to do with our life.

The three-week program was not for lectures alone. It included soccer games to be played by two teams, an excursion to Shenandoah National Park, and a musical concert. Most memorable was the concert by Smokey Robinson. The stage for the musical concert was an outdoor music hall on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. There were no designated seats, and the audience was free to sit on any part of the lawn. Not far from us were an old black gentleman and a young lady. They had snacks and a bottle of wine in their basket. The lady was sitting on the knees of the old man. They enjoyed the concert, drinking and eating. We were not exceedingly curious about the relationship between the two, but since we thought our curiosity might become a problem, we decided not to think about it any longer. I was reminded of William Wordsworth’s remarks—that half of the world was created by the sights of viewers. As the concert was ascending toward its peak, the couple rose up and moved their bodies to the beat of the music. The late afternoon sunlight cast its warmth on the back of the couple. The leisurely life of the audience as embodied by the scene of the concert impressed itself on my mind as something to be long remembered.

I made the acquaintance of a couple of participants while I was attending the orientation program. They were Lassen from Morocco, Denis from Brazil, and Suvenja from Thailand. Our friendship continued beyond our days at the university. What made our friendship long-lasting was that all four of us, coincidentally, were bound for Indiana University. Lassen in particular was frequently in touch with me. His major in comparative literature produced a common area of concern with me, and we often met in the classroom. Proficient in Arabic, French, and English, Lassen was able to read Lacan’s original text on psychoanalysis, known for being difficult to comprehend. He translated Derrida’s “About Literal  Characters.” I had heard of the two names but was far from any comprehension of their scholarly work. Lassen maintained a scholarly edge over me, and this was why I envied him. He often invited me to his house and treated me to Arabic foods. With a good sense of humor, he treated invitees and made them laugh. I made the acquaintance of other Arab students through Lassen. They awakened me to unknown parts of the Western world, as seen from the Arab perspective. There were other Fulbrighters in the Department of English  Literature. The feeling of a common bond with Fulbrighters brought us into a cohesive social solidarity. There was a Tunisian student named Sali, a tall and slender man with a well combed mustache. He was lit like a Christmas tree among girl students and set their hearts on fire. He was known as a member of the royal family among the professors, but he never mentioned it to me, nor did I try to confirm it. They regarded me as a man from a wealthy country. Judging from this view, I gathered that the economic situation of their countries was in a deadlock. I am told that Sali has married and is now teaching American literature at Nantes University in France. The notion of a common bond brought Fulbrighters into solidarity across borders. I wonder if there is any other program that has played the same role as the Fulbright Program.

Excerpt from Fulbright In Korea’s Future: A 60th Anniversary Commemorative History. Seoul: Korea-American Educational Commission, 2010, pp. 208-210.