2016 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult first place
first place, adult essay division
Link[ing] the Splintered Heart of Mankind with the Yarn Image: Humor and Humanism in "The Glass Shield"
Kim Chunghyok’s essay “The Glass Shield” is at first glance a whimsical tale of two friends who make spectacles of themselves as they desperately try to find jobs (a situation to which many of today’s millennials can relate). However, this tale is sophisticated in its weaving together of traditional and postmodern elements. Chunghyok uses parody - a common postmodern technique – combined with the traditional doctrines of Confucianism to describe M and the narrator’s search to make meaningful connections in a world to which they are otherwise ill-suited.
From the beginning, the author establishes close friendship between M and the narrator, which according to traditional values brings about positivity and mutual growth. Instead, their relationship is exaggerated, bordering on the ridiculous. M and the narrator are inseparable – they are roommates and even interview for positions together to best showcase their skill set (209). The narrator describes their relationship as not just a close friendship, but a duality – without one, the other is only a partial person with little substance: “We were inseparable, two sides of a coin, front and back of a single person. Without M, I was a paper so thin I couldn’t stand on my own. And I believe I meant the same to M” (209). The narrator uses these analogies to emphasize the symbiotic relationship with M. Although bordering on obsessive, this idea of togetherness echoes the Confuscian idea that mutual effort results in the overall improvement of a person. By functioning as one entity, two relatively weak characters are able to become stronger – even in their failure.
In contrast to the strong bond between the narrator and M, their series of job interviews represents the lack of connection between the protagonists and their prospective employers. From the onset, M and the narrator are at a disadvantage during the employment process. The two “forget” to research each job prior to applying; as a result, they turn the interview into an exhibition. Aside from completing a dual interview (which is already an anomaly in itself), they deviate from the expected question-and-answer interview process in favor of more unorthodox approaches: role playing as peddlers, magic shows, and unraveling yarn, to name a few (210). M and the narrator do not understand that their serious audience does not want a literal demonstration of skills, but merely expects a verbal overview of what candidates have to offer. Rather than complete the expected interview, the narrator and his companion respond to these rigid expectations by using jokes and exaggeration- techniques at which they excel. According to Confucian ideas of education, students will excel when they learn and are permitted to express themselves according to their nature. It is only when their efforts are seen through the lens of artistic expression that they transform from pranksters to “performance art in the job interview space” (227). The two friends develop a new career as avant-garde entertainers once they stop trying to force themselves to meet the expectations set forth by their employers and instead find an authentic means of expressing their creative “gift.” Thus, no meaningful interpersonal connections are made between the companions and their potential employers when they are expected to adhere to serious – and thereby unachievable- standards.
While the protagonists’ series of failed job interviews represents a failure of connection, their ludicrous stumble into the world of high art represents the achievement of the genuine interpersonal relationships they have been seeking. To begin, the use of yarn as the characters’ signature artistic medium is symbolically appropriate. In literature, yarn is often used to symbolize interconnectedness. During their interview for the gaming company, M and the narrator hopelessly tangle the yarn in an effort to impress the panel; however, as previously mentioned, the connection is not one that is meant to be made. It is only later, when the two friends are alone together (their natural state of being), that they are able to repair the damage and create a new connection – this time, with the art lovers who see M’s photograph in “Street Scene.” Viewers make text-to-self connections with this “accidental art,” equating it to “unforgettable love” and world travel (220). Initially, M and the narrator find the blog’s misguided comments a hilarious critique of high art culture – a parody which is enhanced by the inclusion of a caricatured “professional art interviewer” later in the text. As they further pursue their new art career, the pair continues to create deep emotional reactions , first from art enthusiasts and later from other interview “failures” much like themselves. In fact, the narrator is unintentionally poignant when he describes the yarn phenomenon as “‘an event that links the splintered heart of mankind to the yarn image’“ (215). Although the remark is made in jest, it strikes at the heart of the characters’ quest for connection throughout the text. Instead of acting as an intentional evocation of the viewer’s emotion, the use of yarn is used to link the nonconformist protagonists with their society.
At the surface, the two misguided young adults in “The Glass Shield” muck through a series of job interviews, only to stumble upon their ideal career through their own shenanigans. Though it seems that their half-hearted goal is employment, what the narrator and his best friend truly want is to reach out to others around them. Though they have been lucky enough to discover kindred spirits in one another, they cannot make the same connections with their superiors. It is only by accidentally creating an avant-garde art form that they are able to rediscover what it means to connect with another human being. By incorporating a parodic twist on the traditional Confucian ideas of human interaction, Chunghyok successfully creates a story that is both humorous and enlightening.
"Post-Modern Korean Fiction: The Prehistory of Postmodernism": http://www.ktlit.com/post-modern-korean-fiction-the-prehistory-of-postmodernism/
"Traditional Korean Literature": http://www.iu.edu/~easc/outreach/educators/literature/workshops/documents/KoreanLiteratureReadingList2011.pdf
All in-text citations come from "The Glass Shield" (2008).