An endowed chair professor of Korean studies offers some insights on how listening to the past can help women rewrite the future
Professor Hyaeweol Choi has travelled the globe, riding on a new wave which was never meant to take her overseas. The ANU-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies – who moved to Australia in 2010 after spending 22 years in the United States – says that when she was younger she never planned to live or work outside of her native South Korea.
“I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in South Korea in the mid-1980s,” explains Hyaeweol. “At that time I was part of a new movement of young scholars who were trying to find theories and methods of study that were appropriate to Korea. South Korea has always been heavily influenced by Western theories and ways of thinking, especially those from the US. They of course offer valuable insights, but are not necessarily adequate to the particular historical and cultural circumstances of Korea.
“So I didn’t intend to study overseas at the time. But, I became aware of some of the limitations of the new movement. In 1989 I started a PhD at the State University of New York at Buffalo.” Hyaeweol describes the move as a blessing in disguise.
“Going to the US for my PhD was a very important turning point for me intellectually and personally. It allowed me to see Korea from a totally different perspective,” she explains. “And as a foreign student in the US, I had contact with people from all over the planet. This turned out to be one of the most important experiences in my life, in terms of shaping my identity as a scholar and as a person.”
But, Hyaeweol’s road to scholarly success was inspired much earlier – it was her mother, who Hyaeweol describes as her life-long hero, who mentored her potential from a young age.
“I remember when I was in middle school my mum began calling me ‘Professor Choi,’ always with a big smile on her face. Maybe she thought it was some kind of dream to think that her daughter would become a professor someday, but here I am,” says Hyaeweol.
“In a way my mum was a very traditional housewife, wholly devoted to family, husband and children. But, from my childhood she instilled in me the idea that women should be highly educated, have careers and never give up on goals and aspirations. She was probably the best, most relentless supporter of everything I have done in life.”
Hyaeweol also counts her husband of 18 years as a close-run second in terms of life-long support. “Before I met him, honestly I never expected to meet someone who could be so understanding, supportive, and loving. Without his love and sacrifice and the small happiness we share in our daily routine, my life and career would have been quite different.
“Both my mum and my husband have nurtured me on a daily basis and I am really appreciative of the faith they have shown me.”
After completing her PhD, Hyaeweol held academic positions in Korean studies at the University of Kansas, Smith College and Arizona State University. While teaching at Smith College Hyaeweol totally changed her research agenda. A chance encounter with the dusty pages of history would help rewrite her future.
“Before then, my research focused on the production and distribution of knowledge in an uneven global economic system. While I was always interested in women and gender studies, I never really had the chance to focus my research on issues of women and gender.
“But, Smith College had this fabulous women’s history archive and that archive started to make an impact on me. That’s when my longstanding interest in gender and history really began to form the focus of my research.”
Sifting through the archive’s volumes Hyaeweol came into contact with what she considers to be some of the most important sources for understanding the experiences of women and their relationship with society and the world – their own voices. One of the first folders she randomly plucked from the shelf contained the correspondence and diaries of ordinary American women who had traveled to Asia. Hyaeweol was deeply moved by their sense of history.
“These women were recording what they observed. For example, they sent small pieces of cloth to show their family members the kind of textiles that people wore. You could certainly detect their sense of cultural superiority vis-à-vis the indigenous people they came into contact with, but you can also see how, over time, non-Western cultures had significant impact on these Western women.”
Hyaeweol says that by listening out for the echoes of the past she has been able to better connect with the people who are too often overlooked by society. She says that it is not only important for the way she carries out her research but also how she practices feminism.
“Throughout time women have conformed to dominant ideas but they’ve also resisted and sometimes appropriated dominant ideology to their advantage. There is interplay between conformity and resistance and it’s always going back and forth. That’s how we move and how history is moving.”
For Hyaeweol leadership is also critical to the way she practices feminism. Even though she admits that we’ve come some way in issues of gender equality, having more women in leadership roles is essential if we are going to get much further.
“My version of feminism, rather than talking and talking (talking is of course important!), is to show by action. So I think it’s important to have women academics in leadership roles and positions at universities.” It’s what Hyaeweol calls substance-based action and it’s something she’s always applied to her career.
Hyaeweol believes she has been extremely lucky in her career but she has also managed to get where she is today by realising her professional limitations and working to overcome them. She has also had to deal with society’s limitations: “because we don’t live in a perfect world,” she says, there have been instances where she has encountered racial and gender prejudice.
“We may not see explicitly offensive slurs, but there is – unintended or almost unconscious – an expression of things that could be quite offensive to women, sexual minorities, non-native speakers of English or people who are not white. Also, there is some institutionalised discrimination that may not be overt, yet the institution still bears the weight of past practice. It takes time to change and really make the system more open to others.
“I think people like me who actually experience this on a regular basis probably need to speak up and see how we could improve the situation.”
Hyaeweol will have opportunities to show leadership through action in her role as the director of the ANU Korea Institute. Through her work Hyaeweol wants to build bridges between Australia and Korea as well as educate citizens and leaders of the future. “I am greatly honoured to hold this position to help further develop Korean studies at ANU and in Australia as well as regionally and globally.
“One of my roles is to facilitate connections between scholars looking at Korea across all disciplines. I think Australia, and ANU especially, has a strategic position to do Korean or Asian studies differently. I think this physical, geographical and temporal proximity to Asia is one of our strengths.
“I also think it is very important to inspire the next generation through education; they will be the ones leading tomorrow. We need to keep building Asia-literacy and I hope to help enhance this through education, collaboration and through the exchange of people and ideas with Asia.”
Hyaeweol will use a five-year grant worth $900,000 from the Academy of Korean Studies to help facilitate this exchange of people and ideas through projects that will also build academic and cultural ties with Korea and other Asian countries.
These ties are also a permanent fixture in Hyaeweol’s personal life. Although she has lived overseas for a long time, she still primarily identifies herself as Korean.
“When I told my family in Korea that I was likely to pursue a career in the US, they were very sad. Fortunately, I need to do archival work in Korea, so I visit regularly. The idea of being away from ‘home’ is interesting. Having lived in foreign countries for so long, I tend to feel home is where my work is, where my friends are, where my daily routine is.”
And even though Hyaeweol still finds herself half a world away from the place she thought she would never leave, one thing hasn’t changed from her time as a young scholar pushing the boundaries in South Korea – her commitment to bringing the overlooked and excluded back in from the cold.
“I’ve realised that I’ve always been interested in minorities, people on the margin, or people who are somehow excluded or not treated well.
“It’s also something that relates to my personal experiences, particularly when I was studying at college in South Korea. I would ask why wasn’t I treated as fairly as the male students were in the college, or why professors asked me when I was going to marry rather than what my career plan was.”
The world is lucky that Hyaeweol stuck to her plans; for no matter which shore she may find herself on, she will undoubtedly leave her mark.