An endowed chair professor of Korean studies offers some key insights on how listening to the past can help women rewrite the future.
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 Choi. “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. That’s when I started to consider studying in Germany, Canada, Australia or the US, and in 1989 I ended up starting a PhD at the State University of New York at Buffalo.”
After completing her PhD, Choi held academic positions in Korean studies at the University of Kansas, Smith College and Arizona State University. Casting her eyes back to that time, Choi reflects that it was while she was teaching at Smith College that she 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 Choi started to come 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. Choi recalls she 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.”
Choi 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.
“And I think this definitely applies to prevailing ideas of what is an ideal woman or what is an ideal man. But when we live, we don’t live to certain norms only. There is always deviation; there is always a challenge and resistance. So as a scholar and a feminist I’m very much interested in the interplay between dominant ideology and the experiences of everyday life.”
According to Choi, 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 means that women are able to participate in important decision making as well as help shape the directions of research, education and the university.”
It’s what Choi calls substance-based action and it’s something she’s always applied to her career. Choi is the first to admit that she has been extremely lucky in her career. But, she has also managed to get where she is today by realising her own limitations and working hard to overcome them.
Choi will have opportunities to show leadership through action in her other important role at ANU as the director of the University’s Korea Institute. Through her work Choi wants to build bridges between Australia and Korea as well as educate citizens and leaders of the future.
“I think it is incredibly important to have positions like the ANU-Korea Foundation professorship and bodies like the ANU Korea Institute in order to really envision a new direction in Korean studies. So 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.
“As the director of the Korea Institute 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. We are also close to Southeast Asia, which to me is another major strategic point we could take advantage of.
“I also think it is very important to inspire the next generation through education; because they will be the ones who are 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.”
Choi will use a five-year grant worth $900,000 from the Academy of Korean Studies to help facilitate this exchange of people and ideas. Along with her collaborating colleagues, she is directing a project focusing on transnational humanities research and teaching in the field of Korean studies. The project will also build academic and cultural ties with Korea, as well as other Asian countries.
And even though Choi 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. And I think gender is one of those areas [where we see that happening].
“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 did professors ask me when I was going to marry rather than what my career plan was.”
The world is lucky that Choi stuck to her plans; for no matter which shore she may find herself on, she will undoubtedly leave her mark.
Professor Hyaeweol Choi is the ANU-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and the director of the Korea Institute in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Her latest books include Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea: New Women, Old Ways, published by the University of California Press in 2009, and New Women in Colonial Korea, published by Routledge in July 2012.
This is an edited version of a longer article written for the ANU Gender Institute’s Inspiring Women series.