LOS ANGELES -- A Volvo Trucks commercial featuring actor Jean-Claude Van Damme doing the splits, stretching his legs between two reversing trucks with Enya’s “Only Time” playing in the background, is shown to a classroom full of nearly 100 undergraduates at UCLA.
Professor Ju Hui Judy Han asks the students what are the first words that come to their minds as they watch the clip. Some say “masculinity” while others mention “physical ability,” “control,” “power” and “engineering perfection.”
After the Gender Studies 102 class on power, professor Han shared with The Korea Herald that later in the course, which focuses on feminist theories on power and mobility, she plans to lecture on women taken as sex slaves by Imperial Japan, the decriminalization of abortion in South Korea, the history of the adoption of Korean children, Korean women’s participation in protests and LGBTQ+ activism in Korea.
“I consider myself a Korean studies scholar,” she said at her office on the UCLA campus, explaining her teaching approach that combines Korean and global topics within a broader perspective.
Rich program, but few job opportunities
While Korean language, literature, culture, civilization, history, philosophy and religion are taught by faculty of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA, professors of other academic disciplines such as gender studies, theater, film and television, anthropology, Asian American studies and ethnomusicology also offer courses on Korea or share examples and stories from Korea in class.
Among US universities, UCLA has the largest faculty teaching Korean studies -- 11 core faculty, four affiliated faculty and five Korean language lecturers -- according to professor Namhee Lee, the director of the UCLA Center for Korean Studies who teaches modern Korean history.
“It is the only university in the US that has courses on premodern history and literature, as well as modern literature and history,” she explained.
While the number of students majoring in Korean studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures is only around 20 a year, thousands of UCLA students take courses centered on Korea, including Korean language classes every year.
Since 1983, UCLA has signed academic exchange deals with more than 10 Korean institutions of education, under which diverse interdisciplinary research projects with Korean universities have been completed.
“As our university has the Center for Korean Studies, we have actively engaged in exchanges with Korean universities including the exchange of graduate students with Yonsei University and graduate student workshops with the University of Tubingen,” Lee said.
“We have always placed much value on scholarship in Korea. Students who can read Hangeul are encouraged to keep track of research done in Korea. This has been systematically possible at UCLA because we have the CKS.”
Students seem to find Korean history fascinating because the country achieved rapid economic development, known as the “Miracle on the Han River,” and democratization at the same time, while enduring many hardships, according to Lee, who has researched and written extensively about South Korea’s grassroots democracy movements.
“They are amazed and moved by the fact that Koreans fought so hard for such a long time. I felt that especially when I visited South America,” she said.
While the demand for and the size of Korean studies have shown exponential growth, the biggest challenge for Korean studies is that graduate-level scholarship in the academic discipline does not lead to ample job opportunities, according to Lee.
There are relatively more teaching job opportunities in literature, which can branch out to film or cultural studies, but the field of history is less flexible, she said.
At UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, professor Suk-young Kim teaches an online course titled “K-pop: Gender, Race and Sexuality in Globalizing Asian Media.”
“When you go to K-pop concerts or conventions in the US, you see a lot of women, gender-fluid people, people who feel like they don’t fit into mainstream culture. I see it as a very significant aspect of why K-pop thrives in the US,” Kim said.
“As someone living in Southern California, which is one of the most politically liberal regions in the US, K-pop has really provided a forum for people who feel like they’re not a perfect fit in mainstream white American society.”
Kim thinks the global popularity of K-pop is going to last longer than a lot of skeptics think, for two reasons.
“The first is nowhere do we see such systematic and massive output of music. So much is being pumped out,” she said.
“And although K-pop fandom is multigenerational, including much older people, it’s mostly targeting young consumers. Whatever is consumed in the late teens and 20s stays with us forever. It has a staining effect.”
She mentioned how K-pop fandoms now include children under the age of 10.
Her class also talks through various cultural nuances associated with K-pop, such as the gender expression of idols, multiracial performance of K-pop and "gender baiting" in the industry.
“Now that so many non-ethnic Koreans are entering the industry, what does this multicultural, multiracial performance mean for global fans? There’s heated debate at least in the US about potentially taking away visibility or chances for Asian American performers to rise to the top,” she said.
“From an American perspective, if we were to allow white performers to be K-pop performers, there’s certain kind of criticism and anxiety from the Asian American community. Top idols’ stardom and visibility are privilege, and a lot of Asian Americans feel that white performers should not take that away from them.”
Also, many East Asian fans expect K-pop idols to look East Asian, she said, adding that there are multiple layers of racism and colorism involved.
Kim always tells her students that if they want to understand pop culture, they have to be erudite in history, language, politics and society.
The reason K-pop was able to emerge out of Korea was because as it transitioned from military dictatorship to a democratized civil society, freedom of expression, freedom of travel and intense market competition contributed to a rich talent pool, she assessed.
“Without that context, you cannot expect it to exist the way it exists today. ... I’m trying to translate students’ interest in Korean culture into an interest in broader Korean studies,” she said.
Interdisciplinary and community-engaging
Han is among those seeking to broaden the notion of Korean studies to include studying Korea as part of an interdisciplinary and community-engaged curriculum in gender studies and ethnic studies.
Even students who are not already interested in Korean studies find what is happening in Korea engaging once they learn about it, according to Han.
Of the 35 students who took Han’s “Feminist Politics in Korea and the Korean Diaspora” course in the spring, for instance, only three were Korean American, with the rest of various other ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
“What I found really interesting was that a lot of the students found stories from Korea relatable. Of course, they know that it’s Korea, but a lot of it was about connecting. They were like, ‘that reminds me of what my parents say’ but they’re not Korean, or ‘that sounds like something that happens in India, but in a slightly different way,’” Han said.
“I just realize how gratifying it is as an educator when students recognize similarities as much as they recognize differences.”
Korean studies professors across different academic disciplines, including Lee and Han, are actively looking for more opportunities to collaborate.
Han also said that overseas Koreans are often neglected in Korean studies in Korea, adding that she thinks Korean studies should be conceptualized broadly and transnationally to include the diaspora in many parts of the world.
“For academics in Korea, Korean studies is their profession, their career. Whereas for some of us, Korean studies is about our family history, and it's really also about our identity. It's about who we are and finding (our) place in it. So I think the stakes can be different,” she said.
In addition to her gender studies class, Han is wrapping up research on protest cultures in Korea, and is working on a decolonial tour guide to Korea.
“Korean Studies Beyond Korea” explores the current landscape of Korean studies through interviews, in-depth analyses and on-the-ground stories told from diverse world areas. Funded by the Korea Press Foundation, this series delves into the challenges and opportunities facing the field as Korea's rise as a cultural powerhouse has drawn interest from scholars, researchers and leaders from around the globe. – Ed.