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Through the anthropologist lens: Interview with Professor Kyung Hyo Chun

Professor Kyung Hyo Chun (Ph.D. in Anthropology) is the new faculty member in the Department of Korea Studies, joining us this Spring semester. Since her bachelor’s degree at Seoul National University, she has studied anthropology (Master’s at George Washington University, USA and Ph.D at University of British Columbia, Canada) respectively. She described herself as a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in contemporary Korean society and culture. Her research interests are around post-colonialism and nationalism, museum representation, and the politics of memory commemoration. 

“Recently, I’ve been engaging in the studies of North Korean defectors, mostly about their adaptation to South Korean society, the problem of their adaptation, and also their social integration into mainstream Korean society.”

Through this interview, you will learn more about our new professor’s academic perspective as an anthropologist, the courses she is teaching and planning to teach, and also career advice for young scholars!

Prof. Kyung Hyo Chun

You have taught in many institutions in Korea. How are those teaching experiences? and why did you choose to come to Ewha GSIS?

Yes, I’ve been teaching in a lot of academic institutions actually. But the best part of my past experiences is that now I have met a lot of students with different backgrounds. Not just have different nationalities, but their interests are different and their dreams are different. So, meeting all of them is actually a very fortunate event for me. And also, working with these young students with different backgrounds actually enabled me to learn something like the young people’s language, their interests, and also their ways of looking at worlds. So, yeah, I think the greatest part of education is mutual learning from each other. That’s about my past teaching experiences.

I think the greatest part of education is mutual learning from each other.

I actually taught at Ewha, but not at GSIS. I worked as a seasonal faculty for this international summer college during the summer. It was a long time ago. That was like the first time I actually taught something at Ewha and I got a lot of fond memories from there. At least I understood that Ewha really cares about each individual student. So, I always had these fond memories of Ewha. Then, they had job postings last winter and last fall. I thought it was a really great opportunity for me. And luckily, I found myself here.

What courses are you offering at Ewha GSIS? What are the special aspects of these courses?

This semester I taught one undergraduate course at Scranton Global Korean Studies major. The title is social sociological topics in contemporary Korean society, taught in English. And also I’m teaching a graduate course at GSIS, ‘seminar in Korean contemporary Korean culture’. At Ewha, they don’t have an anthropology department. Technically, they don’t have anthropological courses as a regular curriculum. So, I use these courses as a way of introducing students to the basics of anthropological theories and concepts, which I think is very useful to understand certain societies and culture.

I’m thinking about teaching some food culture of Korean society, both undergraduate level and graduate level. Everybody has to eat on a daily basis, and there’s this expression that “you are what you eat.” So, this food culture is a very interesting topic, not just about a list of food or cuisine. We’ll look into the process of how certain food items are categorized into edible things or certain processing ways are considered ‘authentic.’ When it comes to making recipes or something, we can cover a lot of interesting parts in that course.

This reminds me of the recent controversy about kimchi in the Korean historical drama.

Yeah. Yeah. Actually, that’s a big part. I studied nationalism. So, that is a combination of the nationalistic sentiment and food culture. It’s a heated topic, especially online. Looking at how people react in their own way. Some people make their own YouTube program, making authentic Korean food or Chinese food and people react to that. It is not just about the food itself, but it’s about media, IT, technology, and also nationalism. All things are combined to generate this kind of phenomena.

Looking back to the beginning of your academic career path, why did you choose to study about nationalism and anthropology?

Anthropology is basically a discipline about human beings. So, it’s a very broad discipline. I was attracted to that part. Almost any human aspect, be it mental or behavioral, social, cultural, everything is included in this anthropology. You can study anything. That was the major point I went to the department of anthropology for my undergraduate. And then while I continued my graduate studies, I had to choose the topics. Then, anthropology is quite a recent, very young discipline. It came into being with the advance of imperialism and colonialism. So, traditionally, anthropologists were interested in other people’s cultures. Usually, these white and European-based people studied non-Western non-European people’s culture, and they wrote something about it, which we call ethnography.

After a certain time there’s a reaction to why these so-called ‘the third world’ people should be written by the ‘first world’ scholars, or the white scholars. So, It is with the subaltern studies that then we have this category of native anthropology. It’s basically you are studying your own people and your own culture. And I found it really interesting and attractive, and it’s actually much better than always studying other people’s culture. I have some level of skepticism of understanding other people’s culture perfectly, even though you study their language for three years and you spend two years with them, there are limitations. So, I chose to study my own culture. I was born and raised in Korea. So, maybe I can look at Korean society and culture with some pros compared to foreigners. That’s why I turned to Korean society and culture as the subject of my study. And I have to say that is just not always easy. People think if you are doing native anthropology, then you don’t have any language problems, right? This is your mother language. Then you can spare some time in learning new languages and I believe that too. But when I started my fieldwork here, then I learned that that’s not always the case. Because it’s my mother language. Sometimes I hear… too much.

People think if you are doing native anthropology, then you don’t have any language problems, right? … I learned that that’s not always the case.

If I’m just a foreigner, then I will just catch the surface values of the language. But because it’s my mother language I can even read and hear in-between hidden meanings. There is actually more content for me to analyze. It might be a good thing, but not always an easy thing to study your own culture with your own language. And another point is that people usually prefer to have foreign scholars to study them. They are more cooperative with foreigners. They might think they have more authority. If there are some white male professors from the States or the UK, they ask questions about Korean culture to these Korean people. They are eager to answer them. Sometimes they are eager to please them. But when I asked them some questions about Korean culture, they were skeptical about me. “Why do you ask me these questions? You’re Korean so you should know better.” So, I had a hard time dealing with people’s perceptions or barriers when it comes to doing this native anthropology. But still, I think it is meaningful to study your own culture. And I strongly believe that there should be someone who can speak negative things about their own culture as well. Not always, but if there are some negative points, then someone needs to speak out about that.

If Koreans study about their own culture, does that mean they are nationalistic?

No, no, that shouldn’t be. Some people think studying Korean thing, then it should be nationalistic. You should always be proud of them. But I have different ideas. That’s one thing you should avoid. If you’re a professional scholar, you don’t have to be always skeptical and negative towards your own culture, but you should be careful in examining and exploring your own culture and be professional.

You meet both Korean students and international students. Do you see any differences?

There are some different patterns observed among Korean students and foreign students. But I think nowadays, even Korean students, the young students, many of them have experiences of spending time abroad or they spend a lot of time online to learn about other parts of the world. So, nowadays the line between these two groups of students is blurry. There are still some Korean people who believe that, as you pointed out, if you are doing Korean studies, it should be about making your country proud. Another thing about foreign students is that, especially in recent years many of them came to Korea because they found this Hallyu very appealing to them. So, their research focuses or interests are centered around this Hallyu or media pop culture. I think what is needed is to expand the landscape of their interests, because Korean society is not only about Hallyu. It’s a very recent phenomenon and it’s not just about knowing some names of idol groups. If you’re into this Hallyu culture, then you have to understand the historical context of Korea’s global location and its relationship with its East Asian neighboring countries as well.

Your master’s and PhD research are about museums and nationalism. Could you explain it a bit?

The reason I got into museums is that actually a lot of people visit museums, right? Especially when you’re traveling to foreign cities, then you think you must visit. Louvre in Paris, a MoMA in New York, metropolitan New York the British museum in London. It’s like a must-visit list that a lot of people actually find museums boring and very static, silent places, so they just visit, but they do not get anything out of it. That’s my kind of observation. I think museums are quite dynamic places. Even though all of these objects and displayed data speak to you in languages, or verbally, behind the scenes, there is a very dynamic processes, not just between these curators, but what we see from this glass boxes of museums are actually a product of a lot of negotiation and contestation among different groups of people. Sometimes it’s the audience, the government, and also the curatorial group or the professionals. That’s the reason I got into this museum business.

Glass boxes of museums are actually a product of a lot of negotiation and contestation among different groups of people.

When I studied Korean museums, I found that it’s really hard to separate museums from nationalist sentiment, especially in Korea. It might be a general trend found in any nation-states. But in Korea, it is very strong. So, I took up the concept of ISA (Ideological State Apparatus). Basically, people are thinking very naively of a museum that it is like a cultural institution. You can learn about culture and history from there. But it’s just one version you can see there. And usually it’s a state’s version. I just wanted to go deep into that to reveal what was actually going on behind the scenes. That’s why I’m studying museums and nationalism. And these days there are lots of small exhibits as well. Not just about the government, other interest groups, they are doing their own things with all these exhibits and special exhibitions under the name of culture and entertainment. So, I think I’ll continue to look into all these different exhibits in the future as well.

Can I say that now your research interests are both about museums and North Korean defectors?

Not just museums. I use the term “commemoration,” how to make certain memories out of that. We can think of all these so-called traditional things about Korean culture. Actually, it is made into traditional things by some group of people. There’s nothing innate about it being traditional. Many of the so-called traditional Korean cultures are late Choson period culture, and its elite people’s culture. Korean people and also foreigners assume that it’s authentic traditional Korean culture. My interests with museums can be expanded to all these parts as well, such as the authenticity of tradition or the re-interpretation of tradition.

And also, the other part is North Korean defectors. I study the adaptation process of them, but it’s not about making their adaptations successful. I am more interested in expanding the boundary of North Korean defectors studies. So, we shouldn’t just study how to promote their adaptation here. Because, actually, you can find a lot of North Korean defectors outside Korea as well. They have their ethnic enclave in London and other parts of the European cities. We need to look at them from a transnational perspective, not just confined with this adaptation perspective within South Korea.

So your research does not aim to promote assimilation…

No! Never! (laugh) I think Korean society should be diversified as much as possible. Because we are living in a very small country and there are so many people, so the peer pressure is so high here. People think we should dream the same dream as a Korean national. …No, I don’t believe that. 

People think we should dream the same dream as a Korean national. …No, I don’t believe that.

And also, I don’t think North Korean people’s assimilation is even possible nor positive for Korean society. It’s not good for Korea. They have their own kind of background and experiences. Assimilation is usually unilateral, one directional. But what we should have is a mutual understanding, because we didn’t know about each other that much. South Koreans don’t know about North Korean people other than the media portrayal, and also North Korean defectors have their own stereotypical images towards the South Korean people. So, what we need is actually spending time and sharing life with each other more often. But still, the number of defectors here is very small, compared to the entire population. But I believe that if the number of North Korean defectors in South Korea is increasing, there will be more younger generations growing up here.

Do you have any advice for young graduates and researchers?

I’m not sure if I’m in the right position to give advice to anybody. I’m still a junior scholar. But I’m reflecting on my past years and past experiences. What I learned now is that everybody has their own plan, and has their blueprints for their lives. But usually your life will not unfold that way. There’s no straight line to your dream or your plan. Usually, the majority of things in life will happen against your plan. Sometimes you have to take detours. Or sometimes, the path will be very wobbly. What I learned is that even under that kind of not so positive, idealistic circumstances still, you can get something out of it. You are supposed to do something, but you need to do something for your life. All these works and all these new people and new experiences, even though you don’t like them right now, they will add up to make who you are in the future. And I think that can make your life more full. For my experiences, I spent some time with the institute majoring in North Korean studies. Before joining them, North Korean studies was not my thing. I was into nationalism, but not really of the North Korean defectors. But for work, I had to do that kind of research there. And then after 4-5 years, I found out that actually all these experiences are good for me. I can expand my research interests and I can expand my specialty. Have a long perspective. That’s my advice.

Do you have anything to say to Ewha students?

I think two things are very important either if you’re a scholar or a student. And I always emphasize that to my students, that they have to read the context. If there are some social or cultural events, you have to examine the context critically. You cannot just look at this finalized version and make a judgment on that. In cultural anthropologists, we have this concept of cultural relativism. So, basically, it means that you have to understand a certain culture from the native’s point of view or the insider’s perspective. Even though something looks very weird and irrational, sometimes, if you look into their historical and cultural context, then you can understand. Even if you don’t agree with them, you can understand why they’re behaving like that, why they are doing something like that. So critical thinking and contextual understanding are very important in doing your own study and also for your own life.


Published by Khing Amatyakul

Thai, Working at SuperPlanet, IR grad from Ewha GSIS | @khingamat

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