In Memoriam: Dr. Sue-Je Lee Gage (1973-2020)

Photo courtesy of the family of Sue-Je Gage and used with permission.

Sue-Je L. Gage, a cultural anthropologist and pioneering scholar in the study of Amerasians in South Korea, passed away suddenly on May 10, 2020. She was an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Affiliated Faculty in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity and Women and Gender Studies at Ithaca College, where she had been teaching since 2008. She is survived by her mother, Myong Shin Land, her daughter, Sarah, sister Serina Mergulhao, and brother-in-law Richard, along with their children, and the children of her sister-in-law Ciara Gage and late brother Lt. Kim Lee Gage. Her brother, Jimmy Land, passed away in 2001, and her step-father, Retired Corporal and Korean War veteran James Land, passed away in 1998. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a remote memorial was held over Zoom on July 13, which would have been Sue-Je’s 47th birthday.

At Ithaca, Sue-Je was a beloved teacher and mentor, particularly for students of color and first-generation college students and an active member of the community, helping to found the Ithaca Pan-Asian American Film Festival. Among other distinguished roles, she was a President’s Fellow (2018-2019), served on the School of Humanities and Sciences Dean’s Advisory Council, was a faculty mentor for the Ithaca Firsts Mentor Program, and was the College’s first “Faculty Advocate” in 2019.

Sue-Je was born on July 13, 1973 in Garden Grove, California, and was raised in Indiana, where she attended Northwest High School and the University of Evansville, graduating with honors in 1995, with a B.A. in Sociology and Psychology. She was an English-language teaching fellow for the Fulbright IIE in South Korea in 1995-1996 and received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Indiana University in 2007. She was the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including those from the Fulbright Commission and the Korea Foundation, which funded her fieldwork in Seoul and military camptown areas of Tongduch’on and P’yeongt’aek. Her research on Korean Amerasians, or honhyŏl, was groundbreaking in its centering of Amerasian experiences and subjectivities. From the vantage point of “mixed-blood” Koreans’ social and cultural marginalization, Sue-Je focused a critical lens on South Korean myths of ethnic purity and racial homogeneity. Her dissertation, entitled, “Pure Mixed Blood: The Multiple Identities of Amerasians in South Korea” (Indiana University, 2007), provided the basis for subsequent publications that explore with eloquent nuance, ethnographic reflexivity, and theoretical acuity the legal, historical, structural, and affective dimensions of Korean Amerasian experience in the context of U.S. empire, transnational militarism, and postcolonial ethnonationalism in South Korea.

In conjunction with her work on Amerasians, she also conducted vital analysis of camptown life and the enduring effects of U.S. militarism in South Korea, in areas most South Koreans ignore as if they did not exist, or else dismiss as culturally “polluted.” Her ethnographic research and rare interviews with more than 50 U.S. soldiers across four U.S. military installations reveal how contemporary conjunctures of race, empire, globalization, and multiculturalism in military camptowns are producing new forms of difference and diversity. The local population now includes migrant workers from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Central Asia, while Filipina and Russian women now constitute the majority of sex workers. Meanwhile, the rank and file soldiers in the U.S. military now reflect more closely the demographics of the U.S., with larger numbers of Latinx and Asian Americans, as well as more women. These changed dynamics, however, do not fundamentally change the symbolic and structural conditions that reproduce the U.S. army as an institution of patriarchal whiteness, which associates nonwhites with “the enemy.” As she wrote in a 2013 essay, “Koreans and minority soldiers are, in essence, both victims and agents of the U.S. empire, despite globalization and ‘diversification,’ which have helped to reconfigure racial hierarchies while maintaining white masculine power” (2013: 147). Sue-Je had a superbly keen ethnographic eye and ear, and an ability to capture a scene and describe crystalline moments where material reality and feelingful presences combine to offer complex insights, in this case, that “link the human face with empire” (121).

Sue-Je was also actively participating in the formation of Asian American communities, locally in Ithaca and beyond. Her contribution to A Companion to Korean American Studies (2018) is an indispensable overview of “mixed Korean America,” and as such offers an important contribution to transnational Korean studies, Asian American studies, and the emerging field of Critical Mixed Race Studies. Recognized as a leading scholar by mixed-ethnic Koreans and Amerasians, she provided the forward for the first anthology of its kind, Mixed Korean: Our Stories (2018), and also worked closely with the U.S. not-for-profit, Me & Korea, which organizes tours to Korea for Korean Amerasians and has held regular conferences since 2015 on the history of camptowns and mixed Korean American experiences.

Sue-je’s intellectual and ethical commitments are articulated movingly in a 2012 essay, “Ashwiwŏ hada: Feeling the Want of Something More,” which describes ethnographic research with the Amerasian Christian Academy and the Sunlit Sisters’ Center, a community center for elderly women, many of whom once worked in the militarized sex industry for U.S. soldiers in nearby Camp Humphries. Many had sent their children for adoption to the U.S., and they quickly “adopted” Sue-Je, an Amerasian Korean American, as a fictive daughter. Provoked by one of the women who expressed her desire to build an authentic sharing relationship and her frustration with Sue-Je’s emotional distance, the essay delicately explores the complex personal negotiations entailed in ethnographic fieldwork, which is founded in differences of power and privilege and requires of anthropologists a deep consideration of our relationships to the people that we study. She wrote, “I also feel the want of something more, the want to continue, to listen with my heart, to help in the ways that they want, to share with them, and to be a medium through which their lives can be known” (37). In all of her research, writing, and teaching, Sue-Je embodied this ethical attunement, through her open heart, sincere generosity, and compassionate attention. The radiance of her inner light, for those who were fortunate to feel its warmth, has made her unforgettable to so many friends, teachers, colleagues, and students.

—Eleana Kim
University of California, Irvine

Works by Sue-Je L. Gage

2007. “The Amerasian Problem: Blood, Duty, Race.” International Relations 21(1): 86-102.

2007. “Pure Mixed Blood: The Multiple Identities of Amerasians in South Korea,” Ph.D. Diss. Anthropology, Indiana University.

2012. “Ashwiwŏ hada: Feeling the Want of Something More.” Practicing Anthropology 34 (2): 35-38. URL: https://doi.org/10.17730/praa.34.2.h227q83011888641

2013. “We’re Never Off Duty”: Empire and the Economies of Race and Gender in the U.S. Military Camptowns of Korea. Cross-Currents: East Asia History and Culture Review. E-journal no. 6 (March). URL: http://cross-currents.berkeley.edu/e-journal/issue-6

2015. “Almost Korean: Korean Amerasians in an Era of Multiculturalism.” In Multiethnic Korea? Multiculturalism, Migration, and Peoplehood Diversity in Contemporary South Korea. John Lie, ed. Institute of East Asian Studies Publications.

2018. “Forward.” Mixed Korean: Our Stories. C. Kim, K. Kim, S. Kim-Russell and M-K. Arnold, eds. Truepeny Publishing Co.

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