Meet the New AAS Vice President: Hyaeweol Choi

Photo of Hyaeweol Choi

Hyaeweol Choi is chair of the Department of Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies, Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, and Stanley Family and Korea Foundation Chair in Korean Studies at the University of Iowa. Professor Choi is also the founding director of the Korean Studies Research Network (KoRN). She will take office as AAS vice president following the 2023 Annual Conference in March.

I am supposed to introduce myself in this space. I have been thinking about what is the best way to do that. I could describe myself as a Koreanist with research interests in the areas of gender, empire, modernity, religion, food and body, and transnational history. That captures the basic facts, but I think that you may get to know me better if I were to recount some of the details of my intellectual journey in which serendipitous encounters with ideas, people, institutions, or a particular set of circumstances inspired me to explore new perspectives and to carve out my own scholarly interests and identity.

The most singularly important influence in my life was my mother. At a time and in a culture where women often did not have a voice, she “indoctrinated” me to claim mine. She believed that women should be highly educated, have careers, and be independent. She suggested to me that I pursue teaching, which to her mind was the best profession for women. She reasoned that there tended to be less discrimination against women in teaching, plus summer and winter breaks would make it easier to raise children. To her delight, I embraced the idea. I still remember her chuckling at me as I lectured my “students” (pillows) arranged around me (“Listen to Choi Seonsaengnim!”).

My childhood dream got complicated when I entered college in the early 1980s. At that time South Korea was under a military dictatorship. Student protests were a significant part of campus life, and working as a reporter for the campus newspaper transformed my intellectual outlook. To better understand the complex historical context and political/economic structures affecting Korean society and the world, we read a wide range of books in humanities and social sciences as part of our extracurricular activities. Those readings and our heated discussions were often directed at the issues we were facing, such as the undemocratic political system, economic disparity, and the division of the nation. We did not use terms like interdisciplinarity, but that was what my peers and I were engaged in. In retrospect, this type of theme- and issue-oriented reading and writing practice, rather than a specific disciplinary approach, had a lasting impact on my intellectual orientation.

Another major influence from that time was a deep commitment to decolonizing the knowledge system that had been shaped by colonial and neo-colonial histories. In particular, my work experience at the Institute for Korean Historical Studies (Yeoksa munje yeonguso), which was part of the broadly termed “scholarly movement” (haksul undong) among the younger generation, gave me the opportunity to engage in the exploration of what might be done to bypass theories centered on Euro-American societies and to create an indigenous knowledge system rooted in a deep understanding of Korean history and society. To foster the development of indigenous knowledge, students of my generation were encouraged to study at home to cultivate the intellectual infrastructure in Korea and to avoid perpetuating the uneven system of knowledge production and distribution.

Given that background, many of my colleagues were surprised when I decided to get my doctorate in the U.S. Although I did travel to the old center of knowledge to do my Ph.D., my focus remained on the uneven global system of knowledge, drawing theoretical insights from world system theories and Third World perspectives. I had planned to return to Korea after earning my Ph.D. to continue that line of scholarly inquiry. However, my plans to return were derailed for various professional and personal reasons, a significant one being that the Korean academic community was unfriendly (to say it mildly) to women scholars.

The environment for women in U.S. academia may have been a little better, but at the beginning of my academic career in the U.S., I struggled. The field of Korean studies had only just begun to emerge as integral part of East Asian studies, and there were very few positions available. I thought myself to be fortunate to be offered visiting appointments, first at the University of Kansas (1994-1996), then at Smith College (1996-1998). After Smith, I got my first tenure-track position at Arizona State University in 1998. It was a great place to get started on an academic career. I had lots of support and encouragement from my colleagues there in building the Korean studies program in collaboration with other Asianists. It also taught me an enduring truth: sharing delicious food helps to create a vibrant intellectual community, and Asian studies programs host the best potluck dinners!

If I were to single out the most significant and happiest “accident” of my career that set me on a new direction of my research program, I would say it was a casual visit to the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History in the fall of 1996. I had no plan or goal. I just dropped in to see what might be there. What I found was a wealth of archival documents, many written in longhand, almost all faded and brittle with age—personal diaries, reports, and letters. I was intrigued by the voices of these women, many of whom had travelled overseas as missionaries, tourists, or journalists in the late nineteenth century. Their history came alive, and I was inspired to look more deeply into their stories. Specifically, I became interested in the impact that U.S. Protestant missionary work had on women’s history in modern Korea beginning in the late nineteenth century. A seemingly endless chain of questions that had rarely been explored from a feminist viewpoint came to my mind. When I began this study, I thought I might publish an article on the topic; ten years later that work had resulted in several articles and a book.

When preparing that book, I consulted a great many primary sources. I realized that primary sources on modern womanhood in Korea were only available in Korean, unlike in the fields of Chinese and Japanese studies, where many primary sources have good English translations available. That gap prompted me to launch a translation project focusing on the phenomena of “new women” and “modern girls” that were truly global with local/regional variations. My strong commitment to comparative and cross-regional perspectives brought me the great good fortune to work with scholars beyond Korean studies, co-authoring and co-editing books focusing on an integrated East Asian gender history.

In 2010 I was offered a position at the Australian National University. Relocating to Australia was another turning point in my intellectual journey. The sheer fact of relocating to the southern hemisphere and a region that has a fundamentally different relationship with Asia and the Pacific shifted my perspective, and it has given me opportunities to interact and work with a whole new slate of colleagues in East Asian, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Pacific studies. As the director of the Korea Institute at ANU, I made special efforts to collaborate with scholars of Asia and the Pacific. Numerous seminars and happy hours over meals and coffee led to productive, interdisciplinary, and cross-regional collaboration. One common thread through all those collaborations was the adoption of a transnational outlook that focuses on the flow of people, materials, and images across national borders. That outlook has enriched my research in investigating the ways in which transnational encounters played a role in shaping modern gender ideology, reforming domestic practices, and coming to grips with a sense of locality and the world.

My current project focuses on food and the life politics of domesticity in global Korea. In some ways it is a culmination, bringing together my longstanding commitment to interdisciplinary, intersectional, and transnational approaches to gender history and culture. Food is mundane, tangible, and corporeal. At the same time, food is deeply embedded in broader socioeconomic, political, cultural, and environmental contexts. Ultimately, the project is an inquiry into ethical living, taking cues from food in understanding the ever-more interconnected world. I am particularly interested in bringing to light lesser-known historical figures—mothers, nuns, housewives, adoptees, street vendors, local farmers, and community organizers—whose lives, identities, and politics help us rethink, rename, and revalue existing perspectives on gender, race, class, power, and nature.

Throughout this long journey, the Association for Asian Studies has been my most important scholarly platform. It has nurtured and inspired me with numerous opportunities to share research findings, build networks, and collaborate with colleagues and students. I have had the privilege to serve AAS as a member in the Northeast Asia Council, Council of Conferences, Committee on Korean Studies, the Journal of Asian Studies, and the Annual Conference Program Committee, as well as book award committees. I am truly excited to work closely with the members of AAS as part of the presidential leadership team.

I think that this particular historical moment poses numerous challenges but also presents exciting new possibilities for scholars of Asia. As we move forward, there are a few specific themes I would like to focus on. First, while continuing the traditional vigor in country-specific research, I would like to foster inter-area, transnational, and diasporic studies by cultivating active collaboration not only between traditional areas of focus in the humanities and social sciences but also in natural, medical, and environmental sciences. Second, AAS has become a truly global society. Building on its existing global networks, I would like to link AAS to academic communities in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, Oceania, and Europe. Third, as a strong believer in mentoring, I want to strengthen various programs that support the younger generation of scholars. Fourth, diversity reveals structural inequalities of gender, race, class, and others; at the same time, it can help us generate new perspectives and institute empowering practices. In close collaboration with the Diversity and Equity Committee, I will strive to engage with a broad range of scholars and students to foster AAS as a safe, equitable, and inspiring scholarly society. Finally, in response to a growing demand for timely and relevant scholarship on the critically important issues of our time, I will work to cultivate creative and responsible engagement with issues of the day for the public good.

I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to serve as the next vice president of AAS. I think I am a good listener. I would love to hear from you if you have suggestions or proposals that AAS should consider. I very much look forward to thinking together and working with you to advance the AAS.