Toward a Pan-American School of Things Korean

Toward a Pan-American School of Things Korean

The class of winter 2009 includes, from left, Andres Weskamp, Natalia Droguett, Priscila Lee, Gerardo Ramirez, Victor Olea, Uilian Dias, Agostina Cacault, and Sebastian Mujica. (Photo by He-Shin Kim)

Now in its third year, the Korean Studies in the Americas program brings students to UCLA from four Latin American countries, supports collaboration among faculty, and sends American Koreanist scholars north and south for lectures. Funded by the Seoul-based Academy of Korean Studies, the UCLA-administered program has begun to snowball, attracting interest in the form of travel grants for Latin American students and faculty members visiting Korea and the United States.

We get to see not only the interactions of Koreans but how they develop these interactions in a foreign land.

Like most of the Latin Americans who spent this winter quarter studying Korea at UCLA, Natalia Droguett of Chile and Andres Weskamp of Argentina have never been to the Korean peninsula.

They'll be prepared when and if they go, having benefitted from two regions' differing expertise on Korea. About eight students now arrive at UCLA each winter from Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico, on full scholarships paid for by the Seoul-based Academy of Korean Studies. Administered by the UCLA Center for Korean Studies (CKS), the five-year grant from the academy, worth nearly $1 million, also supports ambitious collaborative research projects and faculty exchanges within the Americas. In the winter of 2008, for example, UCLA brought Jorge Rafael Di Masi from Argentina's Universidad Nacional de La Plata to teach courses on the South Korean economy.

Since it launched in 2006, the Korean Studies in the Americas program has also inspired parallel efforts, including travel grants from the U.S.-based Association of Asian Studies that will bring Korean specialists from Latin America to the association's annual conference later this month in Chicago and from there to UCLA and other campuses for lectures. Last year, four members of the first cohort of Latin American students in the CKS program won grants to visit South Korea and began a series of documentary films there.

"Success, in my view, would be if some of the students that we're teaching can develop into important scholars of Korea and East Asia" in Latin America, says CKS Director John Duncan, "and especially if they develop some strength in the humanities."

Duncan, a historian, explains that Korea scholars in the Americas are distributed in a very curious way. In the United States they are humanists, with very few exceptions; south of the border and throughout South America, by contrast, university specialists on Korea are nearly always social scientists such as economists and experts on international relations. Even UCLA, possibly the finest Korean studies program outside of Asia, has just one Koreanist geographer and one anthropologist in the social sciences column. To form a comprehensive School of the Koreas in this hemisphere, it appears, you'd need scholars from North and South America.

This is why it makes sense to ask Anthropology Professor Kyeyoung Park to lead seven scholars from the same four countries—"A, B, C and Mexico"—in a research project on Korean migration that is to culminate in a conference this July 14 at the University of Buenos Aires. Also under the five-year grant, Professor Duncan and UCLA Buddhist Studies Director Robert Buswell lectured at 11 South American universities on a tour last May. Duncan gave additional lectures on a 10-day summer trip to Mexico. Meanwhile, Latin American faculty and students have written research papers in English, Portuguese and Spanish, all related to the Korean peninsula, with several bearing on Korean foreign policy towards or economic interests in Latin America. South Korea has substantial trading relationships on the Latin American Pacific that are growing faster since a Korea-Chile bilateral trade agreement went into effect in 2004.

Se Habla Korean, Too

The North-South divide in American scholarship on the Koreas also accounts for the ease with which students such as Droguett and Weskamp find UCLA courses that aren't offered at their home institutions, a requirement of the CKS-run program. This quarter, both students signed up for Duncan's history course, an introduction to modern Korean thought taught by Sung-Deuk Oak, and Professor Timothy Tangherlini's "Popular and Folk Religion in Korea."

For Tangherlini's course, which deals with varieties of Korean religious practice, Droguett and Weskamp visited a Buddhist temple in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Outside, they observed a cluster of people that included Korean-speakers and Spanish-speaking churchgoers. Tangherlini tells his students that local Buddhists may be suspicious of outsiders conducting interviews, so Droguett and Weskamp were pleasantly surprised to receive a monk's invitation to lunch. Elsewhere, they saw strip mall signs in Korean that also advertised, "Se habla español."

"It adds another point of view, because we are from a whole different culture," says Droguett of the fieldwork by South Americans in L.A. "We get to see not only the interactions of Koreans but how they develop these interactions in a foreign land."

Droguett and Weskamp have contacts in their own countries with members of Korean immigrant communities. Indeed, the first generation of Koreanist scholarship in South America was propelled by Korean migration beginning in the 1960s, and some of the students visiting UCLA from Latin America are Korean by birth or heritage. Some 50,000 ethnic Koreans call Brazil home.

In many ways, Latin American students' reasons for getting interested in Korea resemble those of U.S. students. Droguett, an advanced undergraduate at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile, says she's been following South Korean drama and pop singers for about four years, while beginning to learn the language. For Weskamp, a graduate student in international relations at Argentina's Universidad Nacional de Rosario, the Korean peninsula is fascinating as a "hotspot for the main powers of the world." He's broadly interested in East Asian political and security issues.

Both say that their Latin American peers want to build business ties with South Korea, which means learning about its culture, and also to understand the country's economic success in recent decades.

“What’s going on in South Korea? How did they make it?" says Weskamp.

"Because we haven't been able to make it," Droguett adds. "It's been a lot harder for us. Maybe looking at Korea and seeing it as an example will help our countries to go a little bit further."

Published: Wednesday, March 18, 2009