2013

Interview with UBC Professor Dr. Donald Baker: Exploring South Korea’s Culture and History

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As a student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), I am privileged to study under experienced, knowledgeable, and renowned academics in fields such as Korean History and Asian Studies. During the Summer of 2013, I had the opportunity of attending a guest lecture by UBC Professor Dr. Donald Baker from the Department of Asian Studies.

From 1971 – 1974, Dr. Baker personally experienced life in several cities as a Peace Corps volunteer, particularly in the City of Gwangju; currently the sixth largest city in the Republic of Korea. Following his arrival, he had fallen in love with the local cuisine, culture, and history while living and working with Koreans.

Dr. Baker returned to South Korea in the 1980s, during a time of high tensions between the military ruled government and citizens all across the nation. He vividly recalls the atrocities that he witnessed against unarmed civilians and the people of Gwangju. The Gwangju Democratization Movement later paved way for democracy in South Korea. In 2002, a national cemetery and a day of commemoration (May 18) was established.

To this day, Dr. Baker makes frequent visits to the Republic of Korea for vacationing, meeting friends and family, and other professional activities. He is a member of the International Society for Korean Studies, which allows academics from North Korea, South Korea, and other nations a chance to meet at a neutral setting in Japan for mutual understanding.

As an academic, Dr. Baker approaches Korean History from a Western perspective, conducting research into topics such as how Korea, despite being situated among powerful countries, managed to maintain both a separate cultural and political identity. Presently, he is working on a research studying, Tasan Chong Yagong, a historic writer and philosopher, and the impact he had on Korean society. On this note, Dr. Baker is also interested in the influence of Christianity and Catholicism on Korea throughout history.

During his graduate studies, Dr. Baker taught English at Sogong University and was fascinated by the emphasis on memorization within the South Korean education system. Despite this, he was astonished, as “Korean students learned how to memorize, yet they come to North America and still know how to think.” This is from the general view that North American institutions educate students on how to think, in comparison to the South Korean education system where students are required to memorize a substantial amount of academic material.

Today, Dr. Baker has seen a shift within South Korean society from it being conservative during the 1970s until the 1990s, to recently becoming more liberal. During the 1970s, Dr. Baker stated that “Korean fathers carrying their children were rare”, whereas today it has become more common. He was also intrigued at how Koreans would be “willing” to do anything for their friends and vice versa.

He strongly believes that Canada and South Korea can both learn from each other through creating stronger relationships and by sharing perspectives on life and culture. Due to this, he recommends for any Canadian, particularly students, to travel in South Korea to experience the local culture and tradition.

Dr. Donald Baker was born in the United States of America and immigrated to Canada in 1987. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gwangju, South Korea, where he learned the local Korean dialect. He received his Ph.D in Korean History from the University of Washington and is the author of several academic literatures on Korea, including The Confucian confrontation with Catholicism in the latter half of the Joseon Dynasty and Korean Spirituality (University of Hawaii Press, 2008).

Dr. Baker became a professor at the University of British Columba in 1987. In July 2001, he became the Director of the Centre for Korean Research in the Institute for Asian Research at UBC. In that capacity, he assists visiting scholars from Korea who come to UBC to engage in research on Korea. He also oversees a Korean Studies seminar series in which UBC professors as well as visiting scholars share their research findings with the UBC community and the general public. Dr. Baker is also the president of the Canadian Korean Studies Association, and a member of the Korean Studies Committee of the Association for Asian Studies.

In December 2008, Dr. Baker received the Tasan Award from the Tasan Cultural Foundation for his research on Tasan Chong Yagyong. He is currently a professor at the University of British Columbia.

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