feat. a Korean-Canadian is a blog series highlighting Korean-Canadians and their experiences, perspectives and thoughts on their identity as Korean-Canadians.
This blog features Dongwoo Kim, who is a Post-Graduate Research Fellow at Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a public policy research organization in Vancouver. He is working on a project that will analyze artificial intelligence policies in East Asia and Canada.
Dongwoo, you have spent your life in different parts of the world. How do you answer the question, “Where are you from?”? Do you find this question difficult to answer?
It’s definitely a challenging question for me. I still have not settled how I should answer this question. I have spent eight years in Korea; eight years in Nicaragua; and nine years in Canada. I also completed one of my graduate degrees at Peking University in China. In terms of where I was born, it’s Seoul. But Edmonton is where I call home today, I feel most attached to that city out of all the places I have lived in, and I definitely see myself in Canada in the future. But I feel a bit uncomfortable answering this question with “Edmonton” or “Canada” without added explanations – but I’m not comfortable just saying “Seoul” either.
Do you feel pressured to present yourself a certain way because you’re Korean?
Korean culture is pretty patriarchal and subsequently, there are certain expectations for men within and outside the Korean community. I feel like there are expectations of being hip and being ‘capable’ – like being good at sports, noraebang, et cetera, you know, the oppa or umchina (mom’s friend’s son) stuff. I think I recognized pretty early on that I’m not that, or I can’t be that 100 percent of the time, and got pretty comfortable with not fitting in within that Korean male label. Except for situations with older Koreans (specifically, when I’m unsure about the honorifics and manners protocol), I’m pretty comfortable with the Korean part.
What are some areas of interests for you?
I’m interested in a lot of things, but I’m most fascinated by the history and politics of thought – that is, understanding why and how people come to think about certain concepts (e.g. democracy, multiculturalism, et cetera) and act upon them. For example, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the concept of han (한) as a post-colonial thought that has motivated Korean anti-Americanism. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about transnationalism in Asia and the Korean colonial era after reading Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (highly recommended!).
Do you follow Korean politics and current events?
I first wrote a research paper on the Gwangju Massacre for a history seminar during undergrad. Through that process, I became drawn to Korea’s modern history and democratization. I ended up writing my undergraduate thesis on the Korean concept of han as a lens to understand modern Korean history, and then my master’s thesis on South Korea’s democratization and the National Security Law. Theoretically speaking, Korea is a fascinating case study of democratization and modernization, which are my two favourite things to think about. So, there is an academic dimension to my interest in Korean issues.
But also, I follow Korean politics closely because I just care at a personal level. Most of my relatives live in Seoul, and Korea has been going through challenging days, both internally and externally – so I worry about it and so I follow its politics quite closely. I do think that what we have in Korea today – a resilient democratic system and a strong, innovative economy – is a product of miracle, and I’m deeply appreciative of the older generations who bequeathed a nation that we can generally be proud of, whether we live in or outside Korea.
What about Korean culture? What do you think about Korean culture like K-POP and Korean food becoming more mainstream?
In general, I think it is neat and I am happy to see more non-Koreans becoming knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Korean culture – we do have a lot to offer to the rest of the world. I still remember the early 2000s when people assumed that you are either a Chinese or a Japanese, or mixed up South Korea with North Korea, so we have come really far. At the same time, I am not a fan of the K-Pop culture and it is definitely frustrating when people start to do Psy’s horse dance and such. Moreover, I feel as if K-Pop has created a particular caricature of Koreans that present us as being incredibly shallow (for instance, a spoof of the Bachelorette on Wong Fu Productions featured a Korean who fixed up his face through surgery). During the past few years, I have started reading more Korean literature – and really, Korean is an incredibly beautiful, clever, and fun language that reflects a rich tradition and culture. I wish we focused more on these things – but perhaps K-Pop is a good starting point?
Thank you, Dongwoo for the interview. Please leave a comment about your thoughts on Korean current events and Korean culture.