Why Isn’t There a Korean Department at Amherst?

Yes, Asians can drive.

“I’m Eunnie, and I’m a freshman from Korea.”

“Oh my gosh, your English is soooooo good! Where did you learn??”

“I went to an international school, so English is my first language.”

“But your English is just SO good! And you have no accent whatsoever, like you sound like me!”

I had this conversation more than a few times when I came to Amherst. The first three lines don’t really bother me; I don’t expect people to know exactly where I come from just from talking to me once. The last line, though. That’s what bothers me. I literally just said that English is my first language. Why would my English sound any different from yours if it’s my first language? Come on, people. Get your shit together.

Oh, while we’re on the topic of unappealing conversations, here’s another line I’ve heard way too many times here!

“Why would you feel like people can be racist against Asians? You’re expected to be good at things.”

To the last person who told me that: explain why my mother and I have been pulled aside for additional security checks every time my mother stutters when she tries to talk to the Immigrations people here in the States. Explain why you automatically assume that I’d be good at math. Explain why the driving Asian jokes start the second someone sees my license. Explain how these systematic prejudices are not forms of racism.

“Asia” is more than a caricature of model pop stars, technological fantasy, war, religious fundamentalism, and cutthroat secondary education. There are cultural nuances that can’t even be seen as a white tourist on the streets of Seoul in the early evenings, injustices that can only be observed late at night on the subway. I will not let you reduce me to being your little pronunciation checker so that you sound “authentic” when you sing K-Pop songs.

That’s why I have an intense appreciation for the Asian Languages and Civilizations major. Not only does it encourage learning a language with a structure completely different from that of English, but it also provides valuable insight into Asian countries through both historical and contemporary resources.

That being said, the ASLC major isn’t perfect. There are issues (such as the US military presence in the Asia Pacific region and the territorial disputes over small islands such as Dokdo/Takeshima and Diaoyu/Senkaku) that don’t seem to be adequately addressed, and there is a clear disparity in which cultures are being represented by the ASLC major.

Oh no, there goes the angry Korean about how there’s no Korean department at Amherst! Close, but no cigar. I get it; there are so many cultures in ‘Asia’ that to ask for a separate department for a tiny peninsula seems absolutely ridiculous… To the standard WASP, I’m just making a big deal out of nothing: what’s so important about a country as tiny as Korea that it deserves its own department?

When asked about the need for a Korean department at Amherst, the Korean Students Association (KSA) responded by pointing out the active roles of both South and North Korea in Asian political dynamics, and that Amherst College’s exclusion of Korea from the ASLC major is at best puzzling and at worst negligent and disparaging because of the significance that both Koreas have on the Asian and world stages both presently and historically.

The KSA also included a personal statement from Carina Corbin ’17, who said that she did not double major in ASLC because of the lack of Korean classes at Amherst. “The department would benefit from adding Korean language and culture classes because there’s a demand, but the risk in not getting credit for it is too great for many to take.”

Honestly, though, I can’t say I’m surprised by Amherst College’s lack of a Korean department. Professor Mun, who began teaching in Amherst in the fall semester of ’12, was the first Korean faculty member in the history of Amherst College. Additionally, on B level of the library, where the majority of books on Asian languages and cultures are, I found a few shelves of Korean books… wedged in the many shelves on China and Japan. The clincher, though, isn’t even the fact that Amherst has so few books on Korea as compared to those on China and Japan. It turns out that the vast majority of these books on Korea are gifts from Doshisha University, the Japanese university with close ties to Amherst College.

I can’t help but wonder what the political implications of this are. After all, Japan and Korea have a long and bitter history between them, one that continues to inform their relationship to this day, and receiving books from a university whose host country had once colonized Korea does raise questions. Why does Doshisha gift Amherst with books on a country that’s not even studied in the curriculum? Is it to keep up the pretense that Amherst is ‘politically impartial’ while still exerting political pressure by providing valuable connections and study abroad opportunities to students?

Because students must take at least six courses at Amherst in order to fulfill the requirements for the major, there is not enough leeway for students to take Korean language courses at other schools such as Smith. This political and academic conundrum has a comparatively simple fix: adding a Korean department or, at the very least, adding Korean classes to the curriculum in Amherst is a step in the right direction. As of now, the only class being offered on Korea is a 300-level art history/ASLC course and is classified under the Pan-Asia concentration.