Watching the news about Nth room, you may soon realize that women in Japan and China are suffering the same crime. Women all over Asia suffer the same problems but are now trying to let their voices be heard. The people working to allow this united voice by conducting studies and lending helping hands are members of the Research Institute of Asian Women. SMT met Park So-Jin, director of the Research Institute of Asian Women.
Before the beginning of the interview, would you please introduce yourself to our readers?
In 1991, I graduated Sookmyung Women’s University with top honors from the Department of English Language & Literature. I completed master's degree in English-American Feminine Literature. I went to England to further my study of English-American Children's Literature, I earned the title of doctorate in English-American Children and Adolescent Literature. I was the first foreign student to receive the title. Since 2009 I have been working as a professor of the Department of English Language & Literature at Sookmyung, and I became the director of the Research Institute of Asian Women in 2016.
Most students will likely be unfamiliar with the Research Institute of Asian Women(RIAW). Could you tell us a little about it?
It opened in 1960 as Korea's first women-related research institute. This year marks its 60th anniversary, and that is historical significant. The Research Institute Asian Women works diligently towards the development of women’s policy development and on other research and education projects. In 2018, it merged with The Center for Multicultural Studies. Until now, it has had little communication with Sookmyungians, but from now on we are planning on working with the student body by inviting their opinions and incorporating them into our projects. It is my hope that students will take a huge interest in our work.
What connection is there between Women’s Studies and English Literature?
Working on my master’s thesis, I often went to the school library. One section was devoted to theses on T. S. Eliot. In fact, the number of theses on Eliot’s works far outnumbered those of female writers. I was shocked by the absence of studies on women writers. The standards regarding those studies were also governed by males. Going against the norm, I chose to make my research focus on my favorite female writer, and that is how I became interested in Women’s Studies. English Literature’s central themes surround the underprivileged and the weak. Women’s Studies are also research the idea of equality, so I think there is an obvious connection between the two areas.
Among the RIAW’s various research and projects, which one is most dear to you?
The 11-year-long writing award by an immigrant to Korea in her mother tongue, sponsored by the Hanananum Foundation, is what I am most interested in at the moment. Through the project, Koreans can learn about immigrants’ lives, and select the topic of researches and projects in their writings. One immigrant female who won top prize for the first award, delivered a congratulatory speech at the 10th award. She is running as representative for president of the Vietnamese Immigrant Association. She said, “When I participated in the award was the hardest time of my life. I now live my life full of energy thanks to winning the award.” Those words are very touching.
The RIAW and the Center for Multicultural Studies merged together in 2018. What changes have been made since the merger?
At once time, there were two research centers at Sookmyung, but they played similar roles. In the other words, the two researched almost same fields. After the merger, the two centers have been able to increase the number of practical researchers, and the area of study doubled. In addition to this change, I see more synergy and organizational efficiency.
The topic of the 2019 RIAW International Conference was ‘Korean Wave, Gender, and Trans-cultural Community’. What was it like?
The topic was set by the Korean Studies Association of Southeast Asian (KoSASA). It hoped to gather researchers in order to understand women’s culture in terms of gender more easily. For example, K-Beauty has had a welcoming economic effect, but we can’t just be happy because we know makeups are the kind of corset. During the conference, this and other issues were discussed. Some countries agreed with the concerns, but others did not see them as being a major cause of concern. This conference made me realized the large gender recognition gap between countries. It is my hope that more communication exchange opportunities will open and more discussions be held.
What women's issues are you particularly interested in?
At the moment, I’m interested in gender discrimination in the academic field. In fact, a lot of statistics, despite a mother is a math or science teacher, shows that if the child is a boy, the mother believes her child will do better in those fields than if she had had a daughter. This is a stereotype. Therefore, globally, there is a need to ensure a learning environment where women and men have equal opportunities. Next, I’m also interested in underprivileged women who fall victim to becoming prostitutes or get caught in human trafficking. They rarely speak out, so I want to publicize their problems and let their voices be heard.
Which direction do you think women's studies and women's research in Asia should take?
I believe it will move in the direction of solidarity. This requires a lot of public debate because of cultural and social perception differ among nations, but there is a need to discuss topics on global public forums. Also, considering diversity, a move toward solidarity can only truly come to be when opinions are exchanged during public debates, not just talking with people who have the same ideas.
What is your proudest career moment as director of RIAW?
RIAW went through a slump due to structural problems, but now I am proud to state that we have secured good researchers and restored its function. In addition, there have been calls for cooperation with other research institutions since its founding, after the merge I mentioned before. I am proud of the fact that RIAW is expanding internally and externally, and has developed through its research projects.
Then, what has been the hardest thing for you?
Sometimes work doesn’t always go as planned. RIAW had made numerous project proposals related to gender to Sookmyung, but a large portion of them were not accepted. Some people have even said our work is noisy and unimportant, so often we feel ostracized. Whenever these things happen, I feel conflicted internally since it is contradicts the educational values of our university. Also, it was difficult to find good researchers. Most were contract workers, so regardless of their abilities, we had to hire new researchers once their contract had finished.
How did you overcome those difficulties you mentioned?
It was important to keep in mind this idea: “I can’t control all aspects of work and life.” Everyone has a different perspective, so what I feel is important may not be important for others. I always do my best, and I vow not to dwell too much on the outcome, especially negative ones. Thinking of the fruit that will be there someday, I focus all my energy on what I can do each time. This is the way I overcome difficulties.
What are RIAW’s future goals?
Our future vision is to be an hub of Women’s Studies. To achieve this goal, we are hoping to expand education opportunities, both at Sookmyung and outside. Through education, we hope to get more researchers. For this reason, we are focused on making a Women’s Studies graduate school course. The second thing we hope to achieve is the hiring of long-term researches. We plan to start a big new, so we need long term staff. The last goal is international exchange. We are hopeful that RIAW can be a center of that part.
Last, please leave a final message for Sookmyungians.
Sookmyungians are full of sincerity, so I hope they use their creativity and diversity to unite their voices. The reason a university exists is to provide a platform for sharing ideas and opinions freely. Sookmyungians openly and proudly express how you think and feel. However, do not be unbending, please remember to respect others’ voices as much as your own.
-Department of English Language & Literature '91
-Professor, Department of English Language & Literature
-Awarded Best Professor of the Year in Teaching/Research (2015-2018)
-Director of the Research Institute of Asian Women
Kim Lee Hyunmin / Editor-in-Chief
Ahn Ha Yura / Culture Section Editor