Faculty Profile: Kyu Hyun Kim

By Joseph Chong í98


In a time when many Korean American college students aim towards entering lucrative professional fields such as medicine, corporate business, and law, Kyu Hyun Kim, a graduate student and a teaching fellow in the East Asian Studies and Social Studies departments at Harvard, distinguishes himself as an academic. As a rising scholar on Japanese culture and history, he has a chosen a career path in academia. "I donít compare myself to others who are spending less time making more money than I am, " he says. "I can only speak for myself."

It is this sort of independence that colors his personality and dictates his decisions. Having come to Harvard as an undergraduate in 1983, Kim has dedicated himself to studying social sciences. His philosophy is to always find new approaches to problems, and to view things from as many perspectives as possible. He is interested in Japanese culture and history because he feels that Japan has been misrepresented in Korea. "I think Japanese values are not really well known because of the colonial period [when Japan invaded Korea.] Koreans tend to have distorted views."

Kim realizes that these generally antagonistic views have a definite basis in historical reality, but nevertheless argues that they are very different from the sort of objective opinion that can only be gotten from study in the United States. " Japan is one of the few examples of a Non-European country that has undergone significant modernization," he notes as he explains why his studies are significant.

In his studies of Japan, Kim has noticed that Korean culture owes much to Japanese culture. Many icons of Korean culture, he argues, are taken to be inherently Korean despite the fact they originated in Japan. Kimís aim is to give credit where credit is due, and to disavow any false notions that may be circulating in Korea. "many novels, TV shows, and comics which are thought to be Korean are really outright copies of Japanese culture. No one wanted to admit it in the Ď70s. I found that a lot of things I liked about Korea were really from Japan."

Kim mentions the example of the "Speed Racer" television show. "Koreans thought that the dark-haired characters were Korean and the light-haired characters were American. Actually, the dark-haired characters were Japanese!"
Although it is difficult and perhaps unpopular to bring misconceptions of these sort to light, Kim believes it is the duty of the academic to do so. Both of his parents were professors in Korea, and they had a huge influence on the way Kim views issues. "I struggle to ask questions that are not often asked," he says. "My job is to challenge the accepted views, complicate things, and see things from many different perspectives."

Although his academic aim is at problematizing specific issues, Kim is quite idealistic in his overall career goals. He says that he loves having a job where there is not a clear distinction between work and play. "First and foremost, I want to become a good teacher," he emphasizes. "I really want to stimulate the minds of you people under my charge. Education can be done and will be doneóor we do not have much hope for mankind." Speaking with historical perspective, Kim believes that good ideas do survive.

Despite his idealism, Kim recognizes the difficulty of pursuing an academic career. He cites the extreme isolation that is sometimes felt by the scholar, the "nail-gazing" and the cogitation on ideas that seem insignificant in the real world. His greatest moments of isolation came in 1983 when he first came to Harvard. His mother passed away when a Korean Airlines plane was shot down by the Soviets. "The sense of isolation was terrible," he says. "My mother defined where I had come from, my outlook on life. It was very hard." Yet Kim overcame this hardship and continued his intense dedication to academics.

The people he considers role models are those who share his love of learning and teaching. He mentions professors at Harvard such as Edward Craig, Benjamin Schwartz, and Edward Wagner as his role models. He admires Craig for his high intellectual standards and his objective and supportive attitude, Schwartz for his openness and diversity of knowledge, and Wagner for his great patience and devotion.

As he strives to become like these men, Kim wishes to write a book which will challenge the conventional wisdom about Korea and Japan. "At the same time," he states, "I want to make people want to study more about these two countries. " He also wishes to highlight the unique strength and beauty of the Korean language, which he recognized when he moved to the United States. He believes that "Korean poetry should be translated into really good English that will capture its spirit. That is one more challenge I pose to the Korean community."

Looking towards the future, Kim wishes to find a teaching position when he finishes his dissertation on late 19th-century Japanese history. He sums up his goals: "If you become a good teacher, you can affect the world in the long term. You can make a difference."

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