ASIAN STUDIES FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Dr. Elizabeth Underwood
Dr. Elizabeth Underwood
Ph.D., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
B.S., Grand Valley State College
- Associate Professor of Sociology
- Program Director of Sociology
- Affiliated Faculty of Asian Studies
- Affiliated Faculty of the Honors Program
How long have you been teaching at EKU?
This is my 18th year at EKU.
What do you like most about your position?
As Program Director of Sociology, I love speaking with new majors about their interests in exploring the social world. I enjoy helping them discover how well a sociology major fits together with an area studies – such as EKU’s Asian Studies minor, or with Women & Gender Studies, or with something more applied, such as the certificate in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
How did you first become involved in Asian Studies?
I was born and raised in Seoul, Korea, the product of a multi-generation educational missionary family. In college, in the US, sociology provided me with a framework to understand my cultural identity as an American raised in relative privilege in Asia. I was intrigued by how it was only in the US that I became truly aware of the cultures of both the US and Korea – having been raised in a setting that somewhat superficially bridged the two. It was in my graduate work that I became involved with Asian Studies academically – taking formal language and Korean Studies courses to prepare for my research into the cultural encounters between western missionaries and Koreans at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century.
What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?
I enjoy most the time I am able to spend in Asia. Four years ago, I was able to teach for a semester in Seoul, and as part of that teaching my students and I worked with various migrant communities in Korea. I found the work with organizations helping North Korean “refugees” (or “resettlers”), migrant laborers from Bangladesh and Nepal, and with schools for “multi-cultural” children to be immensely rewarding for both my (Korean) students and for myself.
Who were your influences in Asian Studies?
My first influence was Samuel Moffett – an “adopted uncle” growing up in Korea, and professor of Asian church history and theology. While an undergraduate, I visited with Dr. Moffett (who was then teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary) while working on a research paper and he encouraged me to include study of Korea in my academic career. Later influences include Nancy Abelmann, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, and Min Kyung-Bae at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Tell us about your current and past teaching in Asian Studies.
In the summer of 2016, I was awarded the opportunity to participate in an NEH summer institute examining Confucianism in Asia (both as a tradition and in transformation). I am very excited that during that institute I created a course on contemporary Korean society, which I offered in the spring of 2017. Moreover, I was able to find many ways to incorporate Asian and Confucian cultural and social realities into my introductory courses and into my Sociology of Family course. I regularly include issues and examples from Korea in my Demography and Migration course, and taught a course on migration in Asia at Yonsei University in Seoul in 2012, but was very excited to finally have taught a course for Asian Studies here at EKU.
Tell us about your current and past research in Asian Studies.
My research has focused primarily on the historical encounter of western missionaries with Koreans at the turn-of-the-twentieth century. I focus in that research on the impact that Korea and Korean Christians had on the identities and cultural identification of western missionaries. More recently, I have studied the impact of migration on Asian societies and culture.
What misconceptions do many Americans have about Asia and what might they be surprised to learn about the continent and its people?
Perhaps most surprising to many Americans would be that some Asian countries are becoming immigrant destinations, are centers of popular culture, and are not all entirely enamored with us (US-us). Many Americans assume that everyone wants to emulate us and that our way is clearly the best. I fear that that assumption underlies an attitude that believes we don’t have any reason to even think about Asia. I hope that programs such as our Asian Studies Program here at EKU can open up the eyes of Americans to the richness (both material and cultural) of the Asian continent and people.
What is your favorite book about Asia and why?
My favorite book about Asia is an obscure book called With Tommy Tompkins in Korea, written in 1905 by my great-grandmother, Lillias H. Underwood. Lillias, who went to Korea as a medical doctor in the 1880s, wrote this book as an attempt to share with American children the experiences of her son growing up in Korea. It is not, by any means, the best book on Korea I have read, nor is it really about Korea as much as about her family’s daily life in Korea. But it is my favorite because of her repeated attempts to counter an ethnocentric audience, and to try to overcome the misconceptions of Asia (Korea was hardly known) so prevalent in the west at the time.
What is your favorite film about Asia and why?
Ode to My Father (국제시장– or “international market” in Korean) is not only my favorite film about Asia or Korea, but probably my favorite of all films I have seen in recent years. Through the life of one man, we get an amazing overview of the lives of a generation of Koreans who have lived through the world events and transformations of Korean society over the past 70 years. I highly recommend this film to Asian Studies students.
What is your favorite Asian cuisine and why?
Truthfully, the only Asian cuisine I really enjoy is Korean food (I suppose I have never been a very adventurous eater – just one who grew up on Kimchi, Keem, Bulkogi, and Naengmyun).I do also enjoy Korean Chinese food (which is significantly different from American Chinese food) – especially Jajangmyun (noodles) and mandu (dumplings).
If you could have dinner with any Asian figure, past or present, who would it be and why?
I would be torn between wanting to have dinner with Yi Sun-sin, the famous 16th-century naval commander who defended Korea against the Japanese in the Imjin war, or with Queen Min (Empress Myeong-Seong) who was assassinated in 1895 for her opposition to Japanese influence on the peninsula. My grandfather was long intrigued by Yi Sun-sin, even writing a fictional (unpublished) novel about him called “The Turtle Ship,” which sparked my own interest in his character. The same grandfather, as a boy, met Queen Min, as his mother (Lillias H. Underwood) was her physician. Lillias highly admired the Queen and was heart-broken when she was killed.
Have you traveled to Asia? What was your most interesting experience?
Most of my time in Asia has been in Korea, although I have visited Japan, Hong Kong, and Thailand. My most interesting experience, however, has to be meeting and working with those fighting for the rights of migrant workers and North Korean resettlers in South Korea today. During my childhood, there was very little diversity within South Korea. Today that situation is changing, but it hasn’t been easy to open up a society so set in its “homogenous” identity. Even North Koreans have found it hard to be accepted in the South. That said, there are some incredible people working very hard at all levels of society to bring about change.
How can Asian Studies enhance the educational experience of any EKU students?
Many Americans seem to think there is no need to understand anything or anyone beyond our borders. It is in part hubris and in part fear. That hinders us in many ways. Regardless of your field of study, your work and your life will be enriched and improved by understanding that “our way” is just one way of organizing life. By getting to know Asia, you will get to know your own corner of the world even better – and be better able to succeed regardless of your field.
What advice do you have for Asian Studies students at EKU?
My first recommendation is to do everything possible to find a way to spend some time in Asia. Nothing beats immersing yourself in any way you can. Barring that, I recommend supplementing your formal studies with making all things Asia a part of your fun and free time. Watch Korean dramas on Netflix; read novels placed in Asia; get to know students from Asia and join in their activities. Also, while you should take as many Asian Studies classes as can fit your degree plan, you can also engage in self-study. Use the vast resources available on the web to your advantage. Ask your Asian Studies professors for recommendations for news sources, language programs, and other good sites to explore.
Would you recommend five books and/or films about Asia?
Books: Lost Names (1970) by Richard Kim, about life in Korea under Japanese occupation. The Orphan Master’s Son (2012) by Adam Johnson, a fictional work about life in North Korea. The Birth of Korean Cool (2014) by Euny Hong, about the growth and promotion of Korean pop culture. Films: Ode to My Father 국제시장(2014) directed by Yoon Je-Kyoon (see description above). The Way Home 집으로(2002), directed by Lee Jeong-Hyang, about a young boy who goes to live with his mute grandmother in a small-rural area of Korea.
Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself.
I am the mother of three grown (or nearly grown) children. My son, Ian, is a motorcycle technician in Virginia. Alison graduated from EKU in May 2016 with a degree in dietetics and my youngest, Lydia, is in her second year at Maryville College in Tennessee. My husband (EKU Honors Program Director, David Coleman) and I have a wonderful and playful blind pit bull terrier (Zeus) whom we rescued a little over a year ago and who brings a lot of joy and energy into our home (along with mud and such). We enjoy travel and hiking, watching the Colonels play, and I also enjoy music. I am a member of the Madison Singers, sing in the chancel choir at First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, and occasionally join in EKU Opera workshop productions.
Published on June 10, 2018