Postcolonial Perspectives on the Korean Diaspora Research Project

In this paper, I will briefly evaluate how Boston Korean Diaspora Project has been conducted for the last three years and present a trajectory for future research in conjunction with postcolonial studies, an area of inquiry that is likewise highly concerned with the diasporic experience.

First, it is necessary to review the goal of the research on the Boston Korean Diaspora: “The aim of the project…is to highlight the various individuals, institutions, and issues during this formative time and place, with the goal of preserving the memory of the period as well as further educating, illuminating, and contributing to the rich heritage of Korean Diaspora Studies.”[1] Therefore, the project has dealt with three major topics—individuals (12 articles), institutions (3 articles), and issues (3 articles)—all between the 1920s and 1970s, and all in the Boston area. The important thing is that it aims to unearth hidden narratives and to reconstruct them into the larger (and common) memory/history of the Boston Korean Diaspora. In an age when the capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individual person is vanishing, these histories can help recover individual-collective subjectivities (and identities).

At this point, we should illuminate the project from a more objective and critical standpoint. From the distribution of the topics studied and from the research methods applied, it becomes clear that there are at least three common denominators or characteristics: research centers on a notable figure; the contribution and achievement of that figure is named; and information is presented in a chronological/diachronic way of description. However, we should note that there are several drawbacks to this way of approaching the subject.

First, when a researcher conducts his/her research based on one figure’s contribution and achievement, there is a danger that the history is reduced to the personal narrative, falling short of the reconstruction of the larger memory of the Boston Korean Diasporic community. I do not want to overlook the importance of individual contributions and achievements because they can be regarded as a part of the common memory. However, what is neglected is that individuals cannot exist outside communal memory and history. Especially for the Boston Korean Diasporic community, which was under the cultural influence of Northeast Asia, it is a common assumption that the distinction between individual and community becomes less clear when it is traced back to the past from the present. Strictly speaking, the individual and the community form a sort of individual-community continuum.

Second, in relation to the first point, if a researcher selects his/her research figure based on academic or socio-political importance, it is highly likely that the memory/history of the people of relatively less importance will not be dealt with. The researchers of the last three years have mostly dealt with widely known, and important people. The few exceptions concern institutions and issues. The majority of work, however, has not focused on people who were relatively unaccomplished or unknown in Boston. In other words, an unconscious filter regarding a subject’s degree of importance seems to have played a governing role in selecting research topics. However, the reconstruction of the larger memory can be accomplished only through a balanced selection of the research subjects (especially individuals) regardless of their importance.

Third, the memory of Boston Korean Diasporic community is something that has been formed within a specific time (1920s-1970s) and a specific place, the Boston area. Diachronic research on certain figures has obvious limits because, in many cases, it puts more emphasis on their notable contribution and achievement than on the memory/history itself. In fact, the accomplishment overshadows everything else. Whether the distinguishing feature of a subject’s career happened in Boston within the designated timeframe does not matter in the current arrangement. Time and place have become extraneous details, and thus treated only superficially. One possible way to recover the significance of time and place is to focus more on the events that take place through multiple encounters between multiple individuals/subjects, rather than on one individual/subject.

In the following section, I will review the current state of postcolonial studies (especially by Asian scholars) on diasporic experience in order to overcome the aforementioned drawbacks. Kwok Pui-lan, in her book Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology, explains three distinct and yet overlapping modes of Postcolonial Imagination: historical, dialogical and diasporic imagination.[2] For her, imagination is: (a) to discern disparate elements—such as the cracks, the fissures, and the openings which refuse to be shaped into any framework, and which are often consigned to the periphery; (b) to find new images; and (c) to attain new patterns of meaning and interpretation.[3]

Most of all, historical imagination is closely related to the telos of our research. The interest in the historical and cultural past of Korean diasporic community is a point of departure that enables this research. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza indicates, writing history is a process of quilt making that “the quilt-maker carefully stitches material fragments and pieces into a overall design that gives meaning to the individual scraps of material.”[4] What is most important, as I indicated above, is whether or not the elements such as agency/subjectivity, multiple experiences, diverse interests and the social locations of the individual-community continuum are sufficiently considered by each researcher of the project. Recent socio-cultural understandings indicate that one’s individuality (or habitus) is continually established through the mutual interaction between the multiple communities that he/she belongs to. If a person’s memory/history is approached without a profound understanding of his or her community, or if a community is reconstructed without personal memory/history, then, as Michel Foucault vividly described, the story will be filtered and subjugated by power.[5] In a strict sense, historical imagination is to resist the Western essentializing, homogenizing, and totalizing tendency of human experiences and binary mindset of either “a model minority” or “a foreigner-within.”[6] Kwok Pui-lan, in the same vein, asserts that “memory is a powerful tool in resisting institutionally sanctioned forgetfulness.”[7] Therefore, we need to ruminate again on the aim of this project, which seeks to reconstruct the Boston Korean Diasporic individual-community continuum. Also, it should be noted that memories of tragedy as well as painful stories of shared suffering create deeper identities than success and competitiveness.[8]

Secondly, dialogical imagination is closely related to the trajectory of our research. In other words, the research should aim to reconstruct Boston Korean Diasporic memory/history, rather than simply describe it. In reality, the task of reconstruction necessitates linking the collective and accumulated memory/history of past experiences to today. If not, the research is left as a heap of material separated and abstracted from our world, without any context. Therefore, it is necessary for a researcher to pursue a sort of dialogical and dialectical connection between the world of his/her research subjects and the world of the researcher, through a hermeneutical spiral. Here, we need to employ the Gadamerian notion of fusion of horizons, where two different historical worlds or horizons can be fruitfully brought together, to sharpen our research methods and objectives.

However, a researcher should remember at least three things: First, experience has so many diverse and complex aspects that it cannot be illuminated entirely through any specific perspective or method. In other words, it is impossible for the researcher to reveal the entirety of experiences of his/her subject. Therefore, though the researcher needs to abandon the desire to shape the research subject as one, unified, and seemingly seamless whole, the researcher should not stop his/her effort to illuminate the experiences as fully as possible. Second, as many scholars point out, the research cannot be completely objective or value-free. Since a gap between the individual-community continuum and the researcher always exists, the shape of Boston Korean diasporic community will gradually be revealed through the accumulation of history/memory, particularly as researchers reflect on their findings, interpretations, and reinterpretations of the data. Third, experiences are assigned different levels of importance. A kind of dynamic hierarchy of experiences is created through mutual interactions based on the agent and the social location of his or her experience. In other words, the spoken experience is something that is already filtered by the speaker. Thus, all the voices are not equal and some dominate center stage, with the power to push the rest to the periphery.[9] Since the power and authority of the speaker fundamentally govern experiences, a researcher should closely examine his/her research subject in order to reveal the experience without any distortion.

Finally, diasporic imagination is linked to the nature of our research. At this point, the meaning of the diaspora must take precedence. Kwok Pui-lan indicates, “Today, the term ‘diaspora’ shares a broader semantic domain that includes words like immigrant, expatriate, refugee, migrant worker, exile community, and ethnic and racial minorities…It connotes…the experience of decentered and yet multiple-centered, displaced and yet constantly relocated, peoples who criss-cross many borders.”[10] In the same vein, a diasporic individual-community continuum has multiple locations. People and communities in diaspora are always doubly displaced, having to negotiate an ambivalent past, while holding on to fragments of memories, cultures, and histories in order to dream of a different future.[11] In our research, diasporic experiences are closely related to the constantly negotiating, shifting, and changing time and place (in other words, context). Postcolonial theorists use traveling metaphors to capture the unsettling nature and displacement of diasporic experiences. According to James Clifford, these experiences encompass the meaning of route or transition, which is nomadic, either traveling-in-dwelling or dwelling-in-traveling.[12] In this sense, a researcher should approach his/her research subject with a profound understanding of ever-changing contexts wherein these experiences are brought about. Kwok Pui-lan, in a similar sense, asserts that diasporic imagination has to decenter and decompose the ubiquitous logic and common sense. Therefore, we should affirm different histories and memories and forge new cultural, religious, and political coalitions through mutual creative dialogues. Surely, while our research is rooted in Boston University and Boston University School of Theology, we can incorporate diverse voices in order to draw a more complete picture for the sake of the reconstruction of diasporic experiences (memory/history).

Then, what is the future trajectory of our research based on the above discussion? I would like to suggest three tentative suggestions—more specifically two perspectives and one method—to be incorporated in our future research.

First, each researcher is required to have two different but overlapping perspectives: translocal and its rupturally liminal life, and hybridity as a diasporic identity. What are translocality and hybridity? According to Fumitaka Matsuoka, translocality is being multi-conscious among competing and contradictory ways of looking at reality.[13] In other words, translocal (and rupturally liminal) consciousness affects one’s subjectivity, transforming one’s relatively stable and fixed identity into something more hybrid and porous. Therefore, if we are to determine an order of priority between translocality and hybridity, it would be appropriate to say that translocal experiences bring about the hybrid identity of the diasporic individual-community continuum. However, both are mutually interpenetrating realities. Then, what are the fundamental elements at play beneath translocality and hybridity? Those are changeability, contingency, and power-differentials. These three elements affect translocality and hybridity through a complex interplay that lies beneath both. Thus, as the postcolonial study rightly indicates, a researcher should closely look at the point of contact between an individual and community from the perspective of changeability, contingency, and power-differentials. What come out of the point of contact between an individual and community are events and experiences. At the point of contact, the predetermined categories and prejudices reveal their inaccuracy, necessitating in-depth descriptions through an entirely new interpretive move (certainly, as indicated above, it is impossible to grasp and describe the entirety of translocality and hybridity). In this sense, we should take as the first research subject, diffuse, fluid and often contradictory events and experiences that are brought about from the spatio-temporal point of contact where individual, community and society meet, by synthetically considering diverse related elements. This follows the trajectory of being dialogical, participatory and responsive to a multiplicity of historical occurrences.[14] In other words, this implies that any future researcher should reduce the importance of “the great individual of history” and increase the importance of institutional histories, and especially the significance of particular events in diasporic life.

What becomes clear from the above discussion is that it is extremely difficult to narrate the hidden reality of the Boston Korean Diaspora, only with written sources. Therefore, I think it is useful and necessary to employ Mary Elizabeth Moore’s ethogenic method for future research, in the sense that it shares presumptions/understandings with the previous discussion.[15] In this method, the goal is to attend to a community’s story—the complexities of its everyday life, which reveal a dynamic interplay of beliefs, values, and practices. In other words, researchers focus on complexities, interactions, and transformation over time. The ethogenic approach can be described as: narrative, inter-subjective, flexible and open, unobtrusive, and self-conscious. Among those characteristics, three stand out for the Boston Korean Diaspora Project. First, to be narrative is to gather stories from many people, to observe multiple stories of community life, and to weave the several stories into one communal story, though it will only be an approximate picture of the community’s life. Second, inter-subjectivity is to view every individual as a subject with a story to tell, regardless of distortions from his/her unique filters, needs and desires. In this sense, no one perspective will be true and others false. Third, we need to be self-conscious of researcher bias, such as their expectation, preconceived ideas and categories. There three suggestions exactly correspond with what I described above.

Moore’s method is divided into six phases—preparation, story collecting, analysis, storytelling, interpretation and theory building, and proposals for practice. What are critically important for future research on the Boston Korean Diaspora are the three middle stages of the ethogenic method: story collecting, analysis, and storytelling. First, at the stage of story collecting, a researcher should listen, watch and record by doing field observations in community life and group/individual interviews, as well as collecting the community’s written documents. In the analytic phase, the researcher discerns and interprets themes and patterns in the collected stories, and in the storytelling phase, the researcher gathers the many stories and analytic discoveries into one collective story. This phase takes account of as much data as possible. “No attempt is made to reconcile all accounts, or to reconcile the several congregational stories into a homogenous whole. In fact, pluralistic versions of faith and community life are expected.” In this sense, storytelling is an attempt to describe a community’s multiplicity and commonality. I hope that if our research is designed and conducted with Moore’s method, it will bring about more fruitful results in the future.

As discussed above, the Boston Korean Diaspora project has made an important effort to unearth hidden memories and histories. However, if it actively incorporates the insights of postcolonial studies, such as focusing on diverse aspects of events and experiences from the perspective of translocality and hybridity, and if it conducts research with Moore’s ethogenic method, the project will reap more fruitful results. The Boston Korean Diaspora will no longer be an account of a few important figures, but it will engender a traditioning process, a place of larger memory making.[16]




[2] Kwok Pui-lan, Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Louisville: Westminster

John Knox Press, 2005).

[3] Pui-lan, 30.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith; New York: Pantheon Books, 1972).

[6] Fumitaka Matsuoka, Learning to Speak a New Tongue: Imagining a Way That Holds People Together–An Asian American Conversation (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 5, 36ff.

[7] Pui-lan, 37.

[8] Matsuoka, 20.

[9] Ibid., 42.

[10] Pui-lan, 45.

[11] Ibid., 46.

[12] Ibib., 44.

[13] Matsuoka, 40.

[14] Ibid., 59.

[15] Mary Elizabeth Moore, “Dynamics of Religious Culture: Ethogenic Method,” in International Handbook of the Religious, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions in Education, Vol 1 (eds., M. de Souza, K. Engebretson, G. Durka, R. Jackson and A. McGrady. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2006), 415-431.

[16] Matsuoka, 73.


Written by Duse Lee

Edited by Dary Ireland