Ashley T. Kim ’20 remembers Vassar College before the Korean Wave, or Hallyu (한류): the escalating global popularity of South Korean culture, from K-beauty products to Korean dramas and Korean pop music. “There wasn’t anything in terms of Korean orgs or cultural awareness,” she recalled. KSA hadn’t been extremely active, and KoDC didn’t exist. But as the wave swept over the United States, at Vassar it became a tsunami: Clubs like the Korean Dance Crew (KoDC) and Korean Student Alliance (KSA) exploded in popularity. So too have the Korean language classes, which after a long struggle have become traditional Vassar courses instead of self-instructional programs.
Vassar does have an Asian Studies program, but no program devoted to Korea specifically. However, Professor of Sociology Seungsook Moon, the only faculty member who specializes in South Korea in the Asian Studies Program, explained that there was a growing interest in the Korean language. “A few years ago,” she said, “I was told by the director of the self-instructional language program that the number of enrollments for the Korean language had been increasing.”
Kim, a former student of the self-instructional program and current student in the standard course, remembered the initial size of her class: three students, including herself. She believed that her class experience was disorganized. After her first teacher moved away, her self-instructional teacher was replaced with one who spoke Korean, but not English. This forced Kim, a Korean American who knew some Korean, to act as a bridge between the teacher and her non-Korean speaking classmates.
“It was very subpar teaching. The instructor would rely on Korean people like me to explain to them. But at the same time I [was] also trying to learn, and it was very difficult because as a Korean person you have to take on a responsibility to teach your classmates when you’re supposed to be learning,” Kim reflected. “It was really lenient and you could get an easy A, but I can very confidently say that I didn’t learn much Korean at all.”
With the K-Wave, student interest in Korean language and culture grew, prompting Vassar to transition toward formal Korean language classes, beginning Fall 2018. Although she did not teach the Korean language, Moon got involved with the hiring process, drawing from her experience as a sociologist specializing in South Korea. She had observed the growing popularity of Korean culture within Vassar’s student body. “I started reaching out to the Dean of the Faculty and Asian Studies and discussed with them that Korean language was getting attention from students—not just from Korean students but a wide range of backgrounds,” said Moon.
Moon sought out full-time instructors in an organization called the Allex Foundation. This organization typically sends out language fellows, but Moon spoke with a director who was open to expanding the foundation’s influence beyond China and Japan. In the summer of 2017, that director interviewed candidates in South Korea and found Visiting Instructor of Asian Studies Claire Jungran Kang.
Unlike many other candidates who had just graduated from college, Kang had professional experience as a Korean and English simultaneous interpreter, as well as a certification for teaching the Korean language. She also had over a decade of experience working in positions in the Korean government and large Korean and multinational companies, including the Ministry of Finance and Economy of Korea, Samsung and SC Johnson.
“The [Allex] foundation not only helped me to settle in Vassar,” said Kang, “but introduced me to a fascinating and highly effective language teaching pedagogy called ‘Performed Culture,’ which I adopted 100 percent to my classes.” Kang described “Performed Culture” as “a performance and culture based learning mechanism,” with the course divided into sections: ACT and FACT classes.
Chase Engel ’23, who is taking Elementary Korean, described how ACT and FACT classes function. “ACT classes involve memorizing typical Korean conversations and practicing with peers in front of the class,” he explained. “This helps us grow accustomed to speaking the language and feeling comfortable speaking despite our horrible accents or mistakes. FACT classes are informational: outlining grammar, words and other contents of the chapter in our textbook.” Kang also designates some days for the study of Korean culture, including movies and popular music.
Engel has noticed the influence of the Korean Wave since his arrival at Vassar. “K-pop, K-dramas and everything in between have really blown up on the internet and many fans of this media have come to love Korean culture through it,” Engel said. “I have so many friends that turned into a K-pop or K-drama addict in recent years, including myself.”
K-pop connected Stephanie Gull ’23, who is currently taking Intermediate Korean, to the Korean Wave. As the president of KoDC, she shared, “KoDC is integrally connected to the Hallyu wave, as the more recent international enjoyment of K-pop is what encourages a diverse group of students to join a club that specifically focuses on learning covers to K-pop choreography.”
Kim herself joined KoDC in the first year it was founded. She also served as the media chair of KSA, which brings elements of Korean culture into the Vassar community through K-Pop Mug Nights and K-Fest. Another part of KSA is samulnori (사물놀 이), or Korean traditional music or drums. “We want to bring that type of history and culture in conjunction with newer Korean culture,” explained Kim.
“I hear a lot about college students who are interested in learning Korean language or Korean studies as a major or minor. And many of them, the way they were introduced to Korea is through Korean pop culture, the Korean wave,” Moon affirmed. “I think it’s something really positive overall. I am hoping that other small societies in the world which didn’t receive due recognition for their own history, culture and contribution to world culture–they should get due recognition.”
Kang expressed a similar sentiment, noting that Vassar is attracting more students from diverse backgrounds, especially the number of Asian students. “I believe that raising awareness of different cultures and appreciating the diversity is the key to evolving into a mature and embracing community,” she said. “In this context, I am honored to be a part of it by meeting my lovely students and learning from each other every day.”
The Korean Wave’s impact exists in many forms around the Vassar campus, from clubs like KoDC and KSA to the Korean language and culture classes available. Its tide doesn’t seem to be receding; recent examples such as Parasite’s win at the SAG Awards and BTS’ performance at the Grammys show that it will continue to spread exponentially. At the wave’s crest, the possibilities are endless—perhaps more Korean classes and even a Korean major will form at Vassar. And someday, Korean culture may be inseparable from Vassar’s own.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Professor Kang as an English translator. In fact, she was a simultaneous interpreter.]