Learning From a Living History

Korean oral histories project showcases the power of storytelling. Reprinted from the ColbyNews article on November 15, written by Abigail Curtis with photography by Ashley L. Conti. 

When Emily Kwen ’24 was five years old, her family emigrated from South Korea to New Jersey. Ever since, she has felt the pull of living between two different worlds. 

Sometimes, that pull can be painful, like the times she has felt neither wholly Korean nor wholly American. 

“It just sort of felt like I don’t really belong anywhere particularly,” the education major said. 

But a history course she took last spring, Brothers at War: The Two Koreas, 1945-Present, and the oral history project that she and her classmates created have helped her figure out where she does belong. Kwen interviewed one of her South Korean cousins and described the conversation they had as illuminating and personally important.  

“I think that the interview represented a first step in a lot of ways—a first step for me to have the courage to learn more about my own heritage and culture,” she said. “I think that storytelling is a really powerful thing that a lot of academia doesn’t emphasize. It’s not really appreciated as much as quantitative data, which I do think is important. But individual people’s stories are also really important and matter so much.” 

Collecting and archiving oral histories 

Oral histories that Kwen and other students collected this spring have become the inaugural iteration of Voices from the Peninsula: Oral Histories of Korea, a project that is archived through Digital Commons @ Colby, an online repository administered by the Colby College Libraries.

The project is relatively unique and has the potential to grow into an important part of the historical record, said Assistant Professor of History Inga Kim Diederich, who teaches the history course and designed the archive project. 

“It’s not like oral histories are unheard of in Korean history, but there aren’t too many libraries in the country that can say they have something like this,” Diederich said. “I’m hoping that over the years it grows into something that’s not just useful to Colby students but that could be a resource for visiting scholars, as well.” 

In Brothers at War, the second of a two-semester sequence of Korean history, students learn about Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonialism; the occupation by the United States; the division of the Korean peninsula; the Korean War; a series of military dictatorships; democratization; and, finally, the global interest in Korean popular culture known as the Korean Wave.

“In this period, we’re really talking about a living history,” the professor said. “There are people alive who still remember many events from the history that we’re covering. But some of that memory is starting to fade. So the oral histories felt like an opportunity to get students involved with history as a living, breathing thing.”

Voices from a living history 

The project came about in part with the help of a grant from the Colby Center for the Arts and Humanities, and was developed around last year’s theme, “Food for Thought.” Following the theme, students used the history of Korean food as a way to loosely organize questions and conversations about the war, the division of the peninsula, globalization, and the quest for authenticity in Korean identity. 

“So much family history and nostalgia is tied to food that it can open up conversations into unexpected new places,” Diederich said. “In many of the interviews, there were these really touching stories about how food either connected people to their identity or to their experiences in Korea, or how food in some cases served as a barrier, like the loss of access to food or markets with immigration stories, or the loss of recipes with the death of a parent.” 

Over the course of the semester, students worked to find interview subjects and then figure out what they wanted to ask them. They also took care to obtain informed consent from the interviewees ahead of time and submit their transcripts and recordings afterward for final approval and edits, the professor said. 

Included among the nearly 30 voices in the project are Korean immigrants to the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia; second-generation Korean-Americans; South Korean college students; a Chinese national who studied in North Korea when he was a college student; a Colby student’s grandmother who lived through the Korean War; a Korean-Nigerian reflecting on her mixed heritage, and many more. 

The class is being offered again this semester, Diederich said, with the help of another Course Unit Development Grant from the Center for the Arts and Humanities. Because the current theme is “Play!,” students will use that as a springboard for their oral histories, which will be added to the archive at the end of the semester. 

“This project is an ongoing investment by Colby in collecting and preserving a diverse range of voices and experiences that offer valuable insight into the lived history of modern Korea,” the professor said. 

For her, seeing all the interviews compiled in one online archive has been powerful. And it’s something that wouldn’t have been possible without the “cooperation and support and really enthusiastic assistance” of people at the College, including Ellen Freeman, Mark Wardecker, and Tim Stonesifer of Academic Information Technology Services, she said. 

As well, the oral history project helped her get a richer understanding of the Colby student body.

“I actually felt I got to know my students much better through these interviews,” Diederich said. “I got a really great sense of who they were and how they were connecting to these histories based on their own backgrounds.” 

A powerful family story 

One unforgettable interview took place between Elodie Koo ’26 and her father, Paul Koo, whose own father was murdered in a racial hate crime after emigrating to the United States from Korea. It happened in the 1980s when Paul Koo was a teenager, and the conversation marked one of the first times the father and daughter had talked about what happened and how it had affected him. 

“During the interview, I did have trouble maintaining my composure. It was such a powerful moment and piece of my father that I saw for the very first time,” said Elodie Koo, a computer science and art double major from New Canaan, Conn. “The discussion gave an image and a dialogue to the intense emotions I had been feeling all these years. It was almost a very saddening moment of clarity. … I am so incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to listen to his past and deeper thoughts.” 

“The discussion gave an image and a dialogue to the intense emotions I had been feeling all these years.” Elodie Koo ’26

Interviewing her father was a profound experience, through which she was able to start to see both her parents a little differently and a lot more fully. “I feel grateful that I have this new lens with which I can see, wonder about, and love these two important people in my life,” Elodie Koo said.

Their conversation also helped her gain a greater understanding, and pride, about what it means to be Korean-American. 

“I felt more secure about walking toward the future that may hold many more acts of racism and prejudice because within that sometimes scary future, there is so much joy and love to be felt and beautiful moments like this one I was fortunate enough to share with my dad,” she said. 

An inside look at North Korea

Karen Shi ’25 was one of the students who found an unusual voice to add to the collection of oral histories: that of Wang Shuqi, who spent a year studying in North Korea as a college student. Mr. Wang, as she calls him, is a family friend, and interviewing him let her explore Western ideas of North Korea and provide another important perspective, too. When Wang left China to go to an intensive language school in North Korea, he considered his experience to be ordinary, not exceptional. 

That matters, said Shi, a history and global studies major who is studying in Europe this year. She reflected on the idea of deconstructing history through personal stories on a blog post included with the oral history collection. 

“I think, really, that your experiences matter, that what you think matters. Even if it doesn’t matter right now, in the moment, who knows? Maybe in 20 years, someone will interview you about it.” Karen Shi ’25

“I wanted to highlight that this notion of North Korea being a black box, or being a very secret place in the world—we wouldn’t characterize it the same way in China,” she said. “I really like to contrast the narrative of our perception of North Korea as a place of danger, as a place with an authoritarian regime, with his narrative that is just that of a student studying abroad, like I am doing right now.” 

For Shi, it has been revelatory to learn more about Wang’s experiences in North Korea and how they challenge the preconceived notions of many people. So, too, has been the process of learning about and collecting oral histories, which she believes help to provide a much more complete and less biased understanding of the world. For example, if the master narrative prevalent in the West suggests that North Korea is an “evil” or mysterious place, she said, stories like Wang’s can correct that. 

“You begin to deconstruct this master narrative through individual stories,” she said. “I think, really, that your experiences matter, that what you think matters. Even if it doesn’t matter right now, in the moment, who knows? Maybe in 20 years, someone will interview you about it.” 

Read the original ColbyNews story here.