Womanhood, Identity, and Transnational Feminism: A Discussion with Dr. Jeong-eun Rhee

By Paola Guzman

Jeong-eun Rhee, Ph.D., is a professor, writer, daughter, mother, wife and a woman. At 23-years-old, Rhee migrated from Korea to the United States to pursue her master’s degree in Education Psychology from West Virginia University, later earning a Ph.D. in the School of Educational Policy and Leadership from The Ohio State University. Rhee has been a professor at LIU Post for 14 years in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction. Rhee has written for various scholarly journals, with nearly 30 article contributions. In addition, she is a co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of American Educational Studies Association.

Rhee has co-written three books, and is in the midst of publishing her first single-authored book, “Transnational Feminist Research: Haunting, Memory and (M)Others.” A specialist in research and methodology, Rhee also expertly discusses notions of interconnectedness and feminism. Specifically, that connecting to others’ stories—particularly women—can lead to a much more established sense of identity and how everyone’s formative experience means something special.

In conversation with Dr. Rhee, we discussed her experience as a migrant travelling woman:

You specialize not only in research and methodology, but also an area of interest would be feminism [in academia]?

Right. So feminism has been one of my foundational theoretical approaches that I have used throughout my academic career. Definitely, that has been one of my areas.

Why is that?

I would like to start with this, I came to the U.S. as an international student who didn’t plan to stay. I’m originally from Korea, and thought that I would go to the U.S. and then get my degree and comeback. But then life just happens. And so through the journey of dealing with living as a migrant person, I tend to not just identify myself only as an immigrant. Because the focus of being an immigrant is on my current location. Because immigrant is also emigrant depending on whose perspective you’re bringing. From the U.S. perspective, I’m an immigrant because I came in. But let’s say from Korea’s perspective, I’m an emigrant who left. I tend to call myself a migrant who is always on the move.

In fact, the name of my Ph.d. dissertation was “A Korean Travelling Woman in U.S. Higher Education.” That’s not the whole title, but I remember I struggled with what kind of tone I wanted to use to refer to my participants who were situated very differently between Korea and the United States. For example, I had a Korean adoptee, meaning that they were adopted from Korea and grew up with a white family. They couldn’t really make sense of their own Koreaness because they were raised as white. I also had someone who was born in the U.S. but then went to Korea and came back, but didn’t feel American enough.

The point that I’m trying to make here is that people deal with all these types of signs and identities in very different ways, but then once we name them in a particular way, then those names prescribe what their experiences would look or feel like.

Feminism has allowed me to make sense of my own experiences. Unless academic knowledge helps us be connected to the world in a meaningful way, I don’t see the use or purpose of it. In that regard, feminism has a real special place for not just a woman but for all of us to really understand what’s going on, not only in the present, but also in the past, and even in the future.

From what you’re saying, you can’t really define yourself as a migrant, but being a woman is something you heavily identify with?

Yes. There are a lot of complexities in what it means to be a woman. That’s why I always add that what I’m interested in is transnational feminism, rather than simply feminism. And obviously this is the politics of knowledge. Unfortunately, when we talk about feminism, it refers to this western liberal feminism which has not necessarily paid good attention to the issues of intersectionality, issues of race, issues of nationality, issues of visibilities. There are a lot of other kinds of feminisms happening outside of the so-called mainstream western liberal feminism. But those things haven’t been necessarily introduced into our knowledge. Both of us have to position ourselves at this point in that we work and live in the U.S. Our familiarity with what’s out there definitely has been shaped by what happens in U.S. academia or U.S. politics. In that regard, when we think about feminism, people in the U.S. tend to think of feminism in one way, but if you actually go outside the scope of how folks in the U.S. talk about it, then there are many different ways of understanding the way feminism works and what it is in various contexts. And I think we need those types of conversations to really expand on how feminism works.

What does transnational feminism mean in connection to your upcoming book?

I’m calling it transnational feminist research because that’s the framework that allowed me to do this work, but this book is fundamentally about me encountering my late mother’s memories. My mother passed about four years ago. Since her passing, I started to learn [things] about her life, that I didn’t know. Those things started to come in really mystical ways. So I actually called it “a haunting,” because I didn’t ask for it but it started to follow me, and kept telling me those stories I didn’t know. And those stories completely changed my childhood memory. I thought my family was like this, but then everything turned upside down. And so I started to look at this as my research project to make sense of what was happening. When I tried to work this as my research project, what helped me were these transnational feminist writers who wrote about many other things that became tools for me to use during this process of inquiry. For example, I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which is about an ex-slave’s relationship with the[ir] daughter.  This is about American history, and my mother didn’t live here, she lived her whole life in Korea, and she passed there. So, her experience and what Toni Morrison writes here have nothing to do with each other. So then, her writing helped me to unlock those closed doors that allowed me to hear what she was saying in her afterlife.

There were so many other feminists, not just from the U.S. but other places, who wrote about these very irrelevant things that had nothing to do with my mother, but then their writings helped me understand, this is how you listen to, or this is how you understand the pains, this is how you actually ask different questions. Those types of connections allowed me to eventually make sense of what is happening, and that’s why I call it transnational feminist research. When they [authors] did the work, I don’t think they intended to write those [books] for me; they didn’t think of me as their audience. Some of the writings were done a really long time ago, some in African countries, or countries I’ve never visited. Still, their writings and work helped me really figure what is going on with this particular project. So I was kind of trying to show how different connections can be made; how those different connections changes you as a person. I now feel I’m indebted to those women. In turn, what I hope I can do is help my audience and readers I don’t image will read my work, but somehow my work can heal or help them in whatever situation they’re in. Knowledge can be empowering.

Did you go out looking for these different perspective or did you stumble upon them? Would you say, even though they are from different places and their experiences are different, that it was the woman experience that called to you?

I started with what was available and what I noticed. For example, while I was going through the first initial stage I stumbled upon the book “Living a Feminist Life” by Sarah Ahmed. As I was reading it, there were parts where I thought “wow, this book really gives me some handles to move through or plan for my project.” Then, that book introduced me to read some other books through those types of connections. Other times when I talk about this project, to colleagues or other women, they would introduce me to other stories. For me, connection became a key idea that I keep coming back to. Sometimes I feel like we just don’t notice the connections we have. My argument in the book is that we need to learn to notice those connections. What I’ve learned through this project is that by connecting to my mother’s unsaid story, I was able to connect to that, but then the connection became only possible because of these other women’s work.

There has been a lot of discussion of what feminism means. Some people define it simply as “feminism is equality.” Other people argue that it’s not as simple as that; that it means so much more. What would be your definition?

I’m really bad at defining things, because I think that sometimes a definition limits what’s there. The reason that I think like that is because our language could never capture reality. You understand as a Spanish speaker that there is no direct translation. You can never authentically translate what is being said in one language to another language. There are certain expressions that can never be translated. What it tells us is that language is not a representation of reality. If it is, we should be able to directly translate. Language can only represent partial reality.That’s why I’m afraid of giving a definition of any concept, because then I’m afraid when I give a definition, I could leave out all those other things happening.

I think feminism is definitely more than equality. People’s focus on equality also misses out on the focus of equity. Because we live in the world where there have been so much oppressive and discriminatory history, we cannot only strive for equality. We also have to think about equity. I also think that concept of equality itself is based on this western notion of individuality. We start to think of connections again. What we want for the future might be more than equality — whether women get equal opportunity to men — but it is more about ways that we actually understand those power dynamics and relations that involve all those different differences. And how to envision and imagine maybe a different future for all of us.

Even though it sounds like feminism is an issue between men and women, it’s not only about that because—obviously women’s experiences in subjective positions definitely have played a big role in developing feminism—but once you actually start to engage in transnational feminism, even feminists of color, then you start to realize that our experience cannot be compartmentalized through the lens of gender. We embrace the issues of gender through feminism but also at the same time to be a truly liberating system of thinking, we have to also address how those other components of who we are, are connected to the issues of gender.

Anything you’d like to add?

Because you’re trying to make a story about me as female professor at LIU, what I’d like to share is that we can think about achievement in different ways. I can flaunt about everything I’ve done, and all the writings I’ve done, and obviously my professional CV will document all the things I’ve done as a professor. At the same time, what I’m most proud of is the fact that for me, my priority has been my family. I have a daughter, and my marriage has been for 27 years. While there are all those type of outside accomplishments that people can easily notice, I feel there are more difficult things we do as a person, even though those things are not considered accomplishments, sometimes we need to flip the story line and say perhaps what’s more important are those kinds of things.

Even relationships I’ve developed with colleagues. There’s a reading group on campus, relationships with junior faculty, not only at this university, particularly faculty of color. Those things will never be featured on my CV but I think that’s the kind of pitfall of our society, which could be critiqued through a gender lens. Because what we value in a male-dominated value system, where the so-called “productive work” happens outside, and the inside-work is also pretty important.



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