By Zev Handel
Asian communities in Washington are changing, and our state’s century-old Asian languages department must change as well. Comparison of the U.S. 2020 Census results with the previous 2010 Census demonstrates that Asian demographics in our state and region are undergoing dramatic changes.
Increasingly, the nature of Asian Studies programs at major research universities like the University of Washington (UW) is shifting to embrace the perspectives of Asian American communities. Indeed, some languages—Tagalog being the prime example—are now taught within the American Ethnic Studies Department because of their connection to “the lived experiences of communities of color in American societies.”
In the Department of Asian Languages and Literature, recent dramatic growth in two of our programs, Korean and Southeast Asian, reflects both ongoing shifts in local demographics and a necessary corrective to long-standing biases in Western approaches to non-European languages and cultures.
Consider that, according to the Pew Research Center, in 2019 Seattle boasted the third-largest Cambodian population among American cities, behind only Los Angeles and Boston. And it had the fourth-largest Korean population, trailing Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. Considering that Seattle ranks about 18th in population in the U.S., these are impressive numbers. And while Singaporeans are not numerous in Washington state, numbering only around 700, they were the fastest-growing Asian group in the state between the 2010 and 2020 Census, according to the Census Bureau.
The Department of Asian Languages and Literature is belatedly catching up to some of these trends. The department was founded over a century ago, in 1909, as the Department of Oriental History, Literature, and Institutions. Sanskrit was part of the department’s language offerings from the beginning. Chinese and Japanese language instruction began in the 1920s. Today, the department provides instruction in 10 languages spanning all of Asia, organized administratively into five programs: South Asian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Southeast Asian.
But despite the expansion that has taken place over the last century, the department’s roots still exert a strong influence. Only three of the five programs offer graduate degrees: South Asian, Chinese, and Japanese. Korean language instruction began in the 1940s, and Thai language instruction in the 1960s. But despite the many decades in which we have had scholars and teachers specializing in Korean and Southeast Asian languages, these two programs have held secondary status in the department—until now. In the last few years, several exciting developments have catalyzed these two areas of our department and paved the way for future growth.
In early 2022, we established the first research position in the Southeast Asian program with the hiring of Assistant Professor Nazry Bahrawi, a specialist in the literature and cultures of Indonesia and the Malay world. This position complements our long-standing Indonesian language program. At the same time, we hired a second teaching professor of Vietnamese language to accommodate the robust growth in our Vietnamese language program. Beginning this past autumn, the department began offering Khmer language courses for the first time. (The Khmer language program was previously run by the Center for Southeast Asia and its Diasporas within the Jackson School of International Studies.) In short order, our faculty in Southeast Asian languages has grown from two to five, opening up new possibilities for research and teaching.
Our Korean program has had an active research component for decades, but with only one tenure-line faculty member, it has not been possible to maintain a graduate degree program. Now the Korean program is growing rapidly. In Autumn 2021, we created a new position in Korean film and queer studies with the hiring of Assistant Professor Ungsan Kim, strengthening the program’s research agenda and forging new ties with Cinema and Media Studies, Taiwan Studies, and Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies. As demand for our Korean language courses continues to grow, we have added a new teaching professor in Korean, Dr. SeaHee Choi, allowing us to more consistently offer advanced Korean language and culture courses.
This welcome re-balancing of the department’s regional programs is not just driven by demographic shifts in our region. Across the country, there has been a growing academic interest in Korea and Southeast Asian cultures, partly as a corrective to past over-emphasis on what Western scholars saw as the dominant cultures of Asia: China, Japan, and India. Beyond academia, global trends have raised the cultural profile of Southeast Asia and Korea on the world stage. But shifting demographics are also driving changes in language course enrollments and, notably, increasing demand for courses in literature and culture that focus not just on Asia today and in the past, but also on the current Asian-American experience.
I’m excited to be chairing the department at a time of dynamic change and growth. And I’m eager to see where our talented faculty and students will take our Southeast Asian and Korean programs over the next decade, as we strive to serve our communities and advance a meaningful research agenda. The old cliché has it that academia is an “ivory tower,” isolated from and ignorant of the needs and values of ordinary people in the real world. In fact, our state’s crown jewel of a public university is inextricably interwoven with our local communities through the students we serve, the leaders we cultivate, the cultural knowledge we generate and disseminate, and our public engagement through talks, events, and lectures. This year, our annual Markus Lecture will feature a Southeast Asian theme for the first time in its 25-year history. Our Washin Kai Lecture will touch on the intertwined histories of writing in Korea, Vietnam, China, and Japan. We hope you will join us at one or both of these spring talks—keep an eye on the AL&L Department website for details—as we continue to change and adapt along with the communities we serve.
Zev Handel is a professor of Chinese linguistics and chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington in Seattle. This is the latest quarterly op-ed contribution by faculty, students, and affiliates from the Department of Asian Languages and Literature at UW.