Huang: An Ode to Professor Yuh

Yujia Huang, Columnist

I recently started learning Korean as an absolute beginner. On my first day of class, I drew squiggly sticks and figures onto my notebook while quickly annotating their English equivalent to prevent myself from getting lost in a sea of similar-looking geometrical shapes. I scratched my head, trying to figure out how to write an “A” in Korean — carefully piecing together circles and lines as if I was assembling a difficult Lego puzzle. 

After an hour of trying, failing, and learning, my teacher asked, “What made you want to learn Korean?” Before I could respond, her curious glance had turned into a big knowing smile. “You must be a K-pop fan,” she guessed confidently. “Or… maybe you like Korean drama,” hitting me with another guess. I laughed, telling her that I do enjoy eating Korean fried chicken with rice cake once in a while.

My teacher seemed to be satisfied with my answer, but I knew that it wasn’t complete. My passion in learning about east Asian history, my liking of Korean food, and my openness to learning new languages was only part of the reason why I decided to pick up Korean. I had to keep searching.

Then, one night, flipping through my scrappy notes filled with the same circles and lines while attempting to write my own name in Korean for the first time, a voice in my head shouted, “Maybe It’s Professor Ji-Yeon Yuh!”

Yes, Professor Yuh! The Korean American professor who never apologizes for who she is or what she has to say. It’s the Professor Yuh who wears her Korean dress beautifully and proudly as a tribute to her heritage. It’s the Professor Yuh who displays her Korean name on top of her English name to show the world that White America’s centuries-old attempt to erase non-White identities isn’t going anywhere. It’s the Professor Yuh who tells Asian American tales of exclusion, war trauma, separation and abandonment with sorrow, tenderness and care.

Taking Professor Yuh’s class and hearing her speak with force made me feel refreshed and inspired in a way that I haven’t felt for years. It’s so rare to encounter a Professor that cares as deeply as she does. But perhaps more than anything, it’s her anger that makes her who she is. While others turn their heads away and pretend that the world is a happy place, Professor Yuh is angry. She is angry at the Japanese government for refusing to acknowledge their outrageous war crimes, angry at White America for repeatedly enabling Black and Asian lives to be killed, angry at all the injustices in the world that separate and divide. Her anger is not the destructive kind. It isn’t loud. It doesn’t tear anybody apart. Instead, it comes from a place of love. Like water, it’s forceful yet lenient at the same time. 

It takes power and courage for someone to tell the truth when often pushed to the margins by a society that celebrates Whiteness and patriarchy. Yet as an Asian American female, Professor Yuh has the courage to speak the truth loud and clear. Even when the other side gaslights and denies, Professor Yuh will tell the same truth again and again, relentlessly and fearlessly.

This is what made me want to learn Korean. I can now finally read the three Korean letters that are written beside Professor Yuh’s latinized alphabets. I draw a big circle, a long vertical line, and two shorter horizontal ones attached to it. I write without hesitation: Ji-Yeon Yuh. But this time it is in Korean. I celebrate.

Yujia Huang is a Weinberg junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].  The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.