The secret lives of our profs: Instructor of Freshman and East Asian Studies Matthew Wegehaupt

Rachel Young

(Photo by Tara Atkinson)

Instructor of Freshman and East Asian Studies Matthew Wegehaupt began his education at the United States Air Force Academy. After a series of self-realizations and a conversion to Buddhism, he transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he received an undergraduate degree in political science, and then pursued a master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley. Wegehaupt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in East Asian studies with a focus on Korea. During his time at Lawrence, he has taught freshman studies, gender studies, and East Asian studies. He will be teaching four classes next year, including Modern Korean History Through Literature and Film. Wegehaupt is fluent in Korean and has previously lived in Korea.

RY: How did you become interested in Buddhism and East Asian studies?

MW: After I transferred to the UW-Madison, I discovered that there were many Buddhist teachers and also many Buddhist temples in the city. That got me engaged in the [Buddhist] culture. Once I graduated, I wanted to leave the United States and go totally outside my culture. Because I was interested in Buddhism, I wanted to go to Asia. Out of the many countries to pick, I chose Korea because it wasn’t a dictatorship, it has good weather, good food and there were still many practicing Buddhists there. I went to Korea and fell in love with it. At that time, [the relationship I had with Korea] was more of a “crush.” I only saw the good things. Now, I would say it’s more of a “marriage.” I have a deep love for Korea, but the kind of deep love that combines everything together. There is a little love, and a little hate. However, I’m committed [to Korea] for life, even if I don’t like it sometimes. I have been there probably a dozen times, lived there, taught there and studied there.

RY: You’re also interested in gender studies. Where did that come into play?

MW: I became interested in gender studies along the way because in my own life, when I went through my conversion experience, I started thinking about oppression. I saw the oppression of women and sexual minorities as some of the main sources of oppression in the world, and I became very interested in feminist theory, feminist politics and sexuality. The gender situation in Korea is very stark. Masculinity and femininity are very well marked. I think the models of ideal femininity in Korea are incredibly narrow. It is difficult, for example, to be a non-normative woman in Korea. Men in Korea have more leeway because there are different types of masculinity in Korea. Men in Korea can walk down the street hand in hand and they may be homosexual or heterosexual, no one knows. Homo-sociality is much more accepted in Korea. In the United States, there exists this “bro culture” about males not touching each other for fear of being called gay. None of this exists in Korea. It was liberating to live in a culture where male-male friendship is very tight. Not that male-male friendship isn’t tight in America, but there is no fear of it signifying homosexuality in Korea.

RY: In addition to working on your Ph.D. and teaching, you also translate. What projects are you working on?

MW: My major work is a published collection of Buddhist poetry that was written by a Buddhist monk, Beopjeong, who died just over a year ago. He was sort of like the Thoreau of Korea — he was both hermit and prolific writer, and after 50 years of being a monk he put together a collection of Dharma poetry, that I translated into English. It’s the first time this work was translated. I’ve done other work for Buddhist websites in Korea, translated artist statements and theses and academic articles. I also have a project about to be published. It’s a translation of the diary of the 8th century Korean monk Hyecho who went on a pilgrimage to India and recorded his travels. That work will be published soon in a multivolume work on Korean Buddhism. Translating is one of the most fulfilling, creative things that I’ve done in my academic career.

RY: Do you miss living in Korea?

MW: There are two nourishing facets of life that the United States has that Korea doesn’t. First, the environmental life in the United States is so much better than in Korea. Also, the gender environment there, as I stated before, is very difficult to deal with. As a white man in Korea, I had a lot of privileges that came to me whether or not I asked for them, but seeing gender as a social order operate to the level of extremism that it does in Korea is difficult for me. I do miss Korea a lot though. The level of fun to be had in Korea is just unbelievable. I miss the sense of play that the Koreans have, the ability to go on a long hike and visit a temple, to smell the incense after walking through the forest for a long time and the ability to go to a bathhouse. Those are experiences that can’t be recreated here. And I of course miss speaking Korean — I can’t even bring it up because it hurts so much! My friends and family there laugh at my poor skill when we talk on the phone sometimes!

RY: How does your background in East Asian studies influence how you teach Freshman Studies?

MW: It has a strong influence. For example, when I read Plato, or articles about Plato that tout it as the sum total of ethics, I have to laugh because there was a whole world in Asia that was thinking about these same topics around the same time. However, Asian literature and philosophy doesn’t receive the same status in Western academia, so I think I’m able to offer a more world-expanding perspective to students owing to my East Asian studies background. When it comes to Zhuangzi, I’ve taught East Asian religion, so it is right in my field. Also, as a practicing Buddhist, I feel I’ve come to know what Zhuangzi is talking about experientially, and I love being able to share that with the students. I want to keep the text foreign but at the same time make it familiar. If the text was too familiar to us, we would already all be Daoists and Buddhists! There is something jarring about Zhuangzi’s text, it is radically different, but as humans we need to be able to find that space between foreign and familiar.