June 18, 2024

Dr. Steven Hong – Studies and Classes on Japan

Photo by Nate McReynolds.

By Catherine Pastoor ’21

One of the newest additions to Gordon College’s array of faculty includes adjunct professor Steven Hong, who teaches Japanese Culture and Language on Wednesday evenings.

The idea of care pervades Hong’s style of teaching in the classroom.  When it came to beginning to teach his Japanese Culture class at Gordon Hong said “on the first day, I was only concerned with one thing: I really wanted to build up friendship.”

Hong claims to dislike the traditional ideas of a teacher-student relationship; he prefers students to learn to make their own decisions in an academic setting, and that the role of a professor is to adjust to the needs of the students where possible. Sometimes the labels of student and educator create boundaries that devalue how much each can learn from the other.

“I ask myself every day: am I really trying to engage in a conversation with my students? Am I really willing to listen to their voice? Constantly I am asking myself this. Not just as an educator, but as a person.”

Originally from South Korea, Hong grew up in a family that had been Christian for generations. As a college student, he was forced to move to Japan because of his protesting during South Korea’s political turmoil.  He studied at Christian-founded J.F. Oberlin University in Machida, Tokyo. There, he majored in Japanese philosophy and religion and met his mentor, Yasuo Yuasa.

“He was the only faculty member who showed up every day for me,” said Hong, referring to the summer of his senior year at Oberlin. “He showed me that care is one of our most important virtues. I’m still learning, and try to deliver the meaning of taking care of other people.”

While in Japan, Hong had no plans to even travel to the United States, let alone live and teach there. “America, the country or even the name itself was never in my mind at all. When I was in Japan, it was all only Japan,” he said.

When Yuasa, his mentor, brought up a visit to the US, Hong said he wasn’t interested. But Hong respected his mentor and visited Boston on his mentor’s recommendation.

Hong stayed with one of Yuasa’s former students who was a Harvard faculty. It was a low-pressure, two month long trip.

“Just visit, have a great time,” Hong was told.

Out of everything there was to experience in the Boston area, one of the most distinct parts of life in Massachusetts for Hong was the bagels. “Every morning I went to the bagel shop, it was amazing! All the different flavors of cream cheese, and with so many different bagels”. Visiting the bagel shop became a routine for Hong.

“That was the beginning of my American life.”

Hong’s two months in the U.S. came to an end too soon for him. “I was so badly addicted to bagels.”  He wanted to explore what American had to offer ever further. An American tourist visa only holds up for six months, so the next step was to look for a job.

His mentor connected him to several departments and several universities that needed faculty for Japanese departments, but nothing was panning out. One day, on the campus of University of Massachusetts Boston, he met a Professor of Japanese language at Harvard who had created the Japanese department at UMass Boston.

After talking for a bit, Hong explained his situation, that he would be sent back to Japan unless he found work. The professor offered to introduce him to the Japanese department at UMass, and Hong found a position there.

Looking back, Hong realizes that all this was to the credit of God, and not himself. He says, “My whole life I never thought about the U.S., and I still ended up here.” All the coincidences lined up so well.

Even as a professor, Hong is still eager to learn from those around him. “I was once a college student, and now as an adjunct professor, my heart is the same, I am eager to learn,” he says, “I am so happy being with students. It is one of God’s gifts; I am never tired of it. Even with two or three hours of sleep. Even then, when I walk in the classroom, and I feel like superman; I’m so full of energy.”

As much as he loves the US, Hong says his love for Japan and its culture is still a significant part of his life. He still visits and brings his former students with him.

“Gordon College students are different from others I have worked with. It reminds me of when I was in college in Japan,” says Prof. Hong. “Many people there greatly influenced me to have not only a good mind, but a good heart. Being here reminds me of there.”

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