Remembering JaHyun Kim Haboush, a decade later

Stephanie K. Kim
7 min readJan 30, 2021
Photograph of JaHyun Kim Haboush

JaHyun Kim Haboush
King Sejong Professor of Korean Studies
Columbia University

August 10, 1941 — January 30, 2011

A decade ago today, JaHyun Kim Haboush passed away. Others have already written about her work and accomplishments, so I won’t rehash those. Instead, I want to share some personal stories and anecdotes from her life. She was my aunt, by the way.

One caveat to the reader, however: I’m not a reliable storyteller. Ja was a fiercely private person. I’ve put together pieces of her life through the stories I learned, but many are from secondary and even tertiary retellings. I’ve also omitted certain details out of consideration for her and others. Still, I try my best.

Born to a wealthy family in Seoul in 1941, Ja was the eldest of five children. She was her father’s favorite, and he showered her with a coterie of imported clothes and other luxuries. But everything changed during the Korean War when she was a young preteen. She, as well as her mother and younger siblings, were violently displaced. Her mother died tragically during this time. Shortly after, her father remarried to his mistress.

Her father was terrible at managing money, and amid the instability of the postwar period, the family of seven lost their home. They borrowed a lot and barely got by. Despite her unstable home life, she projected a polished image to everyone else. She did well in school and graduated from Ewha Womans University as an English major in 1962.

Ja was a strikingly beautiful young woman. I heard from my father that she was a semi-finalist in a Miss Korea pageant. I asked her about this once, and she replied coyly, “I did better than that!” She dated a film director and was cast in one of his movies, though I don’t know which director or which film. She was also exceptionally stylish from a young age and always looked like a million bucks, though she was far from it. Indeed, her family was quite poor and indebted by the time she finished college.

Eventually, she made her way to the United States. Only the most well-connected South Koreans could do so in the 1960s, but she obtained a student visa that was finagled for her through her then boyfriend’s wealthy family. They attended Ohio State together as graduate students. But she became unhappy and left him and her studies behind. She moved to New York, where she worked, illegally, as a waitress. She dated an Italian American man from Brooklyn studying math at Columbia. They moved in together.

When her jilted ex-boyfriend at Ohio State learned of this, he reported her to immigration services. As she faced deportation, her Brooklyn beau suddenly proposed. They married hastily at City Hall, and she became JaHyun Kim Haboush. It’s actually this that allowed her entire family and their spouses’ families to immigrate to the United States following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. My family jokes that Ja is responsible for creating something like 50+ Korean Americans.

She and her husband moved to Michigan, where he got a job teaching at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor was a hippie enclave in the late 1960s, but Ja was certainly a contrasting sight — a modelesque Korean woman with a penchant for designer clothing toting around a white Maltese puppy and a black cat in each arm. Meanwhile, she completed an M.A. in Chinese literature at the University of Michigan in 1970.

Afterwards, she returned to New York to do a Ph.D. in Korean history at Columbia. By then, she was a woman in her thirties in a commuter marriage pursuing a doctorate. This was highly unconventional at the time. Ja’s doctoral advisor shared some reflections about working with her here.

She finished her Ph.D. in 1978 but had a tough time finding a stable job. Not many U.S. colleges and universities were interested in hiring a premodern historian of Korea. She adjuncted and took temp positions. She almost quit academia for law school. There were many setbacks in her early career.

Once, she answered a call for papers to contribute to a Korean Studies anthology that a more senior scholar was putting together, a rarity at that time. She mailed a copy of her paper for consideration but never heard back. When the anthology was published, however, there was her paper — published word for word under the senior scholar’s name. It still remains published as this other person’s paper.

Yet Ja was startlingly headstrong. She was determined to overcome this setback by producing even better work that would outshine that paper and this person’s entire oeuvre. And that’s what she did. She published numerous papers, wrote and edited many books, and received awards and accolades. She secured a professorship at the University of Illinois, and eventually, one at her alma mater Columbia to take up the prestigious chairship her doctoral advisor held. This part of her professional arc has been shared in a number of obituaries.

I learned of these stories over the years from those who were close to her. In fact, I even have my own stories about her to tell.

When Ja won an award for her translation of The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong, she threw a party to celebrate with her family at the Essex House. We showed up to her lavish dinner, some of us even traveling from out of state, but she was nowhere to be found. We waited and waited until she showed up two hours late to her own party. Our reserved table had already been given away, but the restaurant did their best to accommodate us by offering a different table. She refused. After waiting another two hours for that one table, we were finally seated only to find that every other table was readily available in a nearly empty restaurant. Too famished to make a fuss, we ate our food close to ten o’clock, only Ja satisfied to be seated at her special table.

On another occasion, when she was a professor at Columbia, she once let me stay at her posh apartment in Morningside Heights while she was away for a summer doing research. Without telling her, I brought my little dog, who chewed up one of her esoteric books in Classical Chinese beyond repair. I thought, surely, she wouldn’t notice a single missing book among the thousands in her massive library. But she never missed a thing, especially when it came to her research. Within mere hours of her return home, she called me to ask if I’d seen her book in that roundabout yet terrifying way she spoke when confronting someone. I played dumb. I doubt she bought my act, but surprisingly, she let it go. I later learned that the book was part of her complete collection of the Joseon Wangjo Sillok that she had amassed over decades. I like to think that this speaks to her incredible meticulousness as a scholar as well as her uncharacteristically outsized patience for her favorite niece.

Suffice it to say that she had a reputation for being intimidating. But I knew her as a deeply caring person who held high expectations for herself and others. She didn’t hold back, and you knew immediately if she liked you (or didn’t). She never had children, but I think she wanted them. She certainly spoke of her students with genuine attentiveness as if she were their surrogate. I was never her student, of course, but I still benefitted from her guidance as I went through my own youthful meanderings and false starts. I found comfort in her blunt advice. Always bold and original, she encouraged me to find my own bearings that didn’t just follow some cookie cutter path or even in her footsteps. And over time, she went from my Big Aunt to someone who I would call a friend. We’d get together for a meal every month or so just to chat.

I eventually started a doctoral program in a different field than hers. I think our regular chats piqued my curiosity about Korea, though, and I gradually cultivated an area studies focus alongside a disciplinary one. In my first year, I penned a reflective essay about memory and shame and family secrets through the story of my late grandmother, Ja’s biological mother. Sometime later, Ja offered to tell me about her mother, but I was busy preparing for my qualifying exams and didn’t make time for this. And then Ja died.

She had been battling breast cancer for nearly two decades. She kept this a secret, too, and never let on her condition to most people. Even family members and close friends had no idea until it was visibly quite obvious that she was ill. At her funeral, loved ones repeated in speech after speech, if only I had known . . .

I think about this a lot. It’s perhaps why I share these stories now, to acknowledge the life she lived, with its celebratory moments and its blemishes, as well as its secrets. She was a dynamic, complex woman who lived a daring life. Sometimes that gets lost in obituaries that read like an academic CV or that canonize her existence as an extension of her work. She loved her work, of course, but she was a passionate person who loved many things — her husband Bill, her family and friends, living in New York, traveling, the opera, French cafés, Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream (you should’ve seen her freezer), and celebrating her students’ successes, among others.

I like to think that she’d be touched that I found a calling in Korean Studies, too, in a way quite distinct from hers. I dedicated my dissertation to her when I finished it a few years after her passing.

I miss her very much.