The Push and Pull of Vocation in The Chair

This fall, NetVUE hosted a virtual roundtable discussion about the theme of vocation in the Netflix series, The Chair. Kirsten Oh, professor of practical theology at Azusa Pacific University, offered these comments about the main character’s Korean American identity and the experience of women of color in academia.

Old Main on the campus of Washington and Jefferson College, where much of The Chair was filmed. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This invitation gave me the opportunity to binge-watch the series again with an eye toward family systems and its influence on vocation as presented in The Chair’s main character, Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh. (And to answer the question that may be on some minds, NO, unfortunately, we are not related).

My initial viewing of the first few minutes of The Chair sent me to a space of euphoria. With Vivaldi’s “Gloria in D-Major,” The Chair begins with a bravado that proclaims a sense of arrival. And to have a Korean-Canadian who happens to share the same last name as me play the leading role of an American female professor—I felt represented. This, of course, is a widely shared sentiment among many Asian American female professors. To have our identity, belonging, and purpose showcased on a public screen is at once a surprising and astounding experience. In her friend and the embroiled colleague Bill Dobson’s words, Professor Kim indeed “ascended the ranks of her profession, the corner office, the publications, and so on.”

Yet, soon after, Gloria fades and she attempts to sit on a broken desk chair. I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh no ($%&#),” this probably foreshadows that her stint as a chair will flop and will be short-lived. And spoiler alert, her role as chair belies the academic system some of us who straddle the intersectional identities as women and persons of color face, that is the glass ceiling at both the teaching and leadership positions in departments, and within the institutions as well. In reviewing the series with a vocational lens there are at least these two movements that “push and pull” the various vocational contexts.

First is her Korean American identity within a culturally Korean family system. This is well-portrayed by Ji-Yong Lee’s character, Habi, a nickname from halaboggi, or grandfather. That he speaks mostly Korean in this series is a purposeful decision to show the competing expectations of both Korean and American cultures, according to Oh as reported in the Los Angeles Times. Joey S. Kim, an English literature assistant professor, explains, “…The show is able to depict both Ji-Yoon’s personal and public lives in terms of ethnic Korean identity and the ins and outs of straddling multiple cultures at once…” (See “As a Korean American Professor, Here is What I Think ‘The Chair’ Gets Right,” Truthout, September 19, 2021).

The show is able to depict both Ji-Yoon’s personal and public lives in terms of ethnic Korean identity and the ins and outs of straddling multiple cultures at once..

Joey S. Kim, Truthout, September 19, 2021.

Vocationally, Ji-Yoon is navigating her dad or Habi’s desire for his daughter’s future and fulfilling her own desires. Respectful, dutiful, and obedient daughter, the elements of her identity as a Korean-American means that perhaps just being a professor is not enough. Habi is still stuck on his daughter’s ex-fiancé, a Korean American professor. Habi grieves, “By now, you should have been married to Dr. Seung with a ‘real’ [or more closely translated, ‘truthful’] family.” At the same time, Habi yields and sacrifices for his granddaughter, Juju, and loves her deeply. This is reflected in his babysitting and his dressing up for JuJu’s Dias De Los Muertos presentation.

Nevertheless, a “normal” family would have been preferred and shown better to the large Korean American community depicted in Ji-Yoon’s niece’s first birthday party, or Dol Jahn chee. Here we encounter the cultural expectation of money-focused careers, as opposed to a vocation in an immigrant community whose first generation sacrificed linguistic, cultural, and even status conveniences for the sake of their children’s future. And often, these sacrifices mean the children feel compelled to compensate for these first generation’s sacrifices.

The doljabi, a fortune-telling custom that is part of a Korean ceremonial observance of a first birthday.

by letterhead, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

At the party, the Dol Jabbi is introduced, the main event where the birthday child chooses one object among several, that then portends the child’s future career and status:

  • Stethoscope for a doctor
  • Pencil for a teacher
  • Paint brush for an artist
  • Dollar bill for being rich
  • Tennis ball for an athlete
  • White string for a long life.

This event becomes quite riotous when a relative pushes the dollar bill to the paint-brush-oriented child. And Bill, stoned and drunk, reacts with outrage against such a scandal, proclaiming, “Let her make her own choice!” 

Even as a vocation is not simply a career or occupation, this scene addresses the collision between the individualist culture of the West and the collectivist culture of the East around vocational lives and career decisions. This cultural collision is addressed in this book, Intersecting Realities: Race, Identity, and Culture in the Spiritual-Moral Life of Young Asian Americans edited by Hak Joon Lee with topics such as God, Parents, friendships, money, racial identity, sex, and gender.

Later, the sober Bill asks Habi, what did Ji-Yoon pick at her dol jabbi? Habi responds to Bill’s question, “Ji-Yoon picked a pencil–she go straight there. No one can stop her.”

Second, the academic system itself by and large does not favor persons of color. Two students come to Ji-Yoon’s office when the only POC poli-sci professor in the department is denied tenure. They complain in distress, “Black faculty are held to different standards. Their research isn’t considered rigorous. They’re assumed to be more disorganized, less collegial.  They get invited less often to their colleagues’ houses for dinner.” 

To which Ji-Yoon answers, “I know.  Trust me, I know.”

BIPOC faculty are just not set up to succeed. As Ji-Yoon explicates it, she felt like she had been given a ticking time bomb. Professor Nancy Wang Yuen names this phenomenon the “glass cliff.” That is, it elevates women of color to positions of power in really volatile moments to see if they can resolve an otherwise unsolvable situation.

For more on the “glass cliff,” see “The Perils of Female Success” and this essay on how The Chair exemplifies this phenomena.

The other probable cause is the stereotype of academic leadership as white and male. Seen as one with strong leadership abilities, this projection makes the Asian female either too nice or too aggressive. No wonder Yaz, the star African American woman in the department is frustrated and confronts Ji-Yoon, “You act like you owe them something. Like you’re here because they let you be here, not because you deserve it.”  She names the fact that the Ivy Leagues’ wealth is “seeded by benefactors who got rich off the backs of black and yellow people—of sugar, cotton, and railroads.” To this Ji-Yoon retorts, “I didn’t get here by playing nice” but the real reason for her staying at Pembroke is the people—Joan, Bill, and a new hire named Yaz.

This retort by Ji-Yoon expresses the experience of vocation’s connection with relationships.

Added to this complexity is the salary scale, which briefly showed up on what is referred to in the show as “The List.” Even as a chair, Ji-Yoon’s pay is 6th from the highest-paid faculty in her department, which is $22k lower than the highest-paid male senior faculty ($132K) and $12k less than Joan Hambling, who has worked the same amount of years as her male faculty. This pay-scale mirrors another challenging reality for many women and women of color professors. 

At the end, Ji-Yoon gets dismissed as a chair in a 6 to 5 vote. This rather short, supposed comedy series of six episodes ends with her relaxed, content, and happy, back to teaching—to which Bill comments, “Not being chair suits you.”

Over the few months as the chair, Ji Yoon solidifies her vocation as more than about pleasing her family or getting mired in what would be considered ascending through the ranks into leadership roles as a woman and a person of color. Meaning, purpose, and identity are rediscovered by her profession of teaching—that is teaching students—a relational life of service and inter-subjective care for her colleagues. At many levels, I felt reflected in the series, but particularly here. I was grateful that the resonance was clear: I listened to my vocation as a teacher because of my love for the students and the deep connections with my colleagues.

Kirsten S. Oh is a Professor of Practical Theology at Azusa Pacific University.  She holds a Ph.D. in Theology with an emphasis in Pastoral Care and Counseling and focuses her research on intercultural narrative counseling using multidisciplinary approaches, to address the intersections of Identities. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, she serves as the co-convener for the Faith and Order Table of the National Council of Churches and chairs the United Methodist Women of Color Scholars mentoring program through the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.  With the priority to live life to the fullest, Dr. Oh enjoys listening to various genres of music and traveling with her husband, Scott, and daughter, Daniella.

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