By Khadija Azhar, Lok Hang Vincent Chu, and Rajesh Panhathodi

Hanwool Choe is a discourse analyst who focuses on digital discourse, multimodal interaction, food discourse, and life stories. She received her Ph.D. in Linguistics from Georgetown University in Washington D.C., U.S.A. in 2020. She was awarded a Fulbright scholarship (2013-2015) and obtained her M.A. in Language & Communication at Georgetown University. She completed her B.A. in English Linguistics, with a minor in Education, at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea, with the highest distinction, in 2012.

What inspired you to work on eating practices and communication?

One of my research interests is everyday conversation. I think mealtime conversation, especially family mealtime, is one of the regular occasions when people talk to each other. This idea really inspired me to keep my eye on food as a discourse. I think the phrase ‘food is never just food’ pretty much sums up how food can serve as a site for understanding authentic representations and shows how people talk to each other through eating practices. This is because food holds socio-cultural significance based on age, preference, ritual, traditions, gender, race, ethnicity, social class, and so many other things. Also, there are many interactions that have actually evolved from our practice of eating together. I’ve seen many communicative activities going on at dining tables and I find them really fascinating.

What initially drew you to research multimodal sociable eating such as mukbang*?

I started watching mukbang just for fun. At that time, I was doing my graduate studies in the United States and used to watch mukbang when I was craving Korean street food. But since I’m a discourse analyst, one who’s especially interested in analyzing communication in online environments, I put the two together: the analysis of mukbang! This was one of those moments where data speaks to you. Even though mukbang was not my interest at the time, it spoke to me. That’s how I became interested in studying mukbang for my research. And, after a while, I saw the resemblance between mukbang and the typical mealtime that we have at the physical dining table. So that’s how I started studying this topic.

Have the new developments following the pandemic influenced your research around digital food discourses?

Owing to the pandemic, our physical mobility has become limited to some extent. As a result, the new normal in everyday communication now centers around technological affordances. Nowadays people ‘zoom’ with their friends and family members to have a virtual mealtime or ‘happy hour’. This really means that mukbang has become one of the new normal everyday activities. Related to that, I have become more interested in how the practice of everyday eating, including eating together, has been introduced and shared online. Currently I am writing papers about how the practice of eating well is performed in everyday vlogs. Everyday vlogs are video logs where people video-record and share their ordinary lives on YouTube. Everyday eating is one of the essential activities that vloggers always include in video logs. This is one of the new developments emerging from my mukbang research.

How does one judge the authenticity of online representation?

I think I will answer that question in the context of online environments. I think authenticity is a trending concept right now on the internet. I think authenticity really depends on how internet users use social media platforms. For instance, some celebrities use social media to show a more authentic, and real and more approachable persona for their fans. At the same time, others use their platform strategically for self-branding or for their own business. Whether representation is authentic or inauthentic really depends on how a user perceives social media platforms. This is not just about celebrities; everyone can relate to this matter of authenticity on social media because, as ordinary people, we use social media strategically or have virtual personas to construct and perform certain identities of ourselves. People find representation authentic when there is a congruence between online self-presentations and offline self-presentations. The more similar they are, the more authentic people think they are. I think a selfie would be a good example in terms of this authentic presentation of self. On the one hand, people call selfies inauthentic if they are highly edited and filtered. On the other hand, if people see similarities between online and offline presentations then they call these selfies authentic.

Do you think the facade of an avatar or virtual persona (such as that of a VTuber) affects the authenticity of how one represents oneself?

It is basically a fabricated character. However, by bringing real life qualities into digital characters, people try to make a situation look authentic. I think a make-believe strategy is going on there. Bringing in some parts of real life into an online context is a strategy to make the situation look authentic.

You have written about the narratives of Korean comfort women during the Second World War. Could you tell us more about your research interest in life stories?

I use digital archives of the testimonies of Korean comfort women. I consider it a part of my digital discourse analysis because without those digital archives I wouldn’t be able to get access to their life stories. I’m interested in these women’s life stories in particular, in the context of discrimination, marginalization, and victimization and I wanted to study how such things emerge from personal experiences, especially in relation to vulnerability. Vulnerability is what you feel when you’re physically, emotionally, or mentally exposed to being hurt or influenced, or when you feel attacked by particular experiences or situations or even people. I think life stories are one place where people, in their own voices, make their vulnerability visible and create meanings out of it and therefore show how such extremely unpleasant experiences have affected their past and present selves. At the same time, through the life stories of those who have been discriminated against, marginalized, and victimized we can also hear the voices of the unheard. This is what I aim to show in my paper about the narratives of Korean comfort women. I hope to continue to study this matter so that more people can actually listen to their unheard voices.

What other cases of digital life stories are you interested in?

I’m co-authoring a paper on another type of life story — the lunchbox moment. It is the moment when many Asian-American children bring their home food to school for their lunch and then their food is negatively judged by their mostly white classmates, because of its unique appearance. Many Asian-American people have this kind of defining childhood moment where they actually become recognized as different. Many Asian-American young adults share this kind of particular life story and live stream it on YouTube channels so that they, through this storytelling, deconstruct their marginalized identities and share their feelings and emotions about this experience. In this way, people actually bring these personal experiences into the broader context of US discrimination and marginalization. So that’s another type of life story that I noticed where people use their own voices and their own personal experiences to talk about their vulnerability.

What has your experience been like as part of the Society of Fellows at HKU?

I came to Hong Kong for the first time in 2019 for my conference presentation. The conference was a very pleasant experience for me because I met so many local researchers who have similar research interests to my own. Also, I met many Korean scholars here whom I had not met in the United States. I found it really cool that I could make research connections with other Asian researchers here. So when I went back to the United States,  I thought maybe if there’s an opportunity I would love to come back here. After I finished my Ph.D. I happened to know about this Society of Fellows program, and so I applied for the fellowship, and got it. When I started my postdoc position here at HKU I really liked the place because it really supported – and continues to support – my interdisciplinary research. The School of English is also interested in digital humanities, which is the defining characteristic of my research. That’s why I really appreciate the university’s support. Also, the Society of Fellows program has been such a great opportunity for me to pursue broader and more interdisciplinary research perspectives while also further developing my academic career before I start my new role as a faculty member. Through the Society of Fellows, I have also met scholars and fellows who are outside of linguistics but who are still doing research in digital humanities. I’ve therefore been able to broaden the spectrum of research in digital humanities as well as learn about different approaches to it in the fields of Philosophy, History, and Anthropology, to name just a few. So the Society of Fellows has really opened my eyes.

Are you planning to look at Hong Kong as part of your research on digital food discourses?

Hong Kong is a very ethnically and culturally diverse city. I am really enjoying continuing my digital food studies in the Hong Kong context because there are so many restaurants here and people and owners of restaurants use social media a lot. I really love to see how they use social media to promote their food or how they share their life stories related to food and eating practices in an online environment. I would definitely love to study that!

What are your interests outside of academia?

I really like practicing yoga. I’m a beginner but I really like learning new and more challenging poses. The sad thing is all the yoga studios are closed at this moment, so I haven’t had a chance to go and practice. Hopefully next week things will open up, and I’ll be able to go.

As someone who finished their Ph.D recently, do you have any advice for outgoing postgrad students?

I would tell current postgraduate students to foster a support network with their cohort. There are many ways to build such a network, but what my friends and I did was to have a weekly accountability meeting. Until very recently, we would meet once a week on Zoom where we talked about what we did in the past week and what we were going to do in the following week. Just sharing my research progress with someone that I feel comfortable talking about this kind of stuff with means I’ve been able to stay productive and keep up with my work. Especially since we’re still in ‘pandemic mode’, we find it harder to get things done and feel motivated. But through this weekly accountability meeting I’ve gained a lot of peer support, which has helped to keep things on track. So, my advice is to be nice to each other, help each other, and get support from your peers; it’s really powerful.

*Mukbang is a popular South Korean phenomenon where a host binge-eats on camera while interacting with an audience.

Published on: April 28, 2022 < Back >