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Coronavirus Highlights Need For UWF Center For Asian Studies

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Sandra Averhart
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WUWF Public Media

It’s an exciting, yet anxious, time for the University of West Florida Center for Asian Studies. The global spread of the coronavirus began just as the center was gaining momentum with its new name, new programs and special events planned. 

“Yeah, Asia, it’s been called the Asian Century,” proclaimed Dr. Douglas Trelfa, director of the UWF Center for Asian Studies. He says it’s important for the university to give students the opportunity to learn about and engage with Asian countries.

“Many of them are going to go work in Asia; this is why we have the center,” said Trelfa, pointing out that many of their students will graduate and then take jobs teaching English in China, South Korea, Japan, and he predicts that will soon be the case in countries like Vietnam.

“This is part of their career, and some of them will decide to stay. And, as part of our center, we want to make students aware of how to do that.”

For the moment, though, anything that involves travel to Asia is on hold due to the coronavirus.

Based on reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UWF is beginning two weeks of online delivery for class instruction as of Monday, Mar. 16. Also, due to travel advisories from the U.S. Department of State regarding COVID-19,  the university has instituted a ban on all university-sponsored travel to Italy and the Asian countries of China, South Korea, and Japan, until further notice.

“It’s obviously a major impact. It’s introduced uncertainty into our planning, and, we’ve also had some real impacts with cancellation,” said Trelfa.

“This is the time of year when students are making plans about what to do in the summer. And, we would be optimistic and say the situation may be different in the summer, but it’s hard to plan based on what’s going on now. It could be much worse. It could get better.”

The cancellation is a reference to a Mar. 17 program featuring a speaker from Japan who was unable to make the trip due to travel restrictions related to the coronavirus.

“We had a very wonderful speaker planned, a very exciting opportunity for the university community to learn about a very important issue, which is the kidnapping issue, where 17 Japanese nationals were abducted in the late 1970’s by North Korea,” explained Trelfa.

“We were going to hear from Mr. Kaoru Hasuike, who was abducted when he was a college student off the coast of Northern Japan and spent 24 years in North Korea. He was abducted with his girlfriend at the time, who later became his wife, and they had two children in North Korea.  We were quite excited to be able to get this speaker to come here to talk about his life in North Korea and his repatriation to Japan.”

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Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
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WUWF Public Media
Dr. Douglas Trelfa is director of the UWF Center for Asian Studies, previously known as the Japan Center.

Trelfa says it was unfortunate that they’ve had to cancel Hasuike’s visit, but he hopes to reschedule the program for later this year.

Before the first reported case of coronavirus Dec. 1 in China, the Center for Asian Studies was in the midst of some exciting new initiatives. Also, a launch party was held to celebrate a new name, new branding.

“That’s right. We were the Japan Center, previously, and for over 30 years we had large success working with Japan, creating partnerships, a sister-city relationship, a sister-state relationship, partners with many universities in Japan and annual study abroad to Japan; all these wonderful things that we’ve been doing with the Japanese community. Now, we’re building on that,” said Trelfa.

“We’re moving into other countries within Asia, so this year in particular, we’re focused on engaging with South Korea.”

Thanks to the K-Pop boom, Trelfa says South Korea is having a moment and UWF students have taken notice.

“In fact, the students are really reaching out to us, in a way, and saying, “We want Korean language. We want more about Korea. We want to learn.” They’re just fascinated with Korea,” he said.

“BTS, as you know is a very popular group, maybe the most popular pop group on the planet, right now, hailing from South Korea. They’re performing in Atlanta. They’ve been on the Jimmy Fallon Show. I hear of students paying up to $500-$1,000 for tickets, buying memorabilia. And, this is translating into interest in the Korean language.”

The interest has grown even more following the release of the blockbuster, Korean-language movie, “Parasite.”

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Credit Center for Asian Studies
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Center for Asian Studies
UWF Korean Club officers wearing Hanbok, the traditional Korean dress, while practicing the traditional fan dance.

“So, this past semester, we formed a Korean club. The students got together and said we want to have a club, where people who are interested in Korea can get together. And, the club told me, ‘Hey, there’s this movie called, Parasite. We’ve got to see it,’” said Trelfa, pointing out that this was well before the film became a nominee in multiple categories for the Academy Awards.

“So, we got a little viewing party together. We went down to the theatre on Bayou Boulevard and we all watched Parasite. Three months later, we see it on the Academy Awards winning best director, best picture, best screenplay. It was an exciting moment.

Looking ahead, the center is collaborating with the local Vietnamese community to develop more programming focused on Vietnam.

Additionally, excitement had been building for the center’s Inaugural Asian Studies Conference, which was set for Friday, Mar. 20 and Saturday, Mar. 21. But, checking back late last week, Trelfa said the event is a "no go" for now.

“Yeah, unfortunately, we also have to cancel that event in line with the state university system moving to online instruction for at least two weeks until Mar. 30, 2020," he explained. "So, based on that, we are postponing our conference to a date that we hope we can do, perhaps in the fall semester of this year.”

Keeping with university policy, Korean language courses will continue online, but tea ceremony and origami workshops have been postponed for this month, with plans to resume in April if the situation improves.

On a positive note, Trelfa believes today’s challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in China, demonstrate need for the Center for Asian Studies.

“Some of the repercussions for us is to think about, even though this virus is causing us to have to shut down travel and limit our activities, it just goes to show us just how important it is to be globally connected with Asia. So, this pause has highlighted to me the importance of what we’ve been doing.”

What they’ve been doing is developing and supporting programs and activities that enhance the understanding of Asian societies, cultures, languages, and current issues, that now include the global spread of COVID-19.

For more information about the Center for Asian Studies, go online to uwf.edu