Professor Oh Explores Family Ties, Immigration In America

Arissa Oh emigrated from South Korea with her family and resettled in Canada at a young age, traveled solely to the United States for college, spontaneously departed for the Czech Republic following an investment banking program on Wall Street, and journeyed to various regions of America for her academic pursuits after her return.
It is no wonder then that Oh, an assistant professor within the history department at Boston College, specializes in U.S. immigration and race, family and kinship, transnational Asian-American history, gender, and Cold War political and social history.

Oh was 2 years old when she and her family immigrated to Canada from her birthplace in Pusan, South Korea. For her undergraduate education, she attended Yale University, journeying south to the U.S. by herself for her collegiate studies. Originally, Oh set out to become a human rights lawyer, obtaining a B.A. in political science and international studies in 1996 for this reason.

“I wanted to save the world,” Oh said. “I was all set to go to law school, but the night before the LSAT, I had an epiphany.” She decided that she truly did not desire to practice law and instead decided to explore the world of investment banking after college. Following her experience on Wall Street through a two-year analyst program, however, Oh concluded that this was not her niche, either.

“I hated it,” she said. “So, I bought a one-way ticket to the Czech Republic.”

Three years in Europe encountering discrimination—both personally and otherwise—engendered within Oh a profound interest in identity, immigration, and race, and she began to consider graduate school as a means of researching and analyzing these topics.
“At first, I was thinking maybe I would get my master’s in political science, but I eventually chose history,” she said. “History offers more of the narratives, the stories of the past, as opposed to the statistics and policies, which political science interprets more closely.”

Oh came back to the States for school, migrating this time to the Midwest for her graduate education at the University of Chicago. She acquired both her master’s and doctorate in U.S. History in 2002 and 2008, respectively, afterward leaving for the University of Illinois and a postdoctoral fellowship in the Asian American Studies Program.

Following a year there, she left for the University of Illinois at Chicago, instructing as an adjunct professor in the Asian American studies department. Due to the dismal job market, however, Oh almost did not continue in academia after UIC.

“I certainly was preparing my resume at the time that this job became an option,” she said of her prospects for possible employment when BC offered her a position. She took advantage of the opportunity, accepting the job and moving from Chicago to Boston with her husband and two children.

On the Heights, Oh began in 2010 by teaching The Study and Writing of History, which she centered on adoption, and an additional course on Asian-American history. In the past, she also taught a course entitled Nannies, Maids & Mail Order Brides: Gender & Migration.

“I didn’t realize BC students pick by name of the course, so I had to spice up my course titles a bit to attract people to them,” Oh said.

This semester, she instructs both U.S. Immigration History and Adoption and Kinship in America, a small discussion class that examines the relationship between gender, nation, identity, class, race, culture, rights, and citizenship in the U.S. from the late 19th to late 20th century. Oh will be teaching the second half of the core next semester—America in the World II—along with The Study and Writing of History, which she is titling Happy Days: The American Family from the Bomb to the Sexual Revolution. “Again, I had to give it a sexy title,” she said, jokingly.

In the future, Oh wants to offer a class called “War and Sex”—a course that examines the profound effects that military conflict has in terms of marriage, rape, adoption, and the like. “I think the title might interest some students, at least,” she said.

This past summer, Oh finished her first book, a work that details the history of immigration. Within the book, she argues that immigration has its root in the Cold War, and that one of the ways the U.S. tried to combat the Cold War was through international adoption, a phenomenon that precipitated drastic change to immigration legislation and foreign and domestic policy. The book’s tentative release is scheduled for the spring of 2015.

For her next book project, Oh hopes to cover marriage migration—namely, the ways in which people attempt to manipulate immigration policies through fraud; the ways the IRS attempts to catch these offenders; the genesis of green card marriages with the U.S. army abroad; and how these overseas relationships came back to the U.S with the military’s return.

Regarding her experience at BC thus far, Oh referenced both her colleagues and students. “I love my department,” she said. “Everyone is so committed, so supportive, and so helpful, and they all do so much for their students. I love my students, too—they’re so polite and dedicated to their school work.”

She did note that this politeness often begets a hesitancy to disagree during discussion, however.

“I want to get them to argue, to try to have a more open, productive, civil disagreement,” she said. “I like it when the classroom gets uncomfortable. I want more disruptive, diverse thinking. Students don’t need to be so intimidated by history—we are just trying to ask a lot of questions, learn how to read, write, and argue, and discover how to be a well-rounded, good citizen.”

Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor

September 14, 2014