Remembering Nancy Abelmann

Wednesday, January 6, 2016 - 03:30
We are sad to announce that UC Berkeley PhD Alumna Nancy Abelmann passed away on January 6, 2016, in Urbana, Illinois, at the age of 56.  Professor Abelmann received her PhD at Berkeley in 1990 and was known and loved here as a brilliant student, colleague, and friend.  At the time of her death, she was the Harry E. Preble Professor of Anthropology, Asian American Studies, and East Asian Languages Cultures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Professors Nelson Graburn and Aihwa Ong have written the following tributes in celebration of Nancy's life and her work.   

From Nelson Graburn:

"Nancy Abelmann was a personal and family friend, a former advisee (PhD, U C Berkeley, 1990), a colleague and, more than any other graduate student, a teacher. We became acquainted at Berkeley through our mutual interest in anthropology and Japan and I became her supervisor for her doctoral dissertation. She had already spent a year at Minpaku (National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, and she was a sought after translator (by Prof. Nakamaki among others) for her command of Japanese. She became a teacher at my daughters’ Nippongogakuen (Saturday Japanese language school) in Oakland and they remember her to this day as the best they ever had. In 1987 when Kathy and I took my mother-in-law Shizuka Yaguchi to Japan for her Beiju (88th birthday celebration) Nancy invited us all to join her in Korea for a week. Not only did she take us around Seoul but we visited her village field site, Jeam-ri where in 1919 the Japanese army had locked the Koreans in their Church and burned them to death, the origin of the Samil (March 1st) Movement. Yet at lunch in a Korean farmhouse my mother-in-law recognized how much their life was like hers in Japan sixty years earlier and was moved to appreciate their humanity. Nancy wrote a brilliant thesis (a common adjective for her work and life) and after a postdoc settled in Urbana for the rest of her professional career. However, her first book was Blue Dreams, (written with John Lie) about the predicament of Korean-Americans in the Los Angeles riots.  And she (and John Lie) reviewed Ishimori’s pioneer book (in Japanese) on tourism and music – Japanese tourism was an early interest of hers. And ‘the rest is history’ - to which she has contributed so much to so many people in the USA, Korea and Japan.  Although we were all expecting the bad news, my daughters Eva wrote “So unfair…” and Cecily “So sad …” We couldn’t agree more, but we are also so thankful for Nancy’s life".  (Nelson and Kathy Graburn, Berkeley, January 2016).


From Aihwa Ong: 

"I first met Nancy as a graduate student in our department. She had completed an outstanding dissertation (under Nelson [Graburn]) on the 'New Village Movement' in the industrializationof S. Korea, despite our not having a contemporary Korean specialist in on campus. Soon after, I was invited by her and John Lie to a workshop where they presented their first version of Blue Dreams (on post-Watts Korean immigrants, inter-ethnic tensions and 

survival in L.A.).  Nancy quickly became famous as one of the most important scholars of contemporary South Korea. She is also admired for being an excellent chair of the department of anthropology in UI Urbana-Champaign, a position she held for many years.
A few years ago I saw Nancy in Seoul and she was her usually friendly, energetic and warm self. She had started working on Korean 'geese mothers' who accompany their young children to learn English in American schools so that they can get a leg up in the fearsomely competitive schools back home later on. In this as in so many other projects, Nancy herself mentored generations 
of American & Korean anthropologists. She is very well known and affectionately received in the Korean academic world.  We will also miss her vibrant and joyful presence; she stirred up the anthropology of Asia and made it more cosmopolitan and transnational.
She had many more things to do...." (Aihwa Ong, January 2016). 
United States