The ICAS Lectures

No. 2001-0818-HSK

The challenges and issues facing the emerging generation

Hetti S. Kang

ICAS Spring Symposium
Korean Diaspora: Challenges facing the Korean-American Community (KAC) in the New Century

Jubilee Presbyterian Church
20 West Sixth Avenue at Fayette Street,
Conshohocken, PA 19428,
August 18, 2001

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3992

Biographic Sketch: Hetti S. Kang

The challenges and issues facing the emerging generation

Hetti S Kang


I want to thank all of you who made this symposium possible including the ICAS organization, speakers, discussants, and most importantly, you, the audience participants in this very important survey of the life issues that continue to influence our values, our dreams, and our future. It truly is worthwhile to examine thoughtfully and to ask some significant questions regarding our past events and present condition, through these kind of gatherings so that we may shape a better future for ourselves and our community, with a broader understanding of our own identity within our common culture. I'm honored to speak before you on the topic of challenges and issues facing the emerging Korean-American generation. But I must warn you that I'm a hopeless optimist whose glass is always half-full, never half empty, so the topic may move from the challenges and issues to "the opportunities and hopes for the emerging generation" along the way.

Let me begin with a brief introduction of myself and my background. My family immigrated to Erie, Pennsylvania - a relatively small city located in northwestern part of the state - back in 1985. I was a FOB. For those of you who are not familiar with this term, FOB is an acronym for Fresh Off the Boat. I attended a predominately Caucasian high school and college. So you can imagine how interesting my Asian physical manifestation was to my classmates. I still remember one particular high school teacher who felt strongly about sharing his favorite M-A-S-H episodes with me every time he saw me. I noticed and eventually grew tired of how my physical appearance would often trigger talk about the Korean War, Korean food, martial arts, or the seemingly peculiar habit of taking shoes off in the house. Growing up in this environment, I disliked being labeled 'different' by others. It was unavoidable that I was different. But I soon discovered that my differences and even my Korean accent could be used to my advantage. In particular, I liked the attention I received from the boys who found me unique, interesting, and mysterious. Since then my differences have become my forte.

Issue 1 : Split Identity
The first issue I want to address is split identity.
Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory defines identity as the product of the interaction between self and the social environment through several stages of life. Looking back, I can see that I have gone through a number of different stages to arrive at more a positive and realistic view of myself. In my high school years, I attempted to assimilate into the English-oriented American culture even if it meant the discarding of my origin. Eventually I came to a realization that my permanent and involuntary identity such as physical visibility and the social definition of race cannot be altered. This realization placed me in a very awkward station called split identity.

According to Sociologist Milton Gordon, there exists three models, "Anglo-conformity", "The Melting Pot", and "Cultural Pluralism", of how the immigrants assimilate into U.S. culture. The "Anglo-conformity" model promotes "Americanization", which is defined by Gordon as a movement of "racial amalgamation" for immigrants to disregard their origins and cultures to adopt an English-oriented cultural pattern as standard in American life. This model is less convincing today since multiculturalism persists despite the effort by the dominant Caucasian society to promote immigrants to adopt to the standard American life. "The Melting Pot" model, on the other hand, describes the contribution of all cultures in establishing a national character. This model is also found to be unrealistic with large numbers of immigrants arriving from Asia, Latin America, and other parts of the world rather than from Europe, diversity is being emphasized more in the present day than ever. The third model, "Cultural Pluralism," encourages each ethnic group to develop its cultural heritage autonomously and democratically under "a federation or commonwealth of national cultures." This model is truer in today's heterogeneous society than the first two models.

Horace Kallen, scholar, educator and philosopher, has intelligently articulated in his theory of "Cultural Pluralism" in1915. According to Kallen, the form of cultural pluralism is in that of "the federal republic" where the essence is found in "a democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously through common institutions in the enterprise of self realization according to their kind." The common language of the federal republic is English, but each ethnic group has its own peculiar dialect or speech, its own individual and inevitable esthetic and intellectual forms for its emotional and involuntary life." Kallen saw cultural pluralism "as the foundation and background for the realization of the distinctive individuality" of each ethnic group, "a multiplicity in a unity", and as "an orchestration of mankind." His description of cultural pluralism brings to my mind a unified picture of the Philadelphia Orchestra with various instrumental sections, comprised of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, harmoniously producing a rich and marvelous sound.

We, the emerging generations, including the 1.5 and 2nd generation Korean-Americans, who are the products of the American education system and culture, are the individuals living in this pluralistic society. We are one of many hyphenated ethnic groups of Americans, living in this seemingly unmelting pot called the United States (U.S.). Looking back through U.S. history, various ethnic groups such as the African-American, Hispanic-American, the Jewish-American, and many others, have maintained their respective cultural uniqueness despite the past "Americanization" movements, and have not melted away as described in this model of "cultural pluralism." The inevitable reality is the existence of this split or hyphenated identity in us interwoven by the Korean heritage and the American upbringing. Denial or ignorance of either half would be a loss and a disadvantage, and can even be damaging to one's self identity. We, the emerging generations, should not only acknowledge the existence of this split or hyphenated identity within ourselves but better develop and use it to our advantage by rooting ourselves into this land of unmelting pot.

What are the issues before us?

Imagine this spectrum of the two color schemes on which lies our split identity; let's call the far left end of a wide-range of cool colors the American upbringing, and the right end of a wide-range of warm colors the Korean heritage. Although individually we may not fall on the same color range, we know that no Korean-American belongs to either end of the spectrum. No matter how American or Korean we claim to be, as long as we have Korean blood and live in America, we are positioned in between these two ends of the spectrum. The important question then is where is the ideal place on that spectrum where the emerging Korean-American generations with the split identity can most develop and thrive? We can ask the question another way: How Korean should a Korean-American be and reversibly, how American should a Korean-American be? The challenge here is that there are no definitive answers to these questions. Our challenge as a Korean-American generation then is to search for the answers to these questions.

Issue 2: How Korean should a Korean-American be?
Consider the first half of the twofold question: How Korean should a Korean-American be?
A few years go, I traveled through Scotland without any travel arrangements, depending solely on my impulse, mood, and the map I purchased from the Heathrow airport. The aimlessness of this solo trek took me to Inverness, Capital of the Scottish Highlands. While staying in the area for a few days, I became very fond of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Without a translucent basis, I identified myself with the people and the locality there. I learned that for a long time the highlanders have been discriminated and stereotypically viewed as ignorant barbarians and fighters in the eyes of the English-speaking world largely through the documents left by outsiders who did not understand them. Interestingly I also found that a number of the highland scholars have been raising their voices to correct these misrepresentations through rediscovering their history and publishing their findings. I happened to meet one of them, a historian, author and a key figure in shaping the future development of Highlands and Islands named James Hunter. I accidentally invited myself to his private book signing party where I was clearly an intruder since I was only Asian who was inappropriately dressed in shorts and T-shirt amongst the formally dressed Scots. In any event, his book, Last of the Free, struck me deeply. "Last of the Free" intriguingly presented a definitive account and the comprehensive recounts of humanity's involvement in the Highlands and Islands. In it he says, "The reason we dwell on past history is in order that with confidence in the future years to bring forth success and accomplishment by which we acknowledge today."

We know that stronger roots make a healthier plant and stronger roots are better able to support a tall tree. In the same way as James Hunter brilliantly articulated, we need to dig up and discover and strengthen our roots and "dwell on past history" if you will, in order to have confidence today in where we come from and what we are made of. By doing so, we are able to move forward "to bring forth success and accomplishment" in the future years. So then how do we account for our past history?; how do we bridge our past history and today to move forward into tomorrow?; and how do we attain the self confidence of who we are and what we are made of? We are mistaken if we think we have already attained it from eating Korean food, singing Korean songs, taking shoes off in the house, taking a few elementary overview lessons of Korean history and language, attending Korean church and hanging out with Korean friends. We need further self examination and need to account for how Koreans evolved into the way we are today in a holistic approach digging deeper down into our essence of being from generation to generation, our motivations, desires, and accomplishments revealed through Korean history, philosophy, literature, art and music.

How do we get there? We need larger bodies of voices, representatives, writers, and researchers in Korean history, literature, art, and music bringing exposure to our ethnicity and distinctiveness through these kind of medium in English language. Furthermore, we must build on these accounts of both positive and negative findings of our ethnicity in rooting into this unmelting pot. James Hunter through his passion and love for the Highlands and Islands not only sought out the past hidden accomplishments and stories of the people of the Highlands and Islands but also contributed in igniting today's debate about how to shape and develop the land. While I'm not suggesting everyone should be a historian, I'm pointing out the need for us to "dwell on the past history" of our ancestors and our need of self examination by digging deeper into our roots.

The fact of the matter is that we as Korean-Americans lack voices and representations in the United States and sadly we are far behind being in equilibrium with other ethnic groups in that arena. How many English literatures have you encountered on the topic of Korean or Korean-American history, literature, art, and music written by Koreans or Korean-Americans? I didn't find many from the University of Pennsylvania libraries. Out of 288 book entries found, less than 30 were in English and had relevant contents other than the Korean War but approximately 15 of them were written by outsiders meaning non-Koreans or non-Korean-Americans.

In order to identify who we are and where we come from, we need to build a stronger network amongst approximately 1 million Korean-Americans living in various parts of the United States and work together to account and recount Korean history. We can find plenty of challenges there because currently, we have many subdivision by generation, class, religion, status, and region. And as the emerging generation, we have a responsibility to help build a stronger network among the Korean-American community, specifically for the next generation.

Individually, we may be successful in our professional fields but without establishing an effective community and support system through the communal power, our success will not be as meaningful and influential. The expression "the whole is more than the sum of its parts" is clearly true. Korean-Americans need to voice the concerns that are specific to us. An example would be that the majority of medical research is performed for Caucasians. How do we voice ourselves as a race with a different genetic makeup? According to James King, author of "The Biology of Race", the degree of variation for the genetic makeup between individuals in different racial groups is 6%. What are we to do when the government policy makers ignore the need of the medical research on a genetic disease that is particular to our race? In many different areas of life, we ought to be accountable to our elders, to each other, and to the next generation. We need to amplify the voice of our elders, the first generation and ought to be the inspiration and example for the generation behind us.

Issue 3: How American should a Korean-American be?
Now consider the second half of the twofold question: How American should a Korean-American be? As much as our Korean heritage is fundamental to our growth the American heritage is also. We need to know what it means to be an American and continue to build the American dream of liberty and equality in this land. In most cases, our predecessors and parents came here for a better life. They came desiring the American dream to be theirs and their children's some day. So like most other immigrants to America, their initial immigrant stories may fall under these three categories: heroism, tragedy and greed. For simplicity's sake, allow me to define "success" as attaining wealth, power, a prestigious education, and fame more than our forefathers and parents ever could have had in Korea.

My friend Michael Lee calls it becoming the "ultra-class". We have a high regard for what our forefathers and parents have accomplished undergoing many painful experiences and afflictions through ethnic, racial, and language biases in the United States in order to lay down the foundation for their children in this land. We respect their dreams and wishes. But as my friend Michael puts it, their dreams are limited and not necessarily ours. To quote him, "We Korean-Americans seem to be a little short sighted. We primarily think only one step ahead: get good grades, get a good college education, get a good job, get lots of money, get stable income and life. In other words, become upper class and upper middle class Americans. Are these our only goals?"

Sure, it is challenging enough to be successful in that way, climbing up the social ladder to the upper class, but should we limit ourselves to that goal alone? James Hunter writes in his book "Last of the Free", "Whether in the Highlands and Islands or anywhere else, after all, there can be no cultural life - no society of any kind - in the absence of human beings... Custody, as I understand it means guardianship or protective care, we don't really own the land - nobody does. We are only stewards of it for as long as we are here. we as community accept the challenge to take care of it and to try to pass it on to the next generation in a slightly better state than that in which we receive it."

So the challenge is this. As the custodians of the land in which we make ourselves home, we as the emerging generations while acknowledging and strengthening our original roots, we ought to plant new roots as Korean-Americans in this land. The ultimate challenge is found in rooting ourselves into this land, taking care of this land, not only the land but this common wealth of a multiplicity in harmony, and passing it on to the next generation in the best way we could. So our dream should be a new dream beyond our forefathers' and parents'. Our dream should be cultivating our new Korean-American heritage and making home in this land and passing it on to the next generation. We should attain wealth, power, prestigious education, and fame in academia, technology, business, politics, law, medicine, and all other fields. We should contribute our influences and powers to make a strong and effective network amongst Korean-Americans to establish a positive and realistic view of self within common culture to have confidence in who we are as a Korean-American ethnic group. We should abandon stereotypical view points of other ethnic groups. Rather than segregation, we should promote autonomy in harmony and treat other ethnic groups as an integral instrument part of an orchestration of mankind as Kallen described it. We should ultimately give ourselves back to this land, contribute to our unmelting pluralistic society and to the next generation. More specifically speaking, donate blood, serve as a volunteer fire fighter, get involved in PTA, serve on the board of directors of various charitable or art and music organizations, volunteer for community works, participate in the political agendas, and promote "a multiplicity in a unity".

There is a verse from the Bible that has my heart's bearing: "whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all" (Mark 10:43). This seemingly paradoxical statement is also my personal belief. I dream what our American forefathers had dreamed, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". And in my humble opinion, true life, liberty and happiness come from giving and serving others. So I challenge all of you, to "dwell on the past history in order that with confidence in the future years to bring forth success and accomplishment by which we acknowledge today" and to pursue the life of liberty and happiness in this land of unmelting pot. In conclusion, I would like to read a poem by Langston Hughes with a sincere desire for all of us that we as the Korean-American emerging generations may strive to reestablish America as our pioneers had dreamed.

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the refugee clutching the hope I seek-
But finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the Negro, "problem" to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In that Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home-
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free? Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay-
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-- America will be!


Gordon, Milton. "Assimilation in America." Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Ethnic Groups in American Life, vol. 90, no.2, Spring 1961, Cambridge, Mass.

Hunter, James. Last of the Free; A Millenial History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Mainstream Publishing, 1999.

Kallen, Horace "Democracy versus the Melting-Pot", The Nation, February 18, 1915; reprinted in his Culture and Democracy in the United States, New York, Boni and Liveright, 1924; p124.

King, James. The Biology of Race.
Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981.

This page last updated 8/21/2001 jdb

ICAS Fellow