ICAS Summer Symposium

No. 2002-0810-CSL

On Being An American

Chung Soo Lee

Summer 2002 ICAS Symposium

August 10, 2002 11:00 - 6:00 PM
Calvary Vision Community Center, 550 Township Line Road, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3289
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch & Links: Chung Soo Lee

On Being An American1

Chung Soo Lee
Director Public Affairs,
Council for America My Country

I came to the United States at the tender age of 14, some 28 years ago, from Seoul. Even though I have lived in this country for a long time now, my early impressions of America are still fresh in my mind. They, more than anything else, represent what America means to me. Here are some of those early impressions as well as a current one that I would like to share with you to hopefully generate some discussions pertinent to today's gathering here.

In the summer of 1974, the Korean Airline flew my family and me, the youngest in the family, to Honolulu on our way to LA, our temporary destination, before eventually settling into Chicago. Upon getting off the plane we were issued the green cards and were led to a waiting area in the terminal for the next connecting flight. The coolness of the air-conditioned room drastically contrasted the hot, humid air of Hawaii outside on the tarmac we had just passed through. While waiting in the red-carpeted lounge, in the midst of other weary travelers (mostly Korean immigrants like us), suddenly I heard from one corner what I thought to be a heavenly chorus. It was, as I now recall, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, all dressed in white shirts and blouses, singing in their polished harmony, "America the Beautiful." They had been on the same airplane with us; and, as I now surmise, must have completed a tour in Korea. At the first moment of landing on the US soil, they decided to sing the song that represented America more than anything else. For a weary and tired immigrant boy, who had undergone a grueling (over some 20 hours) flight across the Pacific, not knowing how he would fare in the land of English, the music could not have been more comforting. It was as though the choir was welcoming me and my family into their home land with the song so freely offered and so beautifully sung. My second impression of America I want to share with you is of a person, my college roommate, Stan. Stan came from an upper middle-class family of three children in New Mexico, a blue eyed, blond haired fellow. He was handsome in appearance, and kind and generous at heart. He allowed me and two other suitemates to use his small pick up truck from time to time, a little Datsun he used to clean homes and offices to fund his college education. It was through Stan I first heard Bob Dylan. Stan's Kenwood stereo mounted in wooden beer boxes, blasting Bob Dylan of the 80's, is still vivid in my mind and represents the practical and roughed Americans I now recognize and appreciate. Independent, down to earth, unassuming, and yet socially conscious, Stan embodied the 'kinder and gentler' Americans I have come to know and admire.

My third and last impression of America I want to share with you is of yet another person, a colleague of mine at work, George.2 George is an African-American with a brilliant mind and a caring heart, a lover of languages and an accomplished saxophone player (who plays a weekly gig with his jazz band in one of the established night clubs in downtown Philadelphia). It is always a pleasure to share our common interests in music and to talk about cultures of the world (he is an avid traveler) and to discuss our work in the office. There is a meeting of minds at times when we talk, for which I am grateful. In the course of several years we've worked together, however, I detected—in the few subtle and personal moments in our conversations—a sub current of resentment toward America he harbors in his heart, the sub current that underlies his usual optimism and kind heart he normally conveys. Even though he is successful in his job and is financially secure, he personally feels betrayed by racism in America, his home, his country. After graduating from an ivy-league university, he had to work as a security guard at one time and had to seek welfare at another time: a clear victim of job discrimination, a fact he has never forgotten. Racism for him is real and personal and is present everywhere even now. He once remarked—jokingly or sincerely I could not tell—that racism is costly and is what makes the world go around. (We were talking about the flight of the white people from the urban neighborhoods.) Music, he says, is therapeutic for his lower back-pain; but, I think, it is therapeutic for his deep-seated resentment as well.

As a Korean-immigrant, I do not feel the same victimization of racism George feels but I cannot disagree with him or ignore his experience. Sometimes I wonder how he, and many others like him, has the courage to get up everyday and face the world. George, the kind hearted and fun loving friend of mine, represents for me the dark side of America, the other America that we, Korean-Americans, unfortunately, would rather like to forget.

My impressions of America I have presented here provide a montage of conflicting images. While generous and kind, and offering a beacon of hope and prosperity for many immigrants like me, America is also plagued by its own past demons. Unless we face up to its past demons America's bright promises for the future could not be realized.

I do not mean to address the problem of racism here, a problem so vast and so deep that it would be presumptuous of me to talk about. Rather, what I want to focus on is somewhat philosophical, the question of projecting an image (a dominant image) of America.

What I have shared with you this morning is a collection of impressions, not an image, of America. I want to make a careful distinction between the two. Image unites, puts things into a single perspective, consolidates diversity into unity. Applied politically through the medium of art and mass media, image can effectively mobilize people for a social agenda or a political cause.3 On the contrary, impressions are scattered, not unified,4 and do not fit with others to make up, as it were, a giant puzzle.

There is in the end no final picture of reality, be it of America or of any other society. If modern writes write about the chaos in nature,5 certainly there is and can be no grand design for human societies and cultures. Unfortunately, however, we are too familiar with (too) many dictators who had grand designs for their people and society; and we know all too well the horrible consequences the people suffered when such designs were implemented with modern efficiency. But my point is: To devise a design is to project an image.6

It is not a coincidence, then, that my impressions of America, of its people and places, offer a montage rather than a unified picture. To present a unified image of America would be to consolidate its diverse peoples and cultures, the brighter and darker sides of its past, its promises and disappointments—all the complexities of human reality into a unifying whole. A dominant image of America would betray the multi-threaded fabric of America, of its peoples, and of its cultures.7 As we know, diversity is America's strength and is what makes America unique in the world. It makes America dynamic and vibrant. America, the nation of immigrants, then, resists a homogenous image.

What, then, is my identify and my role in this multi-threaded fabric of America? What does it mean to be an American in the midst of multitudes of peoples in the vast land?8 What image do we usually conjure up when we say "an American"?

What I am about to say may be a bit too bold to some of you; and it took me a while to be able to say this. I want to say: "I am an American," "Here, I am," "Look at me." America is my home. I am an American affected by my Korean parents, by my brothers and relatives, by my friends and neighbors, by my wife and daughter, and by all of their experiences and cultures. I am a typical immigrant having the emotional and social ties to two countries, the country I left and the country I adopted. But despite this duality—some might say, despite this shortcoming—I say: "I am an American." I am an American, affecting and being affected by America's diverse cultures and by its diverse peoples, as well as by the currents of the global economy and technology, by the events at home and abroad. In saying "I am an American," I am affirming that I am as diverse as America itself.

When I say "I am an American," I don't want to emulate myself after an image. There is and should be no image that represents an ideal American, no matter how hard Hollywood tries to project. America is neither white nor black, nor will it be Hispanic or Asian in the future. America is in the making. Its peoples must face the future horizon which, like its vast landscape, is open and ever expanding.

Let us not make ourselves into an image. Let us not unite behind one slogan, one agenda, and one social/political/religious goal. (There must be a reason why God forbade us from creating an image of Him. Could it be that He wants to be a God of all peoples?)

I like looking at the night sky because it defies an image. Its various stars pull me into different directions and let me wonder aimlessly. I want to compare my American identity, if I must have one, to a distant star engulfed in its own galaxy. It is ever mutating and transforming its environment at the same time, leaving a little mark in the vast sky of multiple patters and forms. America is vast; and in it I can dream different possibilities, more than I ever could in anywhere else in the world.

In affirming that I am an American, I am asserting that I am more than what my Korean culture projects me to be, what other people label me as, or what roles I am expected to play in the current social and political settings. My identity as a person is not reducible to the signs or designations I bear in my relationship to other persons in certain cultural and social settings in which I happen to find myself. I am more than what the Confucius society defines me as at this time in this particular circumstance. As long as I have time remaining in my life, I like to remain open-ended. My chapter is still to be written, a work to be completed, for better or for worse.

I have here applied this broad philosophic concept of human person to the social and political concept of 'being an American.' In claiming to be an American, I want to remain free and open-ended, like the American landscape itself.

I am an American. Who am I? Someone who is yet to become. For me America will always remain a new country, ever changing and ever expanding. It will always remain a country where people want to depart from the past and to move forward toward the future, both possible and imagined. In other words, America will always be a country of immigrants in the making; and I am grateful to be a part of its multi-threaded fabric. Despite all of its shortcomings and tragedies, I still believe in the America to come.

The following is an excerpt from the Web Museum: Liberty leading the People (90 Kb); Painted on 28 July 1830, to commemorate the July Revolution that had just brought Louis-Philippe to the French throne; Louvre.
This painting, which is a sort of political poster, is meant to celebrate the day of 28 July 1830, when the people rose and dethroned the Bourbon king. Alexandre Dumas tells us that Delacroix's participation in the rebellious movements of July was mainly of a sentimental nature. Despite this, the painter, who had been a member of the National Guard, took pleasure in portraying himself in the figure on the left wearing the top-hat. Although the painting is filled with rhetoric, Delacroix's spirit is fully involved in its execution: in the outstretched figure of Liberty, in the bold attitudes of the people following herm contrasted with the lifeless figures of the dead heaped up in the foreground, in the heroic poses of the people fighting for liberty, there is without a doubt a sense of full participation on the part of the artist, which led Argan to define this canvas as the first political work of modern painting.

Liberty Leading the People caused a disturbance. It shows the allegorical figure of Liberty as a half-draped woman wearing the traditional Phrygian cap of liberty and holding a gun in one hand and the tricolor in the other. It is strikingly realistic; Delacroix, the young man in the painting wearing the opera hat, was present on the barricades in July 1830. Allegory helps achieve universality in the painting: Liberty is not a woman; she is an abstract force. (An excerpt from p. 353-354, Humanites: The Evolution of Values by Lee A. Jacobus, copyright 1986 McGraw-Hill.)
We all know how useful and powerful an image can be. We know for example that many dictators in the world are so keen on promoting or banning certain images of themselves or of their country. Images can be effective tools for their political agenda or can cause a great deal of damage to their reputation. To cite some more examples, we know what the famous image, that I'm sure we've all seen one time or other, of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming and running away from a burning village, has done to the American policy on the war in Vietnam. Equally powerful was the infamous picture of a Vietcong shooting the head of another villager in handcuff at point-blank. We do not need to mention here how images were used to project caricatures of the Blacks and the Jews in Europe before the unspeakable event the Nazis called "the final solution" happened in that continent (Cf., George L. Masse, Toward The Final Solution: A History of European Racism. New York : H. Fertig, 1978). Certainly, an image can unite people but it does so at a cost, at the cost of simplifying, if not distorting, reality.
1This address was conceived for and delivered on August 10, 2002 at Institute for Corean-American Studies' summer symposium: "The Korean Diaspora: Challenges and Issues facing The Korean-American Community (KAC): Identification, Critical Examination, Goal & Vision, and Strategy." I dedicate this address to my daughter, Adina Beatrice Lee.
2I want to use a pseudonym in respect for his privacy. I want to thank him for allowing me to create an image of him, an image that shall never do justice to who he is as a person.
3As Delacroix's painting, "Liberty Leading the People," for example, might have done for French people in the heat of July 1830 revolution in France.
4As in David Hume's usage of the term; cf., Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
5Cf., Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate. Translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler. New York : Harper & Row, 1986.
6This time tested principle is as old as Plato. Hitler, for example, had an image of the Arian race and his own ideas of the third Reich. When put to an ill use, image can be dangerous.
7Cf., Ken Burn's documentaries on American history.
8I do not want to say "Korean-American" or "Asian-American." To do so would be to succumb to the temptation to create an image, an image which is somehow different from the image of the so called "the main stream American." Furthermore, to say I am a Korean-American would mean that I am somehow less than or different than a full fledged American. I don't know what either of these terms mean: 'less than' or 'different than' and 'a full fledged' American.

ICAS Fellow
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Summer 2002