ICAS Summer Symposium

No. 2002-0810-GCH

Korean-American Vision:
Building Bridges, Not Walls

G. Cameron Hurst III

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: G. Cameron Hurst III

Korean-American Vision: Building Bridges, Not Walls

G. Cameron Hurst III
University of Pennsylvania

I am honored to be here today at this important conference devoted to the Korean Diaspora. I have seen many wonderful things happen to Korea, Koreans, and Korean- Americans over my lifetime. My first visit to Korea was in the early days of Park Chung Hee's military junta, and I have just recently returned from three weeks in Korea during the giddy days of the World Cup, so my association with Korea encompasses almost forty years.

I remember that in my youth I knew not one single Korean-American in my Northern California hometown and certainly had heard of no one of note, except diving great Sammy Lee. But now I know any number of physicians, professors, accountants, and lawyers. I see successful Koreans and Korean-Americans in all walks of life, even competing successfully, indeed approaching dominance, in women's professional golf and classical music. So I can do little more than salute the achievements of Korean-Americans during my lifetime.

But at the same time, I am admittedly more than a little uncomfortable, perhaps even somewhat embarrassed, to be here, because I have not been asked to praise the accomplishments of Korean-Americans but suggest rather what challenges lay ahead and how best to face them.

So of course, I am uncomfortable. How can a middle-aged white male tell Korean- Americans how they ought to approach their futures? What possible experiences could I have that might be at all relevant to your lives? What possible vision could I have for you?

But here I think I share with Kim Sang Joo a sense of the Korean-American experience in the broadest sense, that is, straddling both sides of the hyphen and encompassing the broadest spectrum of people who might be considered in some form or another "Korean-American."

Perhaps a bit of autobiography may establish some link between us from which I might be able to make a few suggestions. First off, I am like you a product of immigration. I mean, look at my name: George Cameron Hurst III. The III indicates that I am a third generation immigrant. My grandfather emigrated from Scotland early in the last century; and it was connection to the old land that led him to pass on— and my father to continue—both the Scotch name Cameron, as well as the generation marker. It is little different from Koreans naming their American born kids David Kyongsok Park and Harold Kyongsu Park.

To be sure, my grandfather's immigrant life was likely a good bit easier than that of many Korean-Americans, since he was both white and spoke at least a form of English. But he was poor and spent his working life as a meat packer. And my grandfather was often the focus of ridicule and discrimination because of his heavily accented English.

But that is indeed a tenuous connection. We are all hyphenated Americans of one sort or another. My connections to Korea, however, may give us some further ground for affinity. I first went to Korea in 1964, during my MA program at the University of Hawaii, while on leave studying for a year in Japan. From that first visit I was fascinated with Korea, primarily because it was so different—culturally and developmentally—from both America and Japan.

I had grown up in Northern California, and in my town there were large communities of Chinese- and Japanese- Americans, but Koreans were non-existent, or at least few enough never to have called attention to themselves.

In fact, my first real association with Korean-Americans was in Hawaii. 1965 was of course the watershed year, and all of sudden there were lots of Koreans where I had noticed few before. In fact, that was when the University established Korean area studies and I began to study both Korean language and history.

From Hawaii I went to Columbia University to pursue a doctorate. There was really no "field" of Korean Studies then, but I could combine Japanese and Korean Studies at Columbia. I majored in Japanese Studies for practical reasons, and I was hired to teach Japanese History at the University of Kansas in 1969. However, my fledgling knowledge of Korea was attractive to them, and I taught Korean as well as Japanese history. So professionally, my association with Korea goes quite a ways back. In fact, in those days there could not have been more than a dozen people teaching about Korea in American universities.

Near the end of the 1970s I married a Korean woman, deepening my connection even further. The marriage led to further trips and years in residence, and resulted in two children, a boy and a girl. As a Professor, I have lived in Korea for four years, where I have taught, run undergraduate exchange programs, worked for the Korea National Tourism Corporation, and written a weekly column for the Korea Times and the Korea Herald. I have been associated with Ehwa, Koryo, Sogang, Kyung Hee, and Seoul National universities in one capacity or another. This summer I taught a course at Seoul National University on the Korean War.

So what? This certainly does not make me a Korean in any real sense. Or does it? How does one define a "Korean" anyway? Is it purely an ethnic designation: one has to be born in Korea of Korean parents? Is it possession of a Korean passport? Is it language ability, or cultural fluency, or an affinity for kimch'i? Just what distinguishes a Korean? Even more problematically for us, how about a Korean-American? What if an ethnic Korean marries a non-Korean? Does that family drop out of Korean- Americanhood? What about the children? What about a "pure" ethnic Korean adopted at birth by a white American couple? Can such a "Jane Robinson" be a Korean-American? Who decides?

Unfortunately, Korean society has not been exactly progressive in this area, preferring to exclude rather than include, to ghetto-ize rather than homogenize. Definitions of Korean-ness have been narrow indeed. Many a kyopo from the States has been humiliated by Koreans back in the home country for not being fully "Korean." And Korean- Americans have inherited this exclusionary tendency: even fully Korean women who married an American GI and moved to the United States have been ostracized by Korean-American communities.

Of course, that is the tendency in America over the last few decades: ethnic groups have largely abandoned the once held ideal of assimilation and stood instead for separatism and exclusion in churches, schools, and social organizations. Hyphenated America reigns: we are Korean-Americans rather than Americans of Korean descent, a subtle but crucial difference.

Perhaps Korean-Americans can be excused if they look inward. They have been schooled in Korea to believe that Koreans are a homogeneous and unique people, that "Korea" has a history of five thousand years, and so on. On a comparative scale, indeed, Koreans are ethnically among the most homogeneous of peoples, even more so than Japanese who have made a fetish out of their homogeneity.

Nevertheless, that homogeneity is lessening with the Korean Diaspora, and Koreans everywhere—Korea, the United States, or Brazil—married to Koreans or members of other ethnic or racial groups, with or without language, I believe, need to form a larger community. That means embracing the Korean woman in your church who may be the wife of an African-American GI, as well as her husband and their children. It means accepting the Jane Robinsons who were adopted by Caucasian families as well. Inclusion needs to be seen as strength not a watering down of one's Korean- ness.

Although Koreans have achieved relative success in America, there are still significant challenges. And not only is the disaster that was Sa-I-gu, the Los Angeles Riots that followed the beating of Rodney King, still not that far in the past; but also the conditions that led to it still largely remain. Ice Cube's "Black Korea" may not be outdated.

This is hardly the fault of Korean-Americans alone. Indeed, America at the dawn of the 21st century is in a bad way racially; and while I am willing to admit that most of the problem lies with attitudes and practices in white society, no ethnic group, Korean-Americans included, is doing much to improve things. America is a group of separate but not equal communities, with various minorities carving out their own niches in the greater society. Few seem to be looking to beyond their own ethnic neighborhoods and institutions. Isn't there a way for us to find a better balance between the ethnic particular and the American universal? Aren't we even at greater risk in the post 9/11 era, as the government itself seems to be leading a campaign of suspicion against "other" Americans based on perceived ethnic and/or religious differences? Why are we building walls and not bridges?

So, what do I see as the challenges facing Korean- Americans? The primary one is to combat the tendency I just mentioned, to turn inward, to live in enclaves like Elkins Park here in Philadelphia, attend primarily Korean social organizations and churches, interact on campus mainly with Korean-Americans students and limit contact with other groups of Americans to a minimum. Complaints are often voiced that whites, or blacks, or Hispanics, do not understand Korean customs or means of inter-personal communications. But surely the way to overcome that is not to retreat further inward behind walls, but to turn outward, initiate communication, build bridges, and share the culture.

Of course, Koreans are no less successful in this regard than many other ethnic, racial or religious groups in America. But they cannot be given terribly high marks either. In Philadelphia, for example, virtually every single neighborhood has a Korean dry cleaner. Yet I don't know a single family who lives anywhere near their business—except for the northeast. Do business with all kinds of people in the neighborhood, and then retreat home. Isn't this true also of most of grocery store and other small business owners in the city—and indeed in most of America's urban areas where Koreans have gathered?

As a professor, I can attest that things are no better on campus among younger Korean-Americans. Take Penn, for example. Thanks to the contributions of the Korean-American community in the Delaware Valley, Penn established a Korean language program more than a decade ago. Before I arrived, however, non-Korean-American students were regularly turned away, told that the courses weren't for them! The instructors saw it as an ethnic maintenance program for Korean-Americans, understandable perhaps, but totally at odds with the mission of the University.

Untill today, at campuses across America, Korean language programs are predominantly filled with kids named Kim, Park, or Lee. Progress is being made, however, in spreading the language among a wider social network, so that many other Americans have now developed some rudimentary understanding of Korean language and culture. But the problems persist.

Native Korean teachers have proved ineffective in transmitting the language outside the core group, partly because they often lack an understanding of the mission of the University to spread knowledge widely. Here at Penn last semester, two students, one African-American and one white, came to me to complain that in Introductory Korean class, the first day of the first semester, the instructor conducted the class in Korean—and virtually all the students took notes! When I asked the instructor what all these non-beginners were doing in the class, all he could say was, "Well, they don't speak Korean THAT well."

This doesn't happen in French, or German, or Russian, or Spanish, or even Japanese language classes. While one role of a Korean-American language class is to help Korean- American kids maintain their parent's culture and language, it is also designed to increase a knowledge and appreciation of Korea among a broader segment of American society. In an American university, it is considered a foreign language offering, the implication being that it is offered to attract those who do not know it.

Unfortunately, Korean Studies is going the way of many ethnic study groups. But I would argue that this is not the best way to proceed for the Korean-American community. Further success in American society will come from sharing not hoarding the language and culture, opening up not shutting off links with the larger society. The hoarding and shutting up are the kinds of things that led to the horrors of Sa-I-gu, and surely no one wants to see a repeat of that incident ever again. Korea was once considered a Hermit Kingdom, but surely we do not need to seal off Koreatowns around the country.

My experience in over thirty years teaching in American universities gives me great hope for Korean-Americans, yet makes me question some of the tendencies I see. On the one hand, I am pleased that so many Korean-American students, whether out of their own interest or at parental urging, take courses to keep alive their cultural heritage. Thus if I teach a Korean history course at Penn, I am likely to have students named Kim, Lee, and Park. In fact, however, that often works against the class, since sometimes non-Korean heritage students are frightened away, afraid that they will have no chance at a good grade in a subject with which they are unfamiliar.

Most of my students are 1.5 or second generation Korean- Americans. But one wonders whether by the fourth or fifth generation Korean-Americans, like the Japanese and Chinese before them, may not be as eager to keep alive the culture. I hope not.

But despite the presence of so many bright young Korean-American students, only a few are lured to follow the study of their heritage professionally. Like so many ethnic groups before them, Korean-American parents are so obsessed with social and economic success that to think of their children as anything but a doctor or a stockbroker is difficult—even though one can scarcely conceive of a society more dedicated to scholarship than Korea.

I don't know how many times I have sat in my office and listened to the tale of woe of a young Korean-American whose parents were dead set against his or her entry into academe as a discipline. They felt it necessary to opt for a more "practical" discipline than History or Korean Studies, and thus their familiarity with language and culture was for personal and familial satisfaction, or perhaps to aid them in an international business career. This is all very understandable, and has been going on with parents since Adam and Eve, I suppose; but we need to allow our kids, Korean-American ones too, to spread their wings and dip widely into the fountain of knowledge.

Another problem, and I realize that I am stepping on a land mine here, is in the area of religion. Academics have not been able to explain it well, but the Korean and by extension Korean-American embrace of Christianity has really no parallel elsewhere in modern Asia. While Japanese Christians constitute barely achieve one half of one per cent of that country's populace, Korea's now soars above thirty. Here in the Delaware Valley, there are well over a hundred Korean Christian churches, and what, one Buddhism temple?

The Korean Christian church—whether Presbyterian, Full Gospel, or Methodist—has been a source of strength, serving as community center, venue for language and cultural maintenance, and social institution. The churches have mushroomed, but not without many theological, organizational, and financial problems; the primary one I wish to stress, however, is that they represent another form of wall, shutting off Korean-American from other Christians.

There are counter examples, however. Let me offer an example of an instance of Koreans in America looking outward, bridge building, that has promoted visibility among and support from other ethnic groups. That is the spread in popularity of Taekwondo. While Chinese martial arts were here much earlier, they were often ghetto-ized in Chinatowns and strictly kept away from non-Chinese for a long time. In the 1970s immigrant Korean martial artists, by contrast, opened up dojang to everyone, not only in big cities, but also in suburban malls all over America. TKD had become so popular that the 1988 Olympics recognized it recognized as an Olympic sport. Koreans have somehow learned to deal with occasional defeats by non-Koreans; and as a result, TKD has become more than just a sport, but a gateway to a greater appreciation of Korean culture.

The lessons seem clear to me. Korean-Americans, indeed all ethnic groups in America, must build bridges and not walls. They must reach out for communication, share rather than hide their culture. And perhaps above all, they must engage rather than opt out of the political process. Asian-Americans as a whole, but especially Korean-Americans, have yet to make their mark in local and national politics.

In Korean history there were periods when the culture and society were cosmopolitan and open. In the Silla dynasty, when Koreans were just becoming Koreans, society was fluid, open, and international. This kind of openness lasted perhaps until well into the Koryô period, when Jurchen and Mongol invasions, and then occupation, seem to have squelched such cosmopolitanism.

The Choson dynasty, by contrast was more inward looking, introspective and protective, earning the Western appellation of "The Hermit Kingdom." The attitudes thus engendered disadvantaged Korea's ability to deal with imperialism in the late 19th century, and of course the nation fell victim to colonial rule. Ironically Korea was conquered by an equally, if not more hermetic nation, Japan. Except that Meiji Japan shed isolationism and chose to become a full member of the emerging international community.

Korea today exhibits both these tendencies: the North is inward-looking, autarchic, and staunchly isolationist, inheritor of the hermit tradition. She claims to be misunderstood for her actions, which are judged bizarre by the global community. But North Korea has failed to open up sufficiently to allow any outsiders to understand them, to appreciate, let alone even fathom just what its people are like. It builds walls, not bridges.

South Korea, by comparison, however, has adopted an outward looking perspective, seeking to align itself with the international community and participate in the global economy. She has hosted the Olympics and the World Soccer Cup, sent films and filmmakers to Cannes, and students throughout the world to seek knowledge. Can there be any doubt as to which has been the more successful path?

South Korea is hardly an open society yet. Many of us have written about the cautious nature of Korea's globalization, the tendency to restrict trade and other contacts with a still sometimes hostile seeming outside world within certain guidelines. There is a vibrant cultural nationalism that lurks just barely beneath the surface a fear of and disdain for the "other," a sort of cosmopolitan xenophobia if you like.

The recent World Cup was an example. Because the Korean team did so well, things in Korea were a joy to behold. There was celebration everywhere, and the oft-repeated "Taehan Minguk" chant became as popular among foreigners as Koreans. Long-term foreign residents were astonished at the good sportsmanship that prevailed, as Korean athletes linked arms with their opponents in a rare show of civility. Yet I was sure it might easily have gone the other way. Right before I left, I was worried about the US- Korea match, suspicious that if the US were to win, I would face a very hostile scene in Seoul. The tie was the greatest thing that could have happened, at least as far as I was concerned, because it kept anti-American, and anti-foreign, sentiment down, with the exception of the hot dogging Ahn who did an imitation of US speed skater Apollo Ono after scoring Korea's only goal.

But this sportsmanship was an example of the kind of positive attitude everyone hopes for from Korea, and it is certainly why on the international level the competition between the two Koreas is long over. Axis of evil or not, North Korea is no longer well regarded by people anywhere. Indeed, when we say Korea, we really mean the Republic of Korea, or South Korea. She has truly come of age as a world power.

Should not that be the example for Korean-Americans to follow as well? Should they not be the outgoing, engaging and engaged, cosmopolitan group that represents the nation from which they came? Why should they fall back on the old "Hermit Kingdom" mentality that is still preserved in North Korea?

To a certain extent this inevitable, so I probably need not even urge it as a course of action. Koreans in America are a relatively new immigrant group. My Penn students are mostly 1.5 generation. Most of them came over while very young and have spent their lives back and forth between two cultures. Many are extraordinarily bi-cultural in orientation. As future generations are born here, make more of their lives here— and as with the inevitability of a rule, intermarry with other ethnic groups—they will produce even more hyphenated Korean- Americans. Their perspectives will necessarily broaden, and they will likely come down on the right hand side of the hyphen. They will build more bridges and fewer walls.

ICAS Fellow
ICAS Speakers
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Summer 2002