ICAS Summer Symposium
The Korean Diaspora:
Challenges facing the Korean-American Community (KAC)
Identification, Critical Examination, Goal & Vision, and Strategy
August 14, 2004 9:30 AM -- 5:30 PM
Montgomery County Community College
Science Center Room 214
340 DeKalb Pike
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
Biographic Sketch & Links: Young-chan Ro
Issues and Prospects
George Mason University
From the historical point of view, the Korean diaspora is a very recent phenomenon compared to other people such as the Jews and Chinese. For Jews, it was a matter of survival to scatter around the world when they lost their own homeland around the first century A.D. For Chinese people, international and intercultural commerce and trading were a part of their lives. The "silk road" is a famous example and a powerful demonstration of the Chinese spirit of adventure and exploration of the world.
What about Koreans? Historically, Koreans were isolated and insulated in the Korean peninsula or hanbando. Koreans remain proud of their "single people" ancestry (tanil minjok) reflecting the monolithic homogeneity of the Korean blood and heritage. For this reason, the homogenous ethnic purity and the monolithic cultural background have discouraged Koreans from abandoning their homeland and living in foreign countries. Furthermore, the traditional Korean worldview and value system based on the Korean founding myth Tangun have given a special and sacred meaning to the Korean people who live in the Korean peninsular. 1
The mythic origination of Korean ancestry and geography had made it difficult for Koreans to leave the homeland and seek lives elsewhere. Koreans have developed a special sense of attachment to the land called the "Old Korea" or Kojosôn reigned by the legendary ruler Tangun who governed the people with the principle called, the "greater benefit and prosperity to all human beings" .
This traditional view, however, began to change in the last century. The first wave of Korean immigrants to Hawaii in 1903 was due largely to historical and social circumstances: to work in Hawaiian sugar cane field. Many Koreans were also forcibly moved to Japan during World War II, as the Japanese occupation faced a severe labor shortage.
Korean immigration to America in the 1970s and 1980s, however, shows a different pattern. The majority of those Korean immigrants were from the middle class Koreans and sought a better life in America. This new wave of Korean immigrants made a clear break from the traditional view of Korean immigration. They were well educated and financially secure but also adventurous and courageous in exploring new opportunities for a better future for them and their children.
A major shift in the traditional Korean way of thinking occurred in the second half of the 20th century as the country experienced a series of dramatic events: World War II and the resulting Independence, the Korean War from 1950-1953, the students’ revolution in 1960, the military coup in 1961, and the insuing years of military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s. Some Koreans under military dictatorship sought political asylum in the United States and other countries while others sought better economic opportunities and professional advancements in developed countries in particular the United States. The vast majority of Korean immigrants, however, came to the United States for the betterment of their children’s education.
One common theme found in all Korean immigrants to this and other countries can be summarized as a "better life." Since 1960s the Koreans were slowly getting out the old "myth of the homeland of hanbando" and getting into a new myth of the "land of milk and honey." Traditionally, living outside the Korean peninsula was considered un-Korean and unpatriotic. But now some Koreans have discovered that there is a life, or even a better one, outside of the Korean peninsula
. Christian Influence on the Korean Immigrants Ever since Korean immigrants ashore Hawaii in 1903, Christianity has exercised a considerable influence on Korean immigrants to the United States. One of the most powerful ideological and spiritual inspirations to justify for Koreans moving beyond the Korean peninsula was due to Christian influence. Christianity in Korea grew rapidly especially after the Korean War and has become one of the major religions in modern Korea. Many Korean Christians think that the Western world in general and the United States in particular are blessed by the Christian God. They envy the Christian West, especially North America, for their material blessings and scientific and technological advancements: America is a land of opportunity, the "land of milk and honey." This biblical theme has made many Korean Christians believe that seeking a life in the "promised land" is not only justifiable but even desirable from the point of faith. This biblical theme has exerted a powerful force to liberate many Koreans from the myth of the Korean peninsula, the sense of attachment to the land where they were born.
This may be one of the reasons why the majority of Korean immigrants to the United States, for example, are Christians. They consider themselves a forward looking, enlightened, and adventurous people. By that same token, they think the traditional way of thinking and value systems are the main causes of hindrance for modernizing Korea. In their minds, modernization means Westernization, and Westernization is Christianization.
Although Korean immigrants have to face a lot of difficulties in the U.S. including a language barrier, many feel a sense of a commonality with Americans: they worship the same God. Christianity has made Korean immigrants felt a religious homogeneity with Americans. Many Korean churches have rented (and continue to rent) American church facilities for worship before constructing their own church buildings. In spite of the many cultural differences, Koreans in America feel a deeper sense of spiritual unity with Americans due to the shared religious experience of Christianity. As a result, Korean American Christianity has grown rapidly in North America.
Korean American Christianity: Success and Failure
We have been boasting not only of the phenomenal growth of Christianity in Korea, but also the most rapid growth of Christianity in the Korean-American community in North America. In fact, about 75% of Korean Americans are attending church surpassing American Christian church attendance (about 55%) 2. This is an unprecedented phenomenon. Historically, European and American missionaries introduced Christianity to Korea, Catholics in the 18th and Protestants in the 19th centuries respectively. Now, the percentage of Christians among the Korean immigrants or Korean Americans in America is higher than the percentage of Christians among Americans. It has never been the case that an immigrant ethnic community has more Christians per capita than Americans in the U.S. since the founding of this country. Korean American Christians have done something unique.
Of course, we can speculate the reasons for this phenomenal "success." But, just like any other success, there is a hidden failure in this "success." 3 Although this hidden "failure" is found both in Korean Christianity in Korea and Korean American Christianity, I will limit my discussion primarily to Korean American Christianity. In spite of this phenomenal growth of Christianity among Korean Americans, I wonder if this growth has a short life. By and large, most Korean-American Christians are first generation Korean Americans. In fact, the Korean-American church is characterized by the fact that it is "for the first generation, and by the first generation, of the first generation." In my view, it is quite possible that the number of Korean American Christians will be reduced dramatically to one-tenth within the next 30 years. The vast majority of the 1.5 generation and 2nd generation Korean Americans is now leaving the church. There is a dramatic gap between the first and second generations in their church attendance. In this respect, the growth or the "success" of Korean American church has been largely due to the first generation of Koreans. Here the term "first" generation of Koreans has a unique meaning compared to other ethnic groups such as Japanese immigrant. Korean immigration to America is characterized as a steady flow of immigration from Korea. Although some noticeable chronological distinctions can be drawn in terms of the waves of Korean immigration to America, Korean immigration to the United States have been somewhat steady since 1965. For this reason, the "first generation" of Korean immigrants has been a continuous phenomenon due to the fact that the flow of Koreans immigration to the U.S. has been uninterrupted. 4 This steady flow of Korean immigrants has been a significant beneficial factor in the growth and maintenance of Korean churches in the United States. This continuous or perpetual existence of the first generation in the Korean church has somewhat lessened the possible impact from the lack of the second generation on the Korean congregations. It has also helped shape the pattern and style of the Korean Christian ministry. In fact, for a century, Korean American church has not significantly been changed in terms of language (Korean), style of worship (similar to the church in Korea), and theological stand (conservative evangelical). Furthermore, Korean American churches have increased the use of the traditional Korean style of worship services. The continuation or the perpetuation of this first generation phenomenon was one of the reasons for the Korean American churches becoming even more conservative than churches in Korea. 5 A critical question is how long the immigrants from Korea will continue and how large the number of the immigrants will be. As the standard of living in Korea continued improves and Korean economy grows steadily, the number of Korean immigrants to this country will certainly decrease. Although we may not expect a total discontinuation of the Korean immigrants to country, we may not see the kind of the waves of immigration that we have seen for the last three decades. In my view, the growth or decline of Korean American churches will depend on the number of new immigrants from Korea. Once the first generation of Korean immigrants to the U.S. starts to decline, Korean American churches will decline too. This phenomenon has happened to the Jewish community in this country. The first generation Jews from Europe eagerly built Jewish temples or synagogues but now many the first generation built synagogues are empty or sold out to other ethnic groups including Koran Americans. Korean Americans have built many churches in this country. The Korean American churches that use American church facilities have plans to build their own buildings. Unless the flows of the fresh new immigrants from Korea continue, these church buildings will have hard time to fill the seats.
First generation Koreans are the largest the Korean component that performs the most vital functions of the congregation and they are also the most generous financial contributors to the church. For this reason, the nature and style of Korean immigrant church ministry and its governance are designed to appease this group. For the last four decades or even for a century for that matter, most ministers of Korean immigrant churches were born, grew up in Korea and trained at Korean theological seminaries. The most prominent Korean ministers serving the largest Korean congregations in the U.S. were all educated in Korea. Many of them have some form of theological education in the U.S. and most Korean ministers have Doctor of Ministry degree awarded by various theological seminaries in this country. These pastors in most case started their theological education while they were in Korea and had basic theological training in Korean. The first generation pastors of the Korean immigrant congregations are now being replaced with 1.5 generation Koreans who came to this country as teenagers and have their theological education at American seminaries or divinity schools. These younger generation Korean pastors are now gradually assuming the awesome burden of the legendary success of the first generation pastors.
First Generation Korean Pastors and the Place of Korean-American Churches.
Most first generation of Korean pastors and ministers, like their parishioners, read Korean Newspapers, listen to Korean radio stations, and watch Korean T.V. programs. Ironically, the majority of the first generation of Korean Americans learns about what is going on in the U.S. through the Korean news media programmed either locally or even in Korea. Major Korean newspapers have branch offices in large cities in the U.S. and publish daily newspapers.
Most ministers of Korean American congregation read biblical commentaries written by Koreans or translated into Korean for their sermons. Korean bookstores in the major cities in the U.S. conveniently provide this service by importing theological books and church related materials from Korea for Korean American congregations in America. An irony in this process is that Korean community in general and Korean American churches in particular "learn" about American intellectual traditions and theological and biblical interpretation filtered through Korean translation and interpretation. This is one of the reasons for why the Korean American congregations tend to be more conservative or a bit slower in catching up with America than Korean churches in Korea.
Most Korean American Christians indeed practice Christianity as they did while they were in Korea. The language, the content and the style of sermon, the form of worship, and over all church life are familiar to them. They want to maintain that familiarity. One can hardly find any difference between Korean churches in Korea and in America. The Korean immigrant churches are modeled after the "successful" Korean church in Korea. Often, they invite preachers from Korea for revival meetings. Although they live in America, they have no direct experience of American life culturally or intellectually. In a word, Korean American churches have become a ghetto in American society. Some Korean American churches now establish their own governance, separating from American churches even within the same denomination. In general there is an exclusive tendency among Koreans, especially in Korean American churches. Most Korean American churches that rent American church facilities for their worship service on Sundays, show their church sign displaying the names of their churches in Korean that are larger, bigger and more visible than their host churches’ signs.
By and large, as mentioned above, immigrant communities have a tendency to preserve and maintain their native cultural tradition better than their counterparts in the homeland. It is not unusual to find the most authentic Korean culinary culture exists in the immigrant communities outside of Korea. Korean language, for example, used by the Korean immigrants in the U.S. is an old fashioned and somewhat out dated version compared the one used in Korea. In spite of the continuous influx of Korean immigrants to the U.S., the Korean community in the U.S. has preserved the older form of Han’gûl and Korean vocabularies. This tendency may in turn discourage the second generation from becoming part of the congregation. Some of Korean American Church leaders are aware of this problem and try to concentrate on the 2nd generation ministry and English worship services because they believe the language is the main reason for 2nd generations leaving the church. Language may be helpful but language alone cannot solve the problem. The gap is not only in language but also in values, culture and generation. Most second generation Koreans feel that the first generation Korean American Christians are not flexible enough to embrace their second generations and run church with bureaucratic authority. The first generation Koreans feel that the second generations are too Americanized. Is this a cultural gap? Many of us would agree that it is. The issue, however, is more deep and complicate than to define just as a "cultural gap."
Contrary to the common misconception of "Korean culture," what we see in the Korean church in Korea and the Korean American church is not "Korean culture" in the genuine sense of the word. Instead of "Korean culture," what ‘s really going on is authoritarianism, exclusivism, conservatism, formalism, and male chauvinism. Superficially, these aspects have been associated with Confucianism. This is a very unfortunate misunderstanding of Confucianism. What we see in Korean churches both in Korean and in the U.S. is not "Korean culture" but it is "Korean Christian culture." In this sense, Korean Christianity has already developed its own unique kind of culture for good or for ill. Korean Christian Culture, if we may say so, does not have much of Korean culture.
In reality, Korean Christianity has long been hostile to Korean cultural traditions including ancestor worship (or ritual). Since the beginning of Christian missions in Korea, the Korean church advocated that Korean Christians sever their relationship with Korean cultural traditions such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Shamanism, and ancestor worship. The introduction of Christianity to Korea coincided with the opening of Korea to the Western world, and Christianity was considered Western religion or even "Western Learning." To become a Christian in Korea was to be a Westernized or modernized person. Furthermore, early Korean Christianity viewed Korean cultural traditions including religions as either superstition or idol worship. As a result, the Korean church is largely ignorant about Korean culture, history and still considers that learning about Korean culture or religions, except the language han’gûl, is dangerous. Korean Christianity has made a considerable contribution to han’gûl in its rediscovering by printing the Bible in han,gûl, and maintaining and spreading it. The translation of the Bible into Korean han’gûl revolutionized in spreading han’gûl. Korean Christian patriots, under the Japanese occupation, maintained and thought han’gûl in church as a form of a nationalistic movement.
Other than han’gûl, Korean Christianity in Korea has either ignored or opposed against Korean culture. Korean American Christianity follows the same pattern: almost every Korean church has a han’gûl school but no interest in knowing or learning the Korean cultural heritage.
A New Challenge
Korean American churches, as an ethnic religious community in the United States, are facing a unique challenge. Most ethnic religious communities in this country have brought their own native religions along with their cultures and languages. In this sense, the places of their religious worship whether synagogue or mosque are at the same time their cultural centers where they can learn native languages, cultures, values, and religions. There is no conflict between practicing their religions and observing, maintaining, and transmitting their own cultural tradition. For example, Jewish synagogue is the center of both their religion and their culture for Jews. People from Thailand in this country go their temple for both their religious practice and cultural experience. People from the Middle Eastern countries go their mosques for their religious and cultural learning. Their religions are their cultures. In this way, religious centers, such as synagogues, mosques, and temples have become cultural centers transmitting cultural heritage to the next generation.
Korean American Christians, however, are in a unique situation: our religious practice does not coincide with our own cultural traditions. Korea has a long history with distinctive culture, language, and religions. Christianity is a very young religion with a short history in Korea. Korean American Christians are Christians in their faith but they are Koreans in their culture. While other ethnic religious communities in North America boast of their religious faith and cultural pride, Korean American Christians feel a conflict between their religious confession and their cultural traditions. For this reason, most Korean American Christians really do not address this issue. Rather they tried to avoid this apparent conflict by accepting Christianity not only as their religious practice but also as their cultural tradition. Many Korean Christians, for example, are more interested in learning about the history of the Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament) than knowing Korean history.
Korean American churches have built their church buildings as any other American church in terms of architecture and aesthetic. Some Korean American churches have built beautiful church buildings but there is no trace of any Korean cultural element in their church buildings. In fact, Korean American churches have lost their Korean cultural heritage except for culinary culture such as kimchi and pulgoki Korean American churches have lost (or they never assumed) their role as the guardians of Korean culture, the role many other ethnic religious groups are playing prominently in North America. Furthermore, many Korean American church leaders do not believe that teaching and maintaining Korean culture is the Korean American church’s responsibility. On the contrary, they feel that Korean cultural heritage may pose a danger of undermining Christian faith. Most Korean Christians and Korean American Christians believe that Korean cultural traditions and the Christian tradition are incompatible. They thus chose Christian faith over Korean culture. The vital issue here is whether Christian faith and Korean culture are to be put in a dialectical dichotomy in terms of the either/or choice. This question entails serious theological issues and cultural implications.
From the cultural point of view, Korean American churches may not be able to provide Korean cultural heritage or to transmit the traditional values to the next generation. What they have shown to the 2nd generation was a bad side of Korean values and traditions as I indicated above. Most 2nd generation of Korean Americans thus has lost their interest in either learning Korean culture or appreciating Korean values. Nonetheless, there are some new positive signs among the second generation Korean Americans. The second and the third generations of Korean Americans begin to awake to their cultural identity. This new awareness of their collective self-consciousness is now growing among Korean American young adults. They are eager to learn about their cultural heritage and gaining a sense of self-confidence or even sense of pride for being descendants of Korean. I am confident that as we move into the 21st century and the new millennium, not only Korean Americans but many other ethnic communities will re- discover, re-appreciate their cultural origins or heritage. The "melting-pot" image of America has melted down. Now the pluralistic perspective and cultural diversity are now arising.
It is no longer tenable to maintain the universality of the American way of life. Cultural and religious diversity has become a dominant issue for this century. If America is serious about her future, she has to take pluralism seriously. History shows that no empire with single culture, single religion, single ideology, and single language has lasted more than 500 years. America will not be an exception unless she changes her mentality and attitude drastically toward other cultural and religious traditions, an experience of a radical "conversion" or metanoia.
In this respect, Korean Americans are forced to reflect and re-examine our own cultural traditions, worldviews, and value system. If we don’t take our cultural heritage seriously, we lose not only our own self-respect but also respect from others. The second generation Korean Americans who have a keen sense of their cultural identity and self- respect, this new wave will seek diligently their own cultural roots and learn the unique characteristics of the Korean worldview, values, and spirituality. As I see it, Korean American churches, however, have no sense of urgency concerning this issue and they are totally unprepared to deal with this issue. This new wave of younger generation Korean American Christians will be disappointed at the lack of concern and the lack of knowledge of Korean culture among first generation Korean American Christians. The Korean American church is not equipped to deal with this vital concern. Even the second generation ministry with its emphasis on English worship is not fully aware of this vital issue.
This lack of concern about Korean culture in Korean American churches is another important reason why the new wave generation of Koreans will not attend church. This generation of Korean Americans who are highly educated, successful in their careers, creative in their thinking, critically aware of their cultural heritage, an elite group of Korean American second generation will be disappointed in Korean American churches or Korean American Christianity as a whole. They will not be able to find much of the unique attraction from Korean American church. Most of them will either go to Anglo-American churches or drop out of the church all together. Some of them will seek Korean Buddhist temples for rich cultural and spiritual heritage.
From the theological point of view, one of the dominant theological issues is religious pluralism. Religious pluralism, whether we like it or not, is a pressing issue for the new millennium. Christianity in general and Korean Christianity or Korean American Christianity in particular will not be able to escape from this issue. Christian theology must re-think, re-construct, re-formulate the fundamental framework of Christianity in light of cultural and religious pluralism. Some frontiers of Christian theology have already taken this issue seriously.
On the other hand, however, most Korean Christians believe that Christianity is the universal religion and it goes beyond the boundary of race, culture, race, and nationality. Most Korean American Christians consider America is Christian country and they think to accept Christianity as their religion is the most logical thing to do even if they were non-Christians while they were in Korea. For this reason, the number of Korean American Christians is far greater than Korean Christians in Korea. Many non- Christians have come to the church for social acceptance, sense of belonging, friendship, and orientation to American way of life. Furthermore, Korean Christians in Korea and in the U.S. consider that they are the true successor of Christianity by taking over the field of the world mission from the Americans and the Europeans. They even declare they are the chosen people to heir Christianity itself. Most Korean American churches are sending missionaries to all parts of the world. Many Korean American churches organizes short term mission trips to the under developing countries. Some of young Korean American Christians involved in this kind of aggressive mission activities may help other people with a sense of Christian mission and dedication. But these Korean American youth Christians may also believe that Christianity is the only one true religion and may fail to understand the indigenous culture and spirituality.
We have to ask some serious questions about the future of Korean American Christians. As we observed above, these young Christians are highly motivated, deeply dedicated, and powerfully inspired by the evangelical zeal. These Christian youth are well trained in an evangelical theology in believing that they are new age "crusaders" to recapture the sanctity of Christianity from the secular world, convert the pagans into Christianity. They are well equipped with mission strategy and sponsored by large Korean American churches. These young Christians are growing up in thinking that the world is their mission field and their task is to propagate the Gospels to all non-Christians and convert them into Christianity.
A danger in this kind of thinking is that they are growing up with a fixed mind about religion and culture, the dichotomy of true and false, right and wrong, and black and white, etc. They believe in dualistic worldview. Christian youth with a high sense of God’s calling with an ideological understanding of Christian doctrine conceive of the world as an object to conquer and convert it into the Christian world. These young people are growing up with a very narrow sense of reality and values. They are strongly ideologically oriented and extremely intolerant to other culture or religion. In my personal experience, most "good" young Korean American Christians who attend church regularly and active in the church affairs are dogmatic, ideologically oriented, self- righteousness, intolerant, exclusive, and self-centered. On the other hand, the "nominal" Christian youths are more tolerant, inclusive, less dogmatic, less judgmental, and open minded. How do we picture about the future of these young people as they play a crucial role for the community, the country, and the world? What kind of leadership will they play? Quite often we hear about "leadership training" for young Korean American Christians in churches. But I wonder what kind of leadership we will have in the future with these narrow minded, exclusive, self-centered young Christians. These young people believe that traditional Korean religions are unacceptable to their Christian life and they have a certain sense of Christian superiority over their ancestor’s spirituality and culture. This false sense of superiority and the exclusive monotheistic belief in Christianity made these bright our next generation Korean Americans to become zealous Christian warier to change the world.
These enthusiastic Korean American second generation Christians may have a strong sense of pride for being the descendants of Koreans but they may not consider Buddhism and Confucianism as a part of their proud heritage. Rather, for even most "open minded" Korean Christians, Korean religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism, and Confucianism are things of the past relics that can be displayed in museum. Most Korean Christians feel that these religions are somewhat "superstition" but not "true religion" like Christianity. Some Korean Christians with a liberal mind still think that Christianity is the peak of the religious evolution of humankind and other so called "religions" are less developed form of human religiosity: a form of "religious Darwinism."
In this kind of religious environment of Korean American Christianity, we may not expect our next generation to be genuinely appreciative about our cultural heritage. Some Korean Christians view that our religious heritage such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism as part of culture not as religion. They conveniently separate culture from religion and appreciate these traditions for their artistic and technological excellence but not for their spiritual and religious values. For them, Korean Buddhism, for example, is an object of their cultural entertainment but not a source for spiritual inspiration. This is a form of reductionism, reducing religious and spiritual traditions into a cultural form. In short, we have to be reminded by what Paul Tillich, one of the influential theologians in 20th century, so aptly summarized when he described the relationship between religion and culture: "religion is the essence of culture and culture is the expression of religion." How can we appreciate Korean culture without understanding the essence of it?
Korean American churches must prepare for hard questions we expect from our next generation. We have to train our next generation how to appreciate, not just amuse, our cultural heritage without reducing it as a mere peace of art, an architectural structure, or a mere technological invention. What we need from our heritage is a new source of spirituality and inspiration.
A few years ago, I came across a story in Time magazine. Some of you may know this story. Dr. David Ho, a prominent medical researcher who helped invents so called "cocktail" medication to suppress HIV virus that causes AIDS. He is one the most respected researcher in the field. Dr. David Ho is a second generation of Chinese Americans who was born and grew up in California. A Time magazine reporter asked a question as he interviewed him, "What is the most influential book in your life." He answered him with a sense of pride, "Tao Te Ching," and then he recited one of his favorite chapters in the Tao Te Ching by heart. He then revealed that he has been a Christian since his boyhood following his parents in southern California. My closing question is whether we will be able to see this kind of Korean American among our second generation.
I wonder if we can find our next generation Korean Americans will be able to appreciate and inspired by our Korean traditional religious and spiritual tradition so deeply that our next generations too will read and recite a portion from their favorite Korean religious texts, not the Bible, with a sense of pride.