Let me introduce to you to Korean-American Day… well it was yesterday. Yeah, apparently the US congress, in honor of the centennial anniversary of Korean immigration, appointed January 13 as Korean-American Day back in 2003.
So, it’s not quite St. Patty’s day the Irish got, but having a day to remember my heritage in America is pretty cool. Actually, I could have never imagined such a day while growing up in California and Washington during my youth. Back then, I was always a “Jap” or a “Chink” — malicious labels that my children probably haven’t heard much growing up on Mercer Island. Progress.
I remember when childhood friends were appalled that I ate “rotted cabbage” (kimchi), dried seaweed (kim), or sushi (kimbap). Ironically, most of my children’s friends now clamor for such foods when visiting.
Overall, though, I loved my experience growing up in America. Sure, I always felt a little insecure about being different, but that just made me very competitive. I pushed myself in ways that perhaps I would not have if our family had stayed in Korea.
My parents taught me to appreciate America. In fact, my father originally came to the states to thank the Americans for their support of the Korean War and for sending their missionaries to help the displaced people of then war-torn Korea. The few experiences of being bullied pale in comparison to the overall awesome times with my friends, teachers and community. I was definitely treated well and fairly by most people in my life.
And where else would my brother and I have had the chance to start a company that would eventually go public on the NASDAQ in 1997 (ARIS Corporation)? In the US, 47% of all venture-backed companies have the founder or a co-founder born outside the country. How many successful companies in Korea do you think were founded by persons not born in that country? Not many.
I’m proud to be a Korean-American: I love that hyphen. I adore my heritage. My Korean family gives me so much emotional security. And quite frankly, I prefer Korean and other Asian foods over a burger (just personal taste). At the same time, I appreciate my American upbringing that has made me most comfortable with English speakers. I’m happy that I was encouraged to “think out-of-the-box” and not to be inhibited by traditional Korean conformity. I’m thankful that I was taught to value meritocracy, and encouraged to be a leader by the American society.
To me, being Korean-American is different than being Korean. Yes, yes, I’ve been called a banana (an Asian who acts very Western). But isn’t Korean-American Day for bananas?
So, I’d like to make sure that Korean-American Day is not just to expose non-Koreans to kimchi, or to just show off our traditional farmers’ dance. Those things are cool. But this day should also be about the Korean-American history, starting with the sad stories of the “indentured servants” who came to work on the Hawaiian plantations more than a century ago. The Korean-American Day should be about the LA riots and the lesson those disturbing moments taught us about participating within the larger community, especially where we own businesses. The Korean-American Day should be about the debt we, and all minority groups, owe to the civil rights leaders of the ’60s, who were predominantly African Americans. That is uniquely KOREAN-AMERICAN.
The Korean-American Day should be to celebrate that Anthony Kim can hit a golf ball a mile and walk with “western” swagger with the best golfers in the world. The Korean-American Day should be to celebrate the fact that John Cho can play a goofy stoner on Harold and Kumar and we all still laugh about it.
Our insecurities are dissipating slowly. We don’t have to all be doctors and lawyers. In a year when Barack Obama will become the first African-American president of our America, let’s celebrate the hope that his victory gives to following generations on this Korean-American Day. And yes, by all means share kimchi and kalbi, and bang the farmer drums too. That stuff is cool also.
Meet my favorite Korean-Americans:
Most Admired: Ben Song (author, missionary, minister & my dad… so who said I can’t be biased)
Most Admired Businessman: Jeong Kim (President, Bell Labs)
Favorite Musican: Grace Kelly (Saxophonist, only 14 years old)
Favorite Korean-American food: Kimchi, spam fried rice (thought this would be Korean-American)
Favorite Dance Group: Kaba Modern (thank my son for making me watch them against my will)