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At 40: Asian American Studies

@ San Fr ancisco State

Self-Determination Community

Student Service Asian American Studies Department College of Ethnic Studies San Francisco State University 2009

Korean American Roots: San Francisco and the University Grace J. Yoo


he history of Korean Americans in the United States spans over one hundred years. War, colonization, and turbulent leaders have all been reasons for Koreans to leave their homeland. For the earliest of Korean immigrant pioneers, San Francisco has represented the beginnings of Korean American history. Moreover, San Francisco State University (SFSU) is symbolic of access to a university education for so many Korean Americans. It is also one of the first universities to offer a Korean American course. As early as the 1980s, SFSU offered “Survey of Korean American Communities” taught by Tom Kim. In 1997, the course, “Koreans in America” was reformulated and instituted as a general education course. Although the Korean American curriculum has evolved over the years to give students an understanding of Korean American history and issues, this course has also evolved to provide service, education, and awareness of Korean American history and issues to students at SFSU, and also the community-at-large.

community emerged. Over the last one hundred years, San Francisco has been home to many Korean Americans, old and new. Koreans in America at San Francisco State University Due to the efforts of SFSU Korean American students, a Koreans in America course was institutionalized in 1997. This course is an introduction to the history of Korean Americans in the United States. In addition to the historical experience, this course covers the sociological, political, and economic implications of being a minority and Korean immigrant in the United States. This course discusses the different waves of Korean immigration and provides an understanding of the experiences of different generations of Korean Americans. In addition, this course explores the experiences of second-generation Korean Americans in terms of identity and community. Since its institutionalization, Koreans in America has been taught by several faculty members including Grace Yoo, Emily Han Zimmerman, Doug Kim, Caroline Chung-Wipff, and Min Paek. Each instructor has brought his/her own unique talents in making this course come alive. Several hundreds of students have enrolled in the course and have grown intellectually and personally. A reentry Korean American student, Kwang Lim, who took the course in 2002 writes:

San Francisco: Community, Activism, and Resistance Korean immigration to the United States can be divided into three different waves. The first wave (1903-1905) of Korean immigrants migrated to the United States in 1903 as contract laborers working in the sugar cane fields in Hawai ‘ i and the farmlands along the West Coast. Over 8,000 Korean immigrants arrived through Hawai ‘ i or Angel Island, before Korean immigration was barred due to the 1924 Immigration Act. With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the second wave of Korean immigrants, representing war brides, adoptees, and students, arrived. The largest wave of Korean immigrants arrived after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. With the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, the San Francisco Bay Area Korean American

The class has been an eye-opening experience for me, as a 1.5 generation Korean American who grew up in San Francisco, but saw nor heard role models and highly successful people of my nationality….I have been introduced to a whole new world and awakened sense of national and ethnic pride I not realize I had. (Lim, personal communication, 10 Sep. 2002)



Korean American Roots: San Francisco and the University

This course not only educates students through faculty lectures, but utilizes films, guest speakers, texts, service learning, volunteerism, and field research. Over the years, we have utilized the San Francisco Bay Area and its access to well-known community members to come in as guest speakers including Emmynominated filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem, prolific novelist Leonard Chang, Chol Soo Lee, award-winning journalist K.W. Lee, and author Helie Lee. This course has also utilized the elders in our community to serve as guest speakers. Dora Kim, a Korean American pioneer, community activist, and co-founder of the Korean American Community Center, served as a regular guest speaker until her death in 2005. Sookie Song, another Korean American pioneer who is now entering her 90s, is still a regular guest speaker. Korean American history has been taught with lived voices brought to the classroom. Chung-Wipff, who taught this course from 2002-2003, writes: I loved helping young adults understand Korean history and Korean American history. But my favorite section of it was teaching more contemporary parts, especially how Koreans who first immigrated here had to struggle with racism. I felt that the students came away with a newfound respect and appreciation for those who came before us. These American kids felt a touch of the Asian respect for elders. (Chung-Wipff, personal communication, 10 July 2008)

In addition the course brought in Korean American pioneers as guest speakers as well as Korean War veterans, Korean War survivors, Korean American queer activists, and other guest speakers who represent history and aspects of Korean America. The classroom has also been a site for talking about issues within the Korean American family. Often students are able to discuss issues that they normally would not bring up in other settings. The classroom opens up students to talk about their Korean immigrant parents and the intergenerational tensions so common in families. Doug Kim who taught the course in 2006 and 2008 recalls: I was reading a paper written by a Korean American male who was twenty years old which was entitled “Are all Korean Fathers as F_ _ ked up as Mine?” In the paper he identified a number of pet peeves and ongoing communication impasses he had with his father. He vented his frustration very articulately, but more importantly… based on what he had learned from the course he gained a new appreciation and perspective of his father. It did not make it easier for him to endure much of the friction he was experiencing with his father, but he wrote that the

course had helped him understand better where his dad was coming from, and also what he would do differently and why – when he became a dad. (D. Kim, personal communication, 11 July 2008)

The classroom has also been a place for community building, and about recognizing and tolerating differences within this community. There is diversity even among Korean Americans and this course has brought together Korean Americans who might have not known each other. Zimmerman, an instructor who taught this course for two years, recalls how the course served to bring students together but also create meaningful dialogue about differences among ourselves: “A panel of five students, all of whom were Korean American adoptees, gave a joint presentation on the issue of adoption, illustrating some of their research findings with personal anecdotes. I found it incredibly moving, and a number of other students (non-adoptees) commented on how this presentation affected them” (Zimmerman, personal communication, 12 July 2008). Grace Yoo, an instructor who has taught the course on a regular basis, also recalls a time in the classroom when a Korean American queer male came to discuss his coming out experience. The guest speaker had mentioned he had done everything right in his life and according to his parents’ wishes. He had gone to get an Ivy League education and received a law degree at Stanford University, but he told the class that he could not fulfill his parents’ expectations of marrying a woman. Yoo recalls: Enrolled in the course at the time was a sixty-year-old re-entry Korean immigrant student who was so upset by this guest speaker, and in Korean, yelled out that he was not a filial son. The students were horrified and engaged in dialogue with this older student. Years later, this student came to visit me and said he was changed by this experience and was no longer homophobic, and realized that everyone had a choice to happiness even if it went against the expectations of parents. (Yoo, 14 July 2008)

Keeping Korean American Issues and History Alive: Community Education, Community-Based Research and Community Service The Koreans in America course has worked to educate students, and also to encourage students to involve themselves with serving the community, documenting voices and history, and working on raising issues impacting our community.


Grace J. Yoo

Community Service Learning Companionship to Korean Immigrant Elderly at Laguna Honda Yoo has partnered with Laguna Honda Hospital, a skilled nursing facility in San Francisco to provide companionship to older Korean immigrants. In their weekly journals, students evaluate their learning experience and also challenge their assumptions and perceptions about older Asian immigrants, disability, health, and family. Students come away with a deeper understanding of what it means to be old, Korean, non-English speaking, low-income, and disabled. For example, one student writes about his observations of the resident whom he visited: Mr. Park’s life in the nursing home is very simple. He basically stays in his room and watches TV, reads his newspaper, or takes a nap. Every Tuesday morning, a Korean minister visits the hospital to share the gospel with Korean elders. I can only imagine how valuable it was for Mr. Park to have us pay him a visit every week.

Through their weekly journals and a final paper on the experience, students write what they have learned. Often many write about their thoughts about how their older Korean immigrant resident has changed because of their visit, but they also write about deeper philosophical, existential questions like the meaning of life, that also surface during this classroom project. One male student writes about the time spent with his elder: One hour visits every week for seven weeks is only seven hours. Within those seven hours, we may not have heard enough of Mr. Park’s life stories, but we did have the chance to share our friendship and value the moments of sharing. We may not have had the chances to ask all the questions that we wanted to ask Mr. Park, but we had the chance to ask ourselves the questions about life in general and what life means for Mr. Park as a Korean elder.

Another undergraduate female reflectively asks herself how she will grow old and who will take care of her: If I can I make it to be that old, I wonder what I will be like at that age. If I can’t take care of myself, who would help me? What would I do? I don’t know but I had these kinds of thoughts during my visits at the nursing home.

Despite the difficulties with such an intergenerational program, the students who have been part of this project seem to be drawn to these residents in a very powerful way, and at the same time the students provide a valuable

service to the community. Documenting History: Remembering the Korean War Upon liberation from the Japanese, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel and shortly afterwards the Korean War ensued. Millions were killed and separated from their families, and even to this day remain separated from their relatives in North Korea. I have encouraged students to do oral histories of various different aspects of the Korean American experience. For two years, I had students who were interested in interviewing older Korean War survivors. These interviews were collected by students and eventually created into a documentary, Stories Untold: Memories of Korean War Survivors. This documentary, whose director was a student in my course, has been screened at various film festivals throughout the country, including the Visual Communications Film Festival in Los Angeles and the Asian Cinevision Festival in New York City. The film also was part of a national tour and was later screened at Amherst College and the University of Wisconsin Film Festival. Sulgi Kim, an undergraduate Cinema major, who participated as a volunteer on this project, states that this film provided an educational opportunity for him to view war as a “unique point of view which puts emphasis on the lives of war survivors which had opened up my eyes on many different levels.” (S. Kim, personal communication, 10 Sep. 2002) Community Forums Korean American Media Arts Festivals The state with the largest Korean American population is California. Over thirty percent of Korean Americans reside in California. Despite these large numbers of Korean Americans in California, the stories of this population are non-existent in the mainstream media, or limited to a few sound bites about the Los Angeles Riots, or most recently around North Korea. Through a partnership with Asian American Studies, the Broadcasting and Electronic Communication Arts (BECA) Department, and Korean Studies in Media Arts, in 2003 and 2006 a Korean American Media Arts Festival helped to shed light on the emerging Korean and Korean American media artists. This was the only media arts festival in the nation that brought together Korean and Korean American films and media makers. The hope of this festival was to offer the general public a deeper understanding of the diverse experiences of both Koreans and Korean Americans. It was also hoped that the general public will come away with an appreciation of the diversity that exists in California and understand the contributions that Korean American


Korean American Roots: San Francisco and the University

media artists bring to this diverse mosaic. The goals and objectives of this festival were threefold: 1 To tell Korean and Korean American stories through

the media arts.

2 To encourage and facilitate dialogue between Korean

filmmakers, Korean American media artists, and the general public. 3 To provide an ongoing space for dialogue about Korean and Korean American films. Thousands throughout the San Francisco Bay Area attended these two festivals. In addition, these forums have also allowed community discussions on Korean American issues and the media. Remembering Free Chol Soo Lee Movement In 1973, Chol Soo Lee was wrongly convicted of murdering a gang member in San Francisco Chinatown. Imprisoned for ten years, four of those on San Quentin’s death row, Chol Soo Lee was sentenced for execution until exoneration in 1983. Investigative reporter K.W. Lee wrote over 120 stories about the Chol Soo Lee case, prompting one of the first national pan-Asian American community organizing movements in the United States. Volunteer activists around the country formed the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, which was comprised of immigrants, students, seniors, social workers, and church members in cities such as San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and New York. The case also inspired the 1989 film True Believer, starring James Woods and Robert Downey, Jr. “Remembering the Movement,” a symposium sponsored by the AAS Department in March 2008 was dedicated to commemorating the Free Chol Soo Lee Movement, one of the first Asian American movements in the nation. The movement had occurred twenty-five years ago and one of the symposium objectives was to remember this movement and those involved. Over four hundred students attended this symposium. Guest speakers included Chol Soo Lee; K.W. Lee; Warren Furutani, a California State Assemblyman; Mike Suzuki, a public defender from Los Angeles; Esther Leong and Susan Lew of API Legal Outreach Center; and David Kakishiba from the East Bay Asian Youth Center. This symposium not only commemorated the pan-Asian American movement that advocated for Chol Soo Lee’s release, it also examined the impact of the Free Chol Soo Lee Movement on the Asian American community today. Korean American Activism: Past, Present, and Future In collaboration with the Korean Community Center

of the East Bay and the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, the Korean American unit has also worked to put on a symposium on “Korean American Activism for the Ages: A Multi-Generational Symposium of Activism Past, Present, and Future in the Bay Area” that was held in June 2008 in Oakland. This symposium brought together for the first time an extensive network of activists both young and old, and served to bridge the multi-generational and multi-ethnic divide within activism in the Bay Area. The symposium included K.W. Lee as the keynote speaker, panel discussions among important activists in the Bay Area, photo exhibits, and an oral history video presentation, all united around bridging gaps in technology, information, and awareness. The event featured a photo exhibit courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum entitled, “Remembering the Past: Free Chol Soo Lee Movement and the Korean Immigrant Community”; an oral history of K.W. Lee, the keynote speaker; an opening spoken word performance from Mush; and a closing performance from poet Ishle Park. This event brought together some of the most important activist work from the 1970s with the Free Chol Soo Lee Movement and the Pan Asian Movement including Chol Soo Lee, freedom fighter and activist; Tom Surh, Commissioner of Alameda County Superior Court; Min Paek, Executive Director of the Korean American Women Artists and Writers Association; and Han Yun, founding member of the Korean Community Center of the East Bay. In addition, the event featured leading Korean American activists in the current moment of activism including Yul Kwon, Survivor winner and leading Korean American activist; Helene Kim, community activist/lawyer who fought for fair coverage of Asians in the media; Isabel Kang, Shimtuh Director promoting domestic violence awareness within the Korean and Korean American community; and Amie Kim, a leading activist to bring the politics of Korean adoption to the forefront of discussion. Community-Based Research Social Support and Korean Immigrant Elderly Through a collaboration between UCSF and SFSU, Yoo worked with a nurse researcher Sabrina T. Wong on a two-year qualitative and quantitative study examining the meaning of social support among Korean immigrant elderly. As part of this study, they conducted focus groups with Korean immigrant elderly and in-depth interviews with key informants to understand the meanings and definitions of social support.


Grace J. Yoo

Through qualitatively understanding these definitions, they developed their own measurement to assess social support within families. Through this measurement, they examined the effects of social support on an older person’s general well-being. In doing this project, Yoo networked with several Asian American elderly service providers in the San Francisco Bay Area including On-Lok Senior Services, Self Help for the Elderly, San Francisco Korean Center, Korean Community Center of the East Bay, and several Korean American churches in the area. Their work has since been presented at several professional conferences such as the American Public Health Association and Gerontological Society of America. Their work was groundbreaking and has been published in several peer reviewed publications in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, Ethnicity and Health, and the International Journal of Aging and Human Development. Their work in this area has already been widely cited and has provided a contribution to understanding the meaning of social support among the elderly in different racial/ethnic communities. Accessing Health Care A large percentage of those immigrating after 1965 have experienced downward mobility and language barriers in accessing work regardless of education levels and pre-migration occupations. In response, many Korean immigrants have steered towards self-employment and demonstrate one of the highest propensities among all racial/ethnic groups to enter into business, concentrating in retail and service businesses. Many Korean immigrants have opted for self-employment because they could not find a job commensurate with their education and work experience in the primary labor market. This high selfemployment rate may contribute to the fact that many Korean Americans lack job-based health insurance and have the lowest rates of health insurance coverage among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States (Brown, et al. 2005). Ethnic entrepreneurship comes at a cost to the health and well being of Korean American entrepreneurs, families, employees, and communities. With a small grant from the Korean American Economic Development Council, a sociologist colleague, Barbara Kim, and Yoo have been examining the impact of health care access and Korean immigrants. They surveyed over 268 Korean immigrants throughout California. Their findings indicate that there are high rates of Korean immigrants who are uninsured, and those who are insured are underinsured. Their findings, which they worked on equally together, are forthcoming in Research in the Sociology of Health and in a book, Korean American Economy and Community.

Carework: Aging Korean Immigrants and Their Adult Children Through a California State University (CSU)-wide collaborative community-based research grant, Yoo and Barbara Kim from CSULB have been studying how second-generation adult children undertake and negotiate multifaceted financial and caregiving responsibilities for their aging parents in California, home to the largest Korean population in the United States, as a large group of Koreans who arrived in the peak immigration years of the 1970s and 1980s is retiring or poised to retire. This topic is especially crucial as Korean Americans, like the national population, is aging. Between 1990 and 2000, the Asian American population experienced the greatest growth (63%) compared to any other racial and ethnic group in the United States due to immigration and birth rates. Among Asian subgroups, the Korean population experienced over a one-third increase. According to Census 2000, 13% of the Koreans made up of those over fifty-five years of age (US Census Bureau, 2001). The majority of Koreans, aged fifty-five years and older, are foreign-born. Older Koreans usually have less education and limited English-speaking ability. The importance of family and being able to rely on the family for support remains a core social value to Koreans. The current generation of older Koreans tends to be unprepared for post-retirement life, having sacrificed personal gain for the betterment of their family and committing themselves to the education of their children. There is little information on how family support changes because of migration and the roles of second generation Korean Americans. In addition, there is a lack of community-based research on the challenges and barriers associated with cultural expectations and caregiving between aging Korean immigrant parents and their adult children. This collaborative project explores these understudied areas from the perspectives of second generation adult children who reside in the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas, homes to the largest and the fourth-largest Korean populations in the nation, respectively. This study has three major aims: (a) explore how second-generation Korean American adult children negotiate intergenerational expectations and caregiving practices for their aging immigrant parents, (b) investigate the challenges and barriers faced by second-generation Korean Americans in caring for their aging immigrant parents, and (c) make recommendations to local and national Korean American community-based organizations (CBOs) that identify ways CBOs and other institutions can assist second-generation Korean Americans with elder care issues. Currently, the data is being analyzed and written for peer-reviewed publications but it


Korean American Roots: San Francisco and the University

also has recommendations for Korean American community-based organizations. Conclusion Over the course of ten years, the Koreans in America course has brought education and empowerment to SFSU students. The course has also been utilized to jumpstart several different projects, including a documentary project, an oral history project, and several community-serving projects. The Korean American unit has continued to do outreach, collaborations, and education in the community by producing community forums, and by producing community-based scholarship useful for advocates and service providers in the Korean American community. References Brown, E. Richard, Shana Alex Lavarreda, Thomas Rice, Jennifer R. Kincheloe, and Melissa S. Gatchell. â&#x20AC;&#x153;The State of Health Insurance in California: Findings from the 2003 California Health Interview Survey.â&#x20AC;? 2005. 20 June 2006 < RT_0 81505.pdf> US Census Bureau. Census 2000 Demographic Profile. 2001. 1 Oct. 2005 < dp1/2kh00.pdf>.

Korean American Roots:San Francisco and the University  

Grace J. Yoo