You need to go to Korea, my grandmother kept saying. Why? I said.

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You need to go to Korea, my grandmother kept saying. Why? I said.

On Dec. 22, 1902, 102 Koreans left Incheon harbor on the SS Gaelic, journeyed over the vast Pacific Ocean and arrived in the Hawaiian Islands on Jan. 13, 1903. Between 1903 and 1905, more Koreans arrived, most to serve as workers on the labor-starved sugar and pineapple plantations. Working a job that could and did kill you, these pioneering Koreans established Korean-language newspapers, Korean-language schools and churches, and, more important, helped to provide the base, both physically and financially, for the Korean independence movement.

My harabeoji and we harabeoji were a part of this first group of Korean immigrants, arriving in Hawaii in 1905. Both of my grandfathers were from South Pyeongang province. My grandmothers, both picture brides, arrived later, my halmeoni, Kim Soo Ahn, from South Hamgyeong province; and my we halmeoni, Lim Ok Soon, from Gaeseong. Shortly after their arrival, children were born, all first generation Korean-Americans.

One of the adjustment difficulties for my grandparents was the language, which was both Hawaiian and English. This was compounded by many immigrant groups brought to live together, each bringing its own language and cultural traditions. My grandparents made the adjustment by learning to speak "broken English." Later, their children, my parents' generation, were educated at the plantation schools with the children of the other immigrant groups, and together these children developed a new dialect that included words from Hawaiian, English and the other ethnic languages, a "pidgin Hawaiian/English," or what linguists now would call a "creole."

Today in Hawaii, as the creole has become more influenced by English, it is called "pidgin English," or simply "pidgin."

Pidgin was my first language, though I did understand Korean enough to converse with my we halmeoni, to whom I was very close. My halmeoni would talk to me in hanguk mal and a bit of broken English and a bit of pidgin, and I would respond to her in my mix of Korean and pidgin. My halmeoni would pronounce her pidgin with her Gaeseong/South Pyeongang province dialect. For example, she would say, "pahm-bai," for the pidgin word "bumbye," which in Standard English meant "by and by."

The original base of pidgin is the Hawaiian language, so accordingly much of the vocabulary of early pidgin was Hawaiian, though as time went on, more and more of the vocabulary was replaced with English words.

For example, "au au" would later be replaced by "go bafe," which in Standard English would be "go and take a bath." Or "pio da light" would turn into "close da light," or in Standard English, "switch off the light."

Growing up as a third generation of Korean ancestry meant understanding and respecting the other cultures and traditions in Hawaii. It also meant that others would respect our cultural roots, too, and if that was not the case, then one would have to stand up and defend one's integrity. But growing up as a "local" in Hawaii also meant being a part of a new culture that was being created in the islands, a culture that has very strong Polynesian and Asian values, a culture that is shared by all of the residents of Hawaii who can claim to be indigenous Hawaiians and/or are rooted in the pioneering immigrant groups that worked the early plantations of Hawaii.

For example, my first language is pidgin; the food I like is the multicultural offering of the islands (e.g., one can find Korean, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, American, etc., food stands next to each other in the many shopping malls in the islands). But through the years of my youth and adult life I have always had a yearning in my soul to visit Korea, the land of my grandparents' birth.

When I was a child, my halmeoni often would remind me that I needed to go to Korea. "Why, ha-mo-ni?" I would ask her, and she would just nod her head wisely and say, "Gae-ri-ya, hanguk-e ga-gu-da," without offering any kind of overt reason. Years later I began to understand what she was telling me. And when this past year I received a teaching and research appointment for a semester at Korea University, it was an opportunity that I could not think of refusing.

My stay in Korea was an awesome experience. There were times of frustration due to not being able to communicate well, since I am not fluent in hanguk mal, but in general I was treated with an enviable amount of respect and courtesy. I enjoyed immensely teaching my students as they seemed very desirous of learning (though at times I thought they were teaching me more about Korea than I was teaching them about literature). And of course, my research went well.

And what was my research about? Initially, I was interested in studying post-Korean War fiction, but as I became more and more acclimated to Korea, the focus of my investigations changed.

I found myself drawn more to the everyday culture of Seoul. I loved walking the gol mok, perhaps, more specifically, the mokja gol mok! I went where Koreans ate, where they gathered, where they shopped.

As a result, I became more and more aware of everyday Korean customs (like how to pour and receive soju!), and my vocabulary and language comprehension increased by at least five-fold.

But more so, I began to feel the spirits of my grandparents and ancestors wherever I went in the city. Perhaps this feeling could explain why at times I felt strangely connected to the students in my classes, or to people sitting with me in the jihacheol, or to a vendor selling sweaters on the street.

On Christmas Eve, just two days after the centennial marking the first Koreans' departure from Incheon harbor to America, I left Korea to return home to Hawaii. I was eager to rejoin my family, though at the same time I was also already yearning for Korea and hoping soon for a return. Just before leaving, my uncle, my keun abaji in Seattle, e-mailed me: "Hi, nephew: Your heart must be heavy and sad saying farewell to your students, Seoul, and your ancestral land."

I could not disagree with him.

I need to return to Korea, I kept telling myself as my airplane headed for Honolulu and home. And now the simple words of my we halmeoni became so meaningful to me.

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A Hawaiian eye: Digging for roots

Gary Pak, a native of Hawaii, is a third generation Korean-American and author of two published works of fiction, "A Ricepaper Airplane," a novel of early 20th century Korean immigrants in Hawaii, and "The Watcher of Waipuna," a collection of short stories.

Mr. Pak is an assistant professor of English Literature at the University of Hawaii. Last year he taught and researched on a Fulbright grant at Korea University.

He is working on a novel about his grandmother who came to Hawaii as a picture bride, as well as a nonfiction work about his experiences in Seoul.


by Gary Pak

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