U.S. scholar researches Koreans’ emigrationWhat Wayne Patterson remembers most about Korea in 1972 is bus No. 139 and how passengers stared at his hairy legs and shorts.
Mr. Patterson, then 25, had been trying hard to avoid offending anyone. On the bus to Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute, Mr. Patterson, as the one and only Westerner, always attracted plenty of attention, drawing funny looks from fellow passengers. But one hot summer day he just gave up and pulled on shorts.
The young University of Pennsylvania graduate student boarded the bus tentatively and looked around apprehensively. A young bus attendant taking the 10-won ticket (equivalent to 500 won or 40 cents today) cried out “ora-i,” meaning “All right!” The moment remains etched in his memory.
Back in Sinchon on a Tuesday evening all these years later, now a scholar aspiring to bridge the East-West divide, Mr. Patterson, 56, feels the passage of time deep in his bones.
He longer needs to muster courage to wear shorts in this country, for so long nicknamed the “Hermit Kingdom.” Koreans on the street no longer cast strange looks at Mr. Patterson as they did three decades ago. And he’s no longer a 25-year-old struggling with a Chinese character dictionary.
Today, Mr. Patterson is an authority on Korean emigration to the United States. Seated at a beef barbecue restaurant in Sinchon, Mr. Patterson offers a toast in Korean, glibly reciting “Wihayeo” which translates loosely as “cheers.” These days, Mr. Patterson’s mingling with Korean culture occurs quite smoothly.
A master at chopsticks, Mr. Patterson positions a morsel of cooked beef from the table grill on a lettuce leaf, then completes the package with a spoonful of doenjang or soybean paste.
A professor of history at St. Norbert College in northeast Wisconsin, Mr. Patterson frequents the sole Korean restaurant in nearby Green Bay to enjoy his “usual stuff” like bulgogi, or marinated beef, and bibimbap, rice mixed with vegetables and meat.
He even called his tawny cat Nabi, “Butterfly,” a popular cat name in Korea.
Aside from a TV documentary about the Korean War, Mr. Patterson had little exposure to Korea while growing up in Philadelphia. There were no hints he would somebody become such a Koreaphile.
Chewing on his lettuce wrap, Mr. Patterson says “I cared little about Korea, Japan and China. I did not even know they were three different countries. Just like some Midwestern American children saying ‘I’ve heard about Korea, where is it in the States?’ ”
Over time, the young man found himself drawn to history. From the venerable Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, he entered graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met Hilary Conroy, a historian of Japanese-American studies. Mr. Conroy soon became Mr. Patterson’s mentor, offering to help the student dig into the history of Korean-Americans.
“I was not terribly interested at first,” Mr. Patterson recalls, “but it’s hard to turn down what your mentor says.”
Once he took up the subject, he was hooked, especially after learning that historians had barely touched the field. Korean emigration to the United States began a century ago in 1903, when workers found jobs in Hawaii’s sugarcane plantations.
To embark on his studies, however, the young scholar desperately needed to improve his language skills. He started by studying Chinese characters ― an essential part of any language studies in Northeast Asia ― but it was not enough.
His first visit to Korea came in 1972. It was followed by about two dozen more visits to the peninsula. Eventually, Mr. Patterson even taught Asian history at the graduate level at esteemed institutions like Korea University and Yonsei University.
Though his lectures were in English, Mr. Patterson hardly struggles to make himself understood in colloquial Korean and Japanese.
Until he earned his doctoral degree in 1977, he strove to find any material on Koreans in the United States, a hunt that took him around the world.
“Nothing compares to the feeling that you’ve found some primary documents that no one has ever looked at,” he says. Mr. Patterson felt that euphoria quite often as he scoured through every nook and cranny of libraries in New York, Seoul, Tokyo and elsewhere.
The stereotype of turn-of-the-century Korean-Americans, Mr. Patterson says, conjures up images of a “picture wedding,” an arranged marriage in which Korean men in Hawaii imported brides from Korea through a photo swap.
“I was charmed by these stories, like the first generation [Korean-Americans] getting furious at their sons dating a young woman named Amy Yamamoto and attending churches where ministers inveigh that ‘those evil Japs will be punished.’ ”
Mr. Patterson today has become a bellwether in his field, publishing “The Korean Frontier in America” and “The First-Generation Korean Immigrants in Hawaii.” This month, his latest, “The Koreans in Hawaii: A Pictorial History,” spun off the presses in the United States.
“It’s somewhat regrettable that it’s not a Korean scholar but an American who researched the history of Korean-Americans,” says Chung Dae-hwa, a professor of political science at Pusan National University and one of Mr. Patterson’s classmates at Penn. “But Mr. Patterson did the job right as a scholar, which made many Koreans thankful.”
Mr. Chung also translated Mr. Patterson’s first two books.
No matter how Koreanized Mr. Patterson may be, he sometimes needs a taste of the United States ― like a Starbucks beverage. Mr. Patterson patronizes the Sinchon branch, rather than surrendering his taste to instant coffee mixes.
Between sips, he relishes his exploration of Korean-American history. “Now I know how steadfast and strong-willed the Korean-American first generations were.”
The last Korean picture bride died last year and with the centennial anniversary of emigration over, Mr. Patterson will focus on the period when Korea was opening its doors to foreign powers.
In his latest visit to Korea, Mr. Patterson made the rounds to Incheon and Busan, where customs offices were based when ports were vital routes of foreign entry.
Mr. Patterson flew back to Wisconsin yesterday, but it won’t be long before he returns to his second home country on this peninsula. And if it is warm, he will be in his shorts.
by Chun Su-jin