Searching for a common differenceElaine Kim is concerned about language. Not surprising for a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her life’s work examines the confluence of different cultures in an increasingly diverse world.
But on this day, the problem is simpler. Ms. Kim is headed to Cheonan, South Chuncheong province, to meet several of her cousins for the first time.
“One branch of my family stayed in South Korea, another went to North Korea, one went to the U.S. and one branch ended up in Tianjin, China, after fighting in the resistance against Japan,” she says. “My cousins and I will be speaking a combination of Korean, Chinese and English, and trying our best to communicate!”
A whirlwind of language seems a fitting family for Elaine Kim. Her mother’s mother was a sugar plantation worker in Hawaii, part of the first wave of Korean immigration to America a century ago. Ms. Kim’s father came from a powerful family, educated in Japan like many of the Korean elite during the colonial period. He ended up in the United States, where he met Ms. Kim’s mother ― a relationship forged across very different backgrounds.
Ms. Kim was born in New York City in 1942. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature at Ivy League universities and completed her doctorate at Berkeley. It was while a graduate student at Berkeley in the late 1960s that she became involved with a student movement called the Third World Strike.
In all her years of schooling, Ms. Kim had never been asked to read a writer who wasn’t white, let alone an Asian-American writer. Soon she and other nonwhite students decided this should change. Along with students at nearby San Francisco State University, they held teach-ins on the main campus plazas, trying to spread word about what they were trying to accomplish, a campaign that lasted for several months.
Mass rallies led to scores of arrests. The National Guard was called in. When the tear gas cleared, the movement had worked: departments of ethnic studies were established at those schools and at other institutions, departments which have given voice to, among others, African-American, Latin-American, Asian-American and Native American writers and students.
Ms. Kim decided to stay at Berkeley. In the 30 years since, she has written or edited nine books, worked on seven films and published countless articles. Her work has garnered her a Rockefeller grant, an assistant deanship and an appointment by then-President Bill Clinton as one of 11 members of the President’s Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History.
But she has distinguished herself outside of the classroom as well. She helped found Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, which helps women who work in such fields as textiles, custodial work, electronics assembly and food service.
“Even though they’re all Asian immigrants,” she says, “they don’t speak the same language, which makes the work very difficult.”
With the Korean Community Center in Oakland, she has helped write grants for small business development projects, and has educated on everything from racism to domestic violence. She also works with Asian Women United of California, which produces videotapes and books by and about Asian-American women.
“We’ve done seven films. The latest is on Asian women labor organizers, something that people don’t think of Asian-American women as doing,” she says. “Our next film will be about immigrants working in the meat-packing plants in Lubbock, Kansas. People think of it as the ‘heartland,’ but we found out that there’s a new labor force there, a third world within the first world.”
Ms. Kim was in Seoul early this month for the Third Korean Cultural Community Conference. She spoke about the state of Korean-American literature, discussing such authors as Suji Kwok Kim and Susan Choi. She finds personal resonance in artist Theresa Hak-kyung Cha’s description of herself as being “neither here nor there.”
“I consider paradoxes and contradictions to be the crucial substance of my life as a Korean-American woman, who exists at the intersection of race and gender, nationalism and feminism, the residual and the emergent, without agreeing to offer my back as a bridge,” Ms. Kim says.
She remembers the thrill of briefly escaping this paradox. She returned to Korea after college to work at the age of 23, and reveled in the fact that no one saw her as different.
Korea was then in the early stages of postwar economic development; when Ms. Kim rode the bus to work, she made sure to take off her watch and any other conspicuous items. One day she forgot.
“Two or three guys squeezed me in so I couldn’t move and took the watch off my wrist,” she says. “And so I said in broken Korean, ‘Somebody took my watch!’ and everyone turned around, and they couldn’t even help me because they couldn’t get over the fact that there was a foreigner there. My disguise was off!”
“I think that’s emblematic of the way that people think they belong somewhere, and it is only in a moment of crisis that they suddenly find out they don’t,” she adds.
For many Korean-Americans, April 29, 1992 was one such moment of crisis. Los Angeles police officers had just been acquitted in the videotaped beating of an African-American named Rodney King. Racial tensions erupted, and several L.A. neighborhoods became lawless battlegrounds, with 52 people killed over five days.
Korean-American retailers were hard hit by rioters. This was ascribed to resentment among African-Americans of what they saw as exploitation of their neighborhoods. A 1993 study by the University of California, Los Angeles determined that Korean-Americans suffered more than half of all property damage in the riots, totaling $400 million. Repeated media images of Korean-Americans heavily arming themselves against potential looters and store owners wailing about their losses forged an even narrower idea of Korean-American identity in a national consciousness unsure of exactly where Korean-Americans “fit.”
A number of Ms. Kim’s projects have come out of the aftermath of the L.A. riots, including a film and her book “East to America: Korean-American Life Stories.” What does she think ultimately came out of the riots for Korean-Americans?
“Oh boy,” she sighs. “I do think that a lot of consciousness was raised among Korean-Americans, because a lot of people who were living in a narrow space and not looking around them began to take a closer look at different races of people and different possibilities and relationships with mainstream society, so in that regard it has had a very widening outcome for people in the community.
“I’ve noticed a lot more interaction between Koreans and people of other races since then,” she says. “All kinds of collaborations, from intermarriages to the arts and businesses and places I hadn’t seen before.”
But have images of Asians in popular culture changed? “In substance, not so much form,” she says. Orientalist stereotypes have not diminished but become diffuse, she says, with harem scenes, for instance, showing up in rap videos featuring all-African-American casts.
“But you’ve got so many things happening in other spaces, in clubs, on the Internet, things like Angry Little Asian Girl, Sandra Oh and Margaret Cho. If you think about all of these people ― how come they’re Korean-American? Could this surge of expression be in part because of the L.A. riots that made people want to be the ones to represent themselves? Have themselves heard?”
There once was a girl who went to the beach with her friends. It was the late 1950s, Ocean City, Maryland. When the other girls would leave to go down to the beach at night, to build a bonfire, talk to the boys who spent their summers there, they would leave her behind.
“It was hard,” Ms. Kim says, “extremely alienating. I would hang out with the popular girls, sit with them in the lunch room, but I wouldn’t speak. Once in a while they’d ask me something, like what to order at a Chinese restaurant. I was like a little dog or cat you’d allow to tag along, and of course I didn’t want other people to realize I didn’t belong, and I always lived with the fear that they’d figure it out. It was the quintessential ‘model minority’ feeling ― I had finally gotten ‘a seat at the table.’ ”
Her latest book takes on just that age group: adolescent girls who also happen to be Asian-American. “Invasian: Asian Sisters Represent” is an anthology that looks at a group that is rarely addressed.
“These girls are at the point where they are getting racialized and sexualized both,” she says. “They face a lot of issues, and they’re sort of running by the seat of their pants whether they make it or not. We did that book to say, ‘Somebody is here. I don’t know how good this is, but we know about you.’”
Ms. Kim pauses. “I try to do work that doesn’t go along with the way things have been going,” she explains. “And of course I make a lot of mistakes when I do that. But I’ve always been interested in that ― bringing what has been in the shadows into the light.”
by Jason Zahorchak