My Korean American Story: HJ Lee
My family arrived in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in July of 1973, and like most immigrant families, with little money, few personal belongings and the hope for a brighter future. We lived in Jamaica (Queens), New York, where the roads were not paved with gold, and where my father, an experienced Army surgeon, had to restart his training as an intern at a hospital in Jamaica.
First several years were difficult for all of us, our family of 5. My mother found a job making beaded necklaces to help make ends meet, often staying up late, hunched over the costume jewelry under a lone lamp, long after all of us had gone to bed. In 6th grade, I learned to speak English by playing soccer with the other immigrant kids from exotic places like the Dominican Republic, Czechoslovakia and Egypt. It was also the first of two times I was mugged in NYC.
The transition to Junior High School was miserable for me. Unsure of myself in a new country and unable to fully express myself, I felt like an outsider. I felt very vulnerable.
That was 37 years ago, and I am now married, and have 2 children of my own. My daughter is now 14, and I often remind her to be nice to the boys in her school because I know how awkward and difficult these early teen years can be for boys.
During the 70’s there were not many Koreans in the US, even in NY, but the subsequent decades saw a rapid rise of Korean people and culture in the US, and in fact, around the globe. Today, Korean soap operas and K-Pop are hot, which is great, but I believe it is important for us to reflect on the contributions Koreans have made to the broader American culture within the context of the Korean-American immigration history.
Korean-Americans are no longer a homogeneous group. In fact, between 1950 and 1965 there were 16,518 Koreans who immigrated to the US. During the same time period, approximately 6,500 Korean war-brides and 6,300 adopted children came to the US. It is now estimated that there are over 100,000 Korean adoptees in the USA. That is nearly 7% of the total Korean-American population. Furthermore, during my research I have seen a large number of folks in the Korean adoptee community who have been writing about and struggling with various issues related to adoption. There are many difficult issues being discussed through the adoptee networks and through a large number of blogs. There is much to learn about what it means to be a family from the adoptee community.
Statistically, it is estimated that 1.5% (according to 2000 US Census) to 10% (according to Gay activist groups) of the US population is gay. A general consensus estimate is that the approximately 3% – 5% of the US population is gay. Extrapolating this information, we can estimate that of the 1.5 million Korean-Americans approximately 45,000 – 75,000 of us are gay. Not surprisingly, there is not a lot of information available on the Korean-American gay community, but I was quite surprised was how little information is available on the internet as there were only a few web sites and blogs by and for Korean-American gay community.
My sister is married to a man of Swedish-Italian descent, and my brother is married to an Afro-Caribbean woman from Guyana. My nephews and niece are beautiful kids of various shades of skin color, sharing varying degree of Korean features. When my family gets together, our family looks like a poster for the United Nations. My wife is a Korean-American from Ohio, and although I am fluent in Korean (3 years of college level Korean, and a summer school in Korea), we speak English at home because it would take me forever, not to mention unbearable stress, to have a dialog with my wife in Korean. It would take many more years of Korean classes before my children would be able to speak to me in Korean.
So, what makes someone Korean American? Is it ethnicity, or the linguistic fluency of your mother tongue? Is it the food that we eat? Is it the company we keep, or the experiences we share?
In every community, there are those who have been left on the fringes, usually intentionally by the majority in the community; Korean-American community is no exception. The goal of KoreanAmericanStory.org is to collect and share the stories of ALL Korean-Americans. Therefore, we are in the process of making a concerted effort to include the stories from the following communities which have not been included in mainstream Korean-American community: Korean adoptees, mixed race Korean-Americans, those who are gay/lesbian.
We at KoreanAmericanStory.org believe that this is an important time in history to reflect on the contributions Koreans have made to the fabric of American society. By collecting and sharing the stories from Korean-Americans from all walks of life, we desire to educate Korean-Americans, and American society at large, regarding the connected but varied stories of Koreans in America, and in the process empower Korean-Americans with greater pride and a stronger sense of ownership of their adopted country. Our objective is to enable Korean-Americans to share their common experiences as immigrants and the children of immigrants, while discovering and celebrating the diversity of their community.
The mission of KoreanAmericanStory is to collect, support and create written and visual works of art that document the stories of the Korean-American community. This mission will be accomplished in part by collecting and making available to the public images, videos, literature and art that depict the life of Korean-American life for the past 115 years. We expect that non-fictional writings, oral history and documentaries will always be an important core of the works collected, facilitated and shared by KoreanAmericanStory.org. We also believe, however, that creative works are an essential means to relay and share experiences and wish to promote the arts in this regard. Accordingly, another avenue for accomplishing the organization’s mission will be to encourage, facilitate and fund the creation of artistic works that will leave behind a historical and cultural legacy of Korean-Americans.
As we go through this process, we have a unique opportunity to examine what it means to be a Korean-American today and how this experience has shaped Korean-American artistic and cultural landscape. We, at KoreanAmericanStory.org, are excited to be part of this journey. I hope you will join us in this journey of exploration, discovery and celebration.
Name: HJ Lee
Residence: New York
Occupation: President of KoreanAmericanStory.org