3 Generations of Activism Through the Eyes of Yul-san Liem
Drive, passion and leadership are just words that sound similar in juxtaposition. But when an ordinary individual emerges who can bring live meaning to such banal terms, people naturally start to hope for things which once sounded too distant and beyond the achievable, such as world-shifting impact, change balanced on a tilt toward justice—an individual like Yul-san Liem.
Born in Boston, MA, Liem, now 33 years old, is a Master’s candidate at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, concentrating in Art and Social Justice. Primarily working around issues of police violence and accountability in New York City, Liem hopes to continue a life of activism sustained by the various intellectual pursuits and creative potentials she has developed over the years.
Of course, behind every modern hero are shadows of others who sowed the seed of inspiration and watered the plant of dreams that make today’s realities. For Liem, they are her very own family members.
“Whenever people ask how I got to where I am, I say it started when my grandparents were born,” said Liem.
Liem’s grandparents were both independence fighters during the period of Korea’s colonization. Together, they devoted their years for the reunification of a divided Korea after World War II. Born in the northern region of what used to be an undivided Korea, Channing Liem came to the U.S. in 1930, attending Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. He met his wife Popai Lee Liem during his studies at the New York City Biblical Seminary, became a minister, and in the early 1960’s served as South Korean ambassador to the United Nations during the Chang Myon administration.
“My grandfather originally came to petition the U.S. government to support Korea’s independence, but his perspective on the role of the U.S. started to shift at the end of World War II when the U.S. and U.S.S.R partitioned Korea, and he became a reunification activist,” said Liem. “He was a leader for Korean Americans doing Korea work—all around great guy…an incredible guy.”
Channing Liem, who passed at age 86, has left an inerasable impression on the hearts of his loved ones that is manifest through their continuation of his work. It is a work that has been handed down to generations after him who share in the vision of bringing about one Korea. Yul-san Liem is one of five of his grandchildren and is the daughter of Ramsey Liem, one of Dr. Liem’s two sons who were immediately in line for that inheritance.
“Both of my parents were not shy about letting my twin sister and me know about what was going on in the world at an early age. I probably knew more about global issues when I was in 6th grade than I do now. I was talking about war and separated families when I was in 1st grade. My dad still has drawings that we did about them,” said Yul-san Liem. “Because of the work that they were involved in, there were always progressive people coming in and out of the house.”
Ramsey Liem, Professor of Psychology at Boston College, is noteworthy for the direction of the collaborative art exhibition Still Present Pasts, which has had 11 showings since 2005 when it first opened. Hand in hand, father and daughter had sought to express the impact the Korean War had on Korean Americans.
“Still Present Pasts deals with stories of people. Those stories have personal, psychological elements which address structural repression. They are not often heard and may have never been told. Putting that stuff out challenges master narratives about the Korean War—U.S. saved its little brother South Korea from the big bad communist in the North. But of course, the reality and the human experience are much different from that. The U.S. was much an oppressor and aggressor during that time,” said Liem. “The project began with my father. I’m still learning from it.”
What started out as one man’s scholarly endeavor about Korean War survivors and their families living in the U.S. became a public space of discovering and revisiting the forgotten, buried impact of a significant event in the lives of an entire race.
“I don’t think anybody thought it would last this long,” said Liem.
Many would wonder the same about the history of activism which remains intact within the Liem family, preserved by Yul-san Liem and the rest of the third generation. It is not only loyalty to tradition, but also individual character, will and strength that can sustain such a practice.
“Sometimes…a lot of times, what keeps me going is a set of beliefs and principles that I hold onto when nothing seems to be working and I’m really tired. There are definitely times when I don’t feel like it’s emotionally or physically possible. But it feels worse to be just normal,” said Liem. “And it’s different being the third generation in the U.S. I’m probably more wishy-washy. I have a lot more class privilege than my grandparents or parents did and sometimes privilege makes you a little weak.”
But it is still reassuring that the strong scent of justice left by the steps of those who walked in the paths of humanity still fills the nostrils of those hungry for progress. A radical shift from the status quo is what Liem envisions.
“I think about revolution. It’s not about taking over the government. It’s a continual thing where people are always struggling to change the systems that structure our lives, pushing away from hierarchy with respect to power and competition. Concretely, it would be people rising up in many areas of society, whether that’s within repressive state apparatus, such as the military and police, or ideological state apparatus, taking control of the education system and reshaping social systems to be by the people and for the people,” said Liem. “It is messy and continual, but you kind of have to believe you can get to somewhere better than here.”
There is honesty and severe simplicity in the way in which this young visionary monitors the growth of her activism, befitting an absolute global view to cultivate a deeper understanding of world relevancy and to transcend the boundaries that leave no room for alternatives.
“I grew up like a nationalist. My identity as a Korean used to lead to my activism. That’s not true anymore, though it is through doing work around issues of Korean community development and on issues of peace and anti-militarism between U. S.-Korean policy and learning about the history of war, division and economic imperialism in Korea that got me to where my analysis is now,” said Liem.“There was a period where my activism was very tied up in identity and I was psyched to say I am a Korean and so that means I will do Korea work. Nationalism moves people. I was moved. Culturally, it is also very conformable and familiar. But as I got more deeply into the work, I saw a lot of limitations to just linking identity with activism and commitment to social change. There’s no reason to mix those up.”
This objective quest to define what it means to be an activist is perhaps a personal struggle that adds a unique layer to the woman Yul-san Liem that sets her apart from her forefathers.
“My grandparents worked only around Korean issues with Korean Americans, building alliances with non-Koreans. My father has done work in other areas, but primarily on Korea, crossing multiple Asian American communities,” said Liem. “In New York, all these different groups show up at coalitions and attend each other’s events. That exposure helped me to build connections between struggles. That doesn’t mean my father and grandfather didn’t see those connections but that was my unique experience in the City, where there are so many ethnic communities, sexual orientations, and gender identities.”
Other than familial influence, there is one other factor that is inseparable to Liem’s activism and that is the artistic vessel through which she produces her ideas on social justice and cultural work.
The life of an activist or even an artist for that matter is not as glorious as it seems. Not everyone thinks on the same level or agrees with the proposed ideas and ventures. Like any other person, the activist faces opposition. There is confusion and doubt and questions about to where all of the work will lead. The moment where he or she has to face the results—the truth—of what everything had meant will surely come.
“I feel drained all the time,” said Liem.
“But maybe the hardest part is looking at the big picture and seeing how complicated it is and then thinking about my own capacity in respect to that massive thing.”