Qualitative Data

qualitativeThis section of Korean American Data Bank includes more humanistic, less statistically-oriented qualitative information about Korean-American experiences. It includes (1) biographical essays by Korean-American politicians, administrators, advocates, and judges, (2) essays written by individuals who have promoted the Korean language, particularly in the New York-New Jersey area, (3) prize-winning essays written by undergraduate and graduate students (from the 2013 RCKC Essay Contest on Korean Culture), and (4) poems by Chungmi Kim, a Korean-American poet and playwright. In the future, we plan to add more qualitative information and narratives to this section, including oral histories, audio-visual tapes of old-timer Korean immigrants, and stories of different overseas Korean communities based on ethnographic research. In the past, this section included personal narratives on ethnic and racial identity written by 1.5- and second-generation Korean Americans, which were subsequently published in an edited book titled Younger-Generation Korean Experiences in the United States: Personal Narratives on Ethnic and Racial Identities (Lexington Books, 2014).

I was born on November 14, 1957 into a very traditional Korean family in Seoul, South Korea. Like many other fellow Koreans, my family experienced serious economic struggles shortly after the signing of the Korean War Armistice. My parents’ very modest goals included college education for their three sons and daughter. Little did we imagine where that ambition would take me—from post-war Korea to the Kingdom of Brunei to Manila, and ultimately, to the United States, where in 2008, I became the first Korean-American female to become mayor in any American city. I am now one of 98 State Representatives in Washington State helping set policy direction and voting on our state’s 30 billion dollar biennial budget for more than 7 million residents.

My parents are from what is now North Korea. My dad, Jae Il Kim, is the oldest surviving son of a fifth generation of only sons. So when my grandmother had several sons in a row, and my mom, Seong Suk Kim, married into the family, expectations of this marriage and their children were extremely high. By the time they met at the end of the active part of the Korean War, both had been pushed to the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. Since he graduated from the teachers’ college, my dad became an officer in the ROK (Republic of Korea) Army and my mom was a member of the choir at the church his mother and sisters attended. My dad is from Hwang Hae Do, Hwang Joo Koon, Young Poong Myun, which is my “hometown” even though I have never been there, since it lies north of Pan Mun Jeom.

Sunny K. Park was born as Park Il-chun in the Wangsimni neighborhood of Seoul, Korea, in 1942, the only child of Pyungnim and Songhak Park. When he was eight years old, the Korean War broke out, which had a profound impact on him, as he saw people who spoke the same language and shared the same culture fighting and killing each other over ideology: democracy versus communism. He saw firsthand the brutalities of war: people being shot and killed in front of him, dead bodies lying in the street. He and his mother, Pyungnim, were forced to flee Seoul, and they walked to a refugee camp in Suwon and Seongnam, where they lived for three years.

When U.S. soldiers came in to help the South Koreans, Park also learned that there were people who looked different from him and his family—some were white with blond hair, some were black with curly hair. During this time, as he understood that they were fighting for him and his neighbors, he gained an appreciation and admiration for Americans. Since the schools were closed, Park spent most of his time in these years playing in the muddy streets and tagging along behind American soldiers. The soldiers always gave the poor Korean children wandering around the campsites something, such as canned meat, chocolates, or chewing gum. The first English phrase Park learned was, “Give me.” Sometimes, a child could bring home enough food to feed the family. Americans also sent food to fight hunger and malnourishment, coats to keep Koreans warm, and school supplies. The young Park came to view Americans as a “very rich and generous” group.


The following Korean-language literary essay was written by Ms. Jane Cho (her Korean name is 황정숙/Hwang Jung Sook). Ms. Hwang is a Korean-language teacher at Palisades Park High School in Palisades Park in Bergen County, New Jersey. She completed her college education in Korea at a teachers’ college by specializing in the Korean language as a foreign language. She had worked as a Korean-language teacher for about 15 years in the New Jersey area before she found a full-time teaching position at Palisades Park High School in 2010. While teaching Korean language for the Korean Studies Program at Rutgers University, she started her Korean-language teachers’ certification program (master’s degree) in 2008 with a scholarship from the Korean Language Association (of New York) and the Korean government. As soon as she completed the program in 2010, she found a teaching position at Palisades Park High School. She still maintains her position as the associate principal at a Saturday Korean-language school in Bergen County. Ms. Hwang is also a well-established essayist. She won the first-place award in the Essay Contest for Overseas Koreans organized by the Cyber School of Kyung Hee University (in Korea) in 2010.

Korean Americans compose the majority of the population in Palisades Park, where her high school is located.  Palisades Park may be the only neighborhood in the U.S. where Korean Americans comprise the majority of the population. Since the early 1990s, they have established a Korean business district in this suburban Korean enclave. By virtue of numerical dominance, Korean Americans have had a strong influence in Palisades Park. Jason Kim, a Korean American, was elected as a City Council member in Palisades Park in 2005. He was the first Korean to be elected as a city council member in any municipality or city in the New York-New Jersey area. Currently, two Koreans hold the two top City Council positions among six City Council members.  A monument commemorating Korean “comfort women” (sexual slaves of the Japanese military during the Pacific and Asian War) was installed in front of the City Hall of Palisades Park, further testament to Koreans' influence in the area. 

Korean students compose 45% of the student body at Palisades Park High School. Korean Language Association, created to promote the Korean language as a foreign language to elementary and secondary schools in the New York-New Jersey area in 2007, targeted Palisades Park High School as the first school in New Jersey to teach the Korean language (of course, there were already several elementary and high schools in New York City that had offered Korean as a foreign language before). As a result of Korean-language leaders’ and Korean parents’ persistent lobbying activities and their and the Korean government’s financial support, the high school began to offer Korean as a foreign language in 2010 and hired Ms. Hwang as the Korean-language teacher. According to Ms. Hwang’s essay, the school started the Korean-language program with about 30 students in three classes in 2010, but soon afterwards, the program grew to over 130 students in six classes. In the first two years, the Korean community and the Korean government covered the teacher’s salary. However, since 2012, the Palisades Park School Board has covered the expenses.

In this moving literary essay, Ms. Hwang describes her passion and excitement as a Korean-language teacher at Palisades Park High School, which is a public school. We can see from the essay that teaching Korean at an American high school entails much more than a regular teaching profession (which is challenging and strenuous in and of itself). Every day, she works hard to teach both younger-generation Korean students and American students the Korean language, Korean history, and culture. To stimulate interest in her Korean-language class, she combines many Korean cultural activities, including making gimbap (seaweed rolls), practicing calligraphy, drawing traditional Korean cartoons, playing samulnori (traditional Korean drumming), making Korean fans, jegichagi (a Korean version of hacky-sacking) and so forth.  On the first New Year’s Day, she prepared ddeukguk (rice cake soup that is traditionally eaten for New Year’s) at home and served ddeukguk for 30 students. She also took bulgogi (Korean barbecued beef) and japchae (Korean vermicelli noodles with meat and vegetables) to school for the students.   


My name is Jay Changjoon Kim, and I am a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. I was born in Seoul, Korea on March 27, 1939. I was part of the generation that was born during the Japanese occupation, and the horrors of war were never far away from me during my youth. During the Korean War, my home was destroyed during combat; this devastating event brought me face to face with poverty in a way that I never wanted to experience again. The constant battles in my homeland gave me a very powerful understanding of how much being a Korean really meant to me and how precious my status as a Korean truly was. I was part of a generation lucky enough to have escaped subjugation from other nations and live in an independent Korea, and I was also part of a generation that had all sorts of opportunities to grow and present itself after the war.

As I grew older, I realized that the only way that I would be able to avoid poverty would be to work as hard as I could at whatever I did. I soon decided that the best chance that I had of making a name for myself would be to emigrate to the United States of America. After completing my service in the Republic of Korean Army in 1961, I applied for a student visa that would allow me to attend college in the United States.

Like many Korean Americans, I come from a family of immigrants. My parents and my three siblings were all born in South Korea, immigrated to the United States, and became naturalized American citizens. My story is a simple one, one that echoes the lives of so many other Korean Americans I meet. In fact, many who read this will probably have life stories that are more compelling than mine. 

My parents epitomize the American dream. They came to the U.S. in the 1960s. My father attended graduate school and studied political science. When I was an infant, he worked at Chase Manhattan Bank. My mother was an English major in college. One of her early jobs was as an Executive Assistant at Uniroyal Tires. I was born at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City on October 6, 1969.

I spent my early years in Woodside, Queens and attended P.S. 12. When I was in kindergarten, my parents opened the family business. It started out small but evolved into Cici Department Store. It was one of the first businesses that catered primarily to Korean customers and sold high-end cosmetics, electronics, and other gifts. They were the pioneers of 32nd Street, a block that is affectionately known today as “K-town” or Korea Town.

I, for one, consider it a great blessing to be adopted. I was born in Korea, and when I was only four years old, my mother died and my father abandoned me. I led the life of a street urchin until the age of fifteen. I had the great fortune of encountering a man who truly gave me my life, Dr. Ray Paull. Dr. Paull adopted me, brought me to the United States, and helped me get an education. He encouraged me to work hard to achieve my goals, and to let nothing stand in my way. I am blessed to be adopted and I worked hard to overcome the obstacles I faced over the years.

When I was young, prior to my adoption, I lived the life of a street hooligan. Having no place to go, my life consisted of standing on the street corners of Seoul begging for food to stay alive. I had few friends and only one ambition. I desired more than anything to get an education and become a better person. I wanted to have a life of learning and achievement.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, I fled to the southern part of the Korean peninsula near the Yesan area to avoid the Communists. Having heard that the U.S. forces were landing in Inch’on, I decided to walk up to the front and greet the arriving American troops. I proceeded to the front line. It was there that I saw a convoy of hundreds of vehicles passing across the bridge so they could continue to advance on the north. I was one of the hundreds of kids standing by the rubber raft bridge waving at the soldiers in the front. “Hallo, chewing gum, Hallo, chocolate,” we would shout, hoping that they would throw out candy and things to us. One day, for reasons I don’t know, one of the soldiers lent his hand to me, and as I reached out to him, he picked me up and brought me over to the truck. It was this simple gesture that constituted the beginning of my new life.

For as long as I can remember, I have always felt the need to help people. As a child, I remember feeling sorry for the kids in school who were bullied. Fortunately for me, I was friends with the “popular” crowd, so when I stood up for the kids who were picked on, I was able to influence the bullies to stop their behavior (without any detriment to my own social standing). It was this innate sense of changing things for the better, which perhaps, unbeknownst to me at the time, began my path down a career in politics.

I was born in Springfield, Illinois, “the Land of Lincoln,” to Dr. Chester Chiduk Ha and Katherine Kyunhee Ha. My father graduated from Seoul National University and my mother from Ewha Women’s University, but after college, they decided to attend graduate school in the United States as they set out for the “American Dream.” My father did a brief stint working for the State of Illinois prior to attending graduate school, which is why my brother and I were born in Illinois.

Both of my parents attended Ohio State University for their graduate degrees. My father pursued his Ph.D. in Business/Economics, while my mother pursued her Masters Degree in Microbiology. Needless to say, education was clearly paramount in my household. As second-generation Korean Americans, my parents wanted me and my brother to know that education was the most important factor in getting ahead, and since our parents were procuring graduate degrees, it would be expected that we, too, would pursue higher education.


My earliest recollection is of a very small and dingy apartment in Chicago that my father had prepared for his family’s arrival. He had immigrated to the U.S. in 1973 without his family in order to secure a better life for his pregnant wife and two young daughters. He was prompted to make this bold move after losing his life savings to a fraudulent bank that had promised high interest on the money that he and my mother had saved through years of scrimping on even the basics. I wasn’t born yet when my father left for the United States, and my meeting with him at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 1976 was the first time he laid eyes on his son. As a three-year-old, I was naturally afraid and weary of this strange man, but we drove to this small apartment in Chicago as a complete family determined to live a better life in the United States.

As a child of immigrants and as an immigrant myself (albeit a very young one), I understood that we were here in this new country for a very specific purpose. For my parents, their goal was to build a better life for their three children. For me and my sisters, our goal was to take advantage of this new land, to achieve what our parents couldn’t in their own lives, all while helping our parents maneuver this strange land. The isolation and fears that my parents felt as immigrants were things that we were supposed to rise above and their struggles were supposed to end with their generation.

I was born in 1976 in Taylor, Michigan. My parents had come to the United States just one year before, and they embody a typical Korean immigrant story—they arrived here in the United States as a newly married couple with a baby (my older brother), a couple of suitcases, and less than $500 to their name. My father had graduated from Yonsei Medical School and had dreams of being a doctor, as did my mother. But since no American hospital would recognize their medical degrees, they made their way across the Midwest, taking grueling resident jobs so they might eventually reach their dreams.

My earliest memories are of growing up in the Bronx and in Elmsford, NY a blue-collar town in Westchester. We weren’t very well-off, but I was close friends with a diverse group of kids—mostly black and white. I spent most of my childhood being one of the only Asian kids in my school. Even at that time during the early 1980s, none of my friends had any idea where Korea was; they only had a rough idea about Japan and China. Once they found out I was Korean, their next logical question for me was, “Are you Korean or are you American?” It was my first time trying to think of my identity, and we were all a little befuddled until one of my friends said, “Well, you were born in America, right? So you must be American, just like the rest of us.” That seemed to settle it for the time being.

I was born in Syracuse, NY in 1964, and I am the eldest of three children. I have two younger brothers, both also born in the United States. My parents had come to the United States as college students at the end of the Korean War—My father arrived in 1954 and my mother arrived in 1955, both with student visas. 

My mother came from a well-to-do family (before the war and occupation) in Seoul and was the younger of two daughters. She had graduated from Yonsei University a few years before coming to the U.S. My father was essentially a war orphan who came from Pyongyang and had finished two years at Seoul National University when he came to the U.S. Neither of them had any financial sponsors, just admission to local colleges. There were sponsors in formality, someone signing necessary documents, but no actual financial support. My father arrived with one suitcase of belongings and $50 cash, nothing more.

Both of my parents received their green cards in 1963 and become U.S. citizens in 1970. They were both academics—my father studied at Seoul University before immigrating to the U.S., then received his BS in Physics and Math from Carroll University in 1957, followed by his PhD in Theoretical Physics from the University of Rochester in 1963. My mother received her BA in Korean Literature from Yonsei University in 1953 before immigrating, and then received her Master’s in Education from University of Rochester in 1959, followed by a Master’s in Library Science from SUNY Geneseo in 1961.


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