'Century of the Tiger' tells of Koreans' evolution
|||Special report: 100 Years of Dreams, Accomplishments|
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor
The world of Korean immigrants and Korean Americans can be compared to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Within the DMZ, native vegetation and wildlife prosper, while on both sides industrialization, commercialization and, at least in the South, Westernization, have profoundly changed the landscape.
In a small but significant way, a new book, "Century of the Tiger, One Hundred Years of Korean Culture in America 1903-2003," (UH Press, hardback, $44.95; paper, $24.95) serves to widen this zone of flowering culture, deepening our knowledge and correcting our misunderstandings though essays, memoirs, biographies, poems and short stories by and about Koreans and Korean Americans.
A one-of-a-kind edition of the literary journal Manoa, printed in large-format on coated stock, with color photos and magazine-quality graphic design, "Century of the Tiger" was a project of Manoa's editors, the Centennial Committee of Korean Immigration to the United States and the University of Hawai'i Press. It arrives in time for a year of activities celebrating Korean immigration here.
"Century of the Tiger" tells the story of Korean American immigration from 1903 to the present, explained Frank Stewart, one of the book's three principal editors. The project was first conceived as a collection of contemporary writing, "but the more we got into it, the more we realized just how fascinating the story of Korean immigration is," he said.
Stewart calls it "a tremendous undertaking by the whole Korean American community in Hawai'i."
For most of the first half of the 20th century, Hawai'i was home to the vast majority of Korean immigrants. They came in a wave of about 7,000 between 1903 and 1907, after which time immigration was halted until the 1960s. Almost all the immigrants came through Hawai'i, and only about 1,000 continued on to the West Coast.
After the Korean War, when laws were changed, a flood of Korean newcomers arrived, but for much of their history in Mainland America, Koreans tended to congregate in largely Korean communities in urban centers. Even as they moved out of these conclaves, largely through entrepreneureal pursuits, stereotypes about them proliferated.
The works in "Century of the Tiger" serve to define the attributes that personify Korean character, folkways and values, and to place the face of common humanity on Korean immigrants. Americans of other ethnic backgrounds are invited to develop a deeper understanding of things Korean that might have previously baffled them, while also noting commonalities in the immigrant experience of all ethnicities.
The Tiger in the title relates to the depiction of the Tiger god throughout Korean mythology as a playful trickster, a go-between who exists both in the spirit and human worlds, a companion of humans but a powerful defender, too. The editors chose the symbol as expressive of the Korean character, which has both its defiant and its playful side.
The literary approach used creates a richly layered fabric of ideas, images and human experiences presenting stories of the kind we tell each other for pleasure and for the light they shed on our inner lives.
We learn about a Korean spirit shaped by three important religious streams: shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism. And we learn about the Korean mind, molded by 5,000 years of an increasingly sophisticated, scholarly, artistic and hierarchical society, and by more than a century of violence and conflict that have literally torn the country in two.
Scenes encountered in the book reveal the Korean world view, carry us along with the foot-in-both-places immigrant experience and deposit us in the jangled landscape occupied by today's third-generation Korean Americans.
A destitute villager, unmindful of his own hunger, walks the floor through the night, filled with sorrow and shame because his mother is hungry and he cannot find food for her.
An immigrant is taunted and harassed even as his family stumbles down the gangplank of a ship arriving in San Francisco, yet instructs his children to remember how similarly Western missionaries were treated in Korea, advises them to let their humility and hard work speak for them and allows that misunderstandings always occur when cultures meet.
A slightly ditzy Korean American thirtysomething, burned out on relationships and bummed out by what seems a dead-end life, decides to be a cowgirl instead, dyes her hair blond, starts listening to Patsy Kline and then encounters a real cowboy.
Don Lee, a third-generation Korean American, said during a recent Hawai'i visit that he never gave much thought to his ethnicity until he moved East. There he would often find himself the only Asian in the room and the subject of annoying and impertinent questions about his background or where he was "from."
Lee's tragi-comic story in "Century of the Tiger" employs ironic humor to scratch the surface of a question we all must answer: Who am I? Who can I be?
For those whose parents or grandparents speak the tongue or bear the accent of another country, those whose faces are different than the majority around them, there are added questions, he said: Who will society let me be? What does this ethnic thing mean to me? Must I be defined by it?
In this collection, these questions, and the history that underpins them, are intriguingly presented.