KAGC Alumni Spotlight: Jinwook Hwang

Jinwook graduated from the University of Maryland in 2020

In the early 1990s, when my parents met and took an oath of marriage in Daegu, South Korea, they faced a harsh reality of an international marriage. Even though both were Daegu natives, their lives were completely different, as my mother had immigrated to the United States with her family as a teenager, while my father got to know America only through his marriage to my mother.

Despite their natural chemistry, this marriage took some challenges as it required sacrifice from both my parents for the sake of their new family. Consequently, my father chose a path of working in Daegu, South Korea, while my mother chose a path of serving for the United States in Daegu as an Army officer.

At this intersection of identities, I was born.

An American in South Korea

Throughout my childhood, my identities had naturally oscillated between “Korean” and “American.” This is because, despite having grown up on the U.S. military base in Daegu, I attended a Korean school for my earlier years. Such observation of the two different and distinct worlds made it difficult for me to find a middle ground — or the gray zone — of my identity. This unusual identity of mine had distinguished myself from my classmates.

Switching to an American school in fifth grade further stimulated growth in my unique identity, as the school — despite being in Daegu — was vastly different from a Korean school. This enabled me to experience the American culture more directly, and I started to take roots in an American identity. I now had a significant identity in my own “islet” in the sea of homogeneous Korea.

An Awkward Space Between Two Seats

Upon entering middle school, I moved to the United States per my family’s decision for better educational opportunities for me and my siblings. Sitting awkwardly between an aisle seat and a window seat in a 13-hour flight, I returned to Virginia, where my earliest memories of my family started. Although it wasn’t a new situation for my family, it was an unfamiliar experience for me.

Through my involvement with Korean-American communities, I realized an awkward binary perception of my Korean or American identities and its omission of mutual experiences. It was a Korean-American identity unique to its own. Consequently, I suddenly had to deal with three different identities — Korean, American, and Korean-American. This led to a confusion that only ameliorated when I started to attend a Christian school for my high school.

In this Christian private school, conservative whites from upper middle class formed a majority of the student body population. Naturally, ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds determined the social standing within the school. Therefore, the question of my identity only intensified in this unclear social context as a Korean-American with both Korean-American friends and non-Korean friends.

On this ground of privilege, I started cultivating my interest in politics.

Jinwook interned for Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) in the summer of 2018.

Frankly, with both parents in medical fields, politics was probably the last thing they thought I would be interested in. Though politics was often a topic of discussion within my family, no one participated in politics any more than voting in elections. I, on the other hand, had continuously expressed an interest in politics and embraced a career that would reflect such interest, thanks to unexpected approvals from my parents.

My interest in politics is related inextricably to my leadership opportunities. Prior to this point, the most political thing I had done would have been running for class president in third grade. In a private high school of only a few hundred students, I had little to no trouble seeking an opportunity in leadership positions. Subsequently, I ran a successful campaign for the student body vice president position for my senior year.

However, I could not reconcile my own identity with my interest — politics — as I did not know of a clear way to link between the two. Especially during high school, I could not understand, for example, why my Korean-American friends socialized more with themselves, while I actively sought out interactions with non-Korean friends as well.

This confusion, however, was met with an interpretation during my time in college.

Jinwook on a Capitol tour with his colleagues in the UMD Student Government Association in 2018.

Diving into A Sea of Diversity

While my high school leadership experience had taught me a lot, I was met with an important factor throughout my time in the University of Maryland: diversity. With a student population a hundred times bigger than that of my high school, The University of Maryland gave me a wide range of perspectives that were so vastly different from each other. The numerous communities within my college gave me, in turn, a better understanding of who I am in the wider spectrum of identities at my college.

However, with a wide variety of clubs, many of these different communities were competing with each other for the power to be represented. After all, politics starts when one struggles for such power.

Through my positions in the Student Government Association, I was able to witness the epicenter of different communities on campus hoping to draw attention from the school administration, press, and the student body to their passions and identities. With a plethora of different identities and the threats posed to these communities, I had empathized and spoken for different communities both publicly and privately in hopes to be a better person myself. Through these efforts, I also matured in my own identity — Korean-American, or, more broadly, Asian-American.

Jinwook at the U.S. Capitol during the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

Moving Forward

A Congressman I once interned for said “public service starts with an understanding of one’s own identity.” In other words, people cannot possibly represent others when they do not even know themselves. In a world where one’s identity influences political messaging, stances, and even ideologies, it has become all the more important for me to pay attention to my own identity.

In hopes to better understand my identity, I took advantage of opportunities throughout my college career. On one hand, that opportunity meant an involvement in Korean Student Association, while it also meant taking an Asian American politics course, or even studying abroad in South Korea. Through these experiences, in addition to my public service, I learned that people can not properly speak on behalf of an Asian-American identity without the experience as Asian-Americans and sufficient reflection on such identity.

My involvement in the Korean American Grassroots Conference (KAGC) has been a step to better understand who I am. As my identity influences a vast part of my life, I found it necessary that I spend enough time to reflect on these experiences stemming from my own identity. Though I will never be able to grasp my identity completely, this journey will help me build a better person in me, and empower the ones who share my experience.

Jinwook at the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

Throughout my childhood, my identities had naturally oscillated between “Korean” and “American.” As my identity influences a vast part of my life, I found it necessary that I spend enough time to reflect on these experiences stemming from my own identity.

Jinwook recently graduated from University of Maryland at College Park with a bachelor’s degree in government and politics with international relations concentration. This summer, he is working at KAGC as a communications assistant after attending the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit.

Click here to learn more about KAGC, the largest nationwide network of Korean American voters, and its programs and events for a rare opportunity to share the Korean American identity, discuss the key issues of our community, and get our voices heard, counted, and reflected in public policy.

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