KAGC Student Spotlight: David, Columbia

“Daehan-minguk!”

As the TV showcased South Korea facing off in the FIFA World Cup, my parents and relatives crowded around me pumping their fists in expressions of national pride, exasperatedly trying to get my six year old self to do the same. But my pudgy arms remained crossed.

“Dad, Mom… I’m an American. Why would I root for Korea?”

At an early age, I had always made that distinction. In my mind, my parents were Korean. They were born in Korea, raised by Korean parents, and carried Korean passports. Even though I spoke the language, attended a Korean congregation in Boston, and was surrounded by Korean Americans most of my childhood, I did not identify as a Korean American. I was simply an American. And I wanted to be.

There was a reason for my apprehensiveness, although not always conscious. Against the preferences of my grandparents, my parents had moved to the United States in 2000 with the sole purpose of providing me an American education, one which emphasized flexibility and choice. However, in their attempts to provide their son with a better life, they had run-ins with the unwelcoming, ugly immigrant experience that is, unfortunately, all too common for immigrants across our nation. Even in a relatively diverse area like Greater Boston, my parents suffered from racist slurs and demeaning verbal tirades.

This was especially severe for my mom who, in her attempt to secure a green card, switched fields completely from teaching linguistics to becoming a nurse practitioner. My mom faced regular and severe racial discrimination and workplace abuse, both verbal and physical, from her employer and some of her coworkers. I would see the heavy toll it would take on her in the early mornings when she returned from her night shift. Even as I comforted her, I held a constant fear: why should I embrace the difference that was causing my mom so much pain?

David at the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

So, using the very American education that emphasizes choice which my parents had fought so hard to provide me, I chose poorly. As time passed in my elementary school years, my fear manifested itself in subtle efforts to strip what made me Korean away from me. I questioned why I had to go to Korean School every Saturday morning, why I had to speak Korean at home, and why I had to follow Korean customs that I found nonsensical. Slowly but surely, much to my parents’ disappointment, I grew more distant from the language and the culture. Instead of embracing what distinguished me or defending the differences that defined my family, at times, I shied away.

Reflecting back, I’ve realized that I made many mistakes. There isn’t a day that passes by in which I wish I had chosen differently. I wish that I could recover the parts of language I have forgotten or the culture I have ignored. Relearning and reengaging in my Korean culture has been difficult. Ever since my family’s move to San Ramon in California, we have struggled to find a Korean American community that we truly felt comfortable in. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that my dad was working abroad in South Korea while my mom was recovering from her thyroid cancer treatment. That left both of us very little time to branch out and create close bonds. However, such a process of finding community takes time and I’m glad that KAGC has played a significant role in my reintegration.

David on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

I found out about KAGC and its annual winter conference through my friend, Jae Joon Lee, while studying in our college dormitory lounge. He mentioned it to me as we were debating about political issues, suggesting that it would be a great opportunity for someone who was interested in policy like myself. I had done some work at the local level, but I have never been able to walk the halls of Congress or advocate for policies to legislators. It seemed like an interesting experience.

In all honesty, I can’t say that I was compelled by patriotic or cultural passion to attend. For me, the KAGC U Leadership Summit seemed more like a free vacation, and as a bargain hunting college student, I wasn’t about to turn down an all-expenses-paid-for trip to D.C. during my winter break. What more could it be?

I’m happy to say that it was genuinely so much more. While sitting amongst my peers soon after arriving at the conference, I was comforted by what I saw: anxious faces and awkward attempts to break the ice. There was a sense of togetherness in our discomfort; we were all equally scared, inexperienced, and curious to learn more.

Even more surprising was the fact that many of the individuals at the conference did not specialize in politics. I had expected myself to be surrounded by policy wonks and political junkies, individuals who knew a great deal more than me and would make it my business to know so. However, that was not at all the case. Some knew more than others without a doubt, but we were all there to grow and, more importantly, learn what we could do as Korean Americans for people both like and unlike us.

David at the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

My experiences through KAGC further illuminated how public policy is personal, affecting all of us. KAGC helped us students identify the policies that impact Korean Americans directly such as the Adoptee Citizenship Act and the Partner with Korea Act, distinguishing Korean American issues from Asian American issues where needed. For me, the speakers and staff leading the conference helped break down the idea that Asian Americans act as a monolith. I believe making this distinction was critical to understanding and advocating for nuanced policies that affect our Korean American communities directly. However, KAGC did a great job in helping us balance fighting for policies that affect Korean Americans while simultaneously standing for policies that matter to other Asian Americans and people of color. There is great value in acknowledging and understanding that there are multiple dimensions to being a Korean American. It adds layers to who we are and what we should fight for.

David in the halls of Congress during the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

Most importantly, not only did KAGC open our eyes to these policies deeply personal to our culture, but it also equipped us with the tools to become advocates ourselves on behalf of other Korean Americans in specific and fellow Americans in general. By serving as a Congressional Intern for Representative Gil Cisneros (CA-39) through the KAGC Summer Fellowship, I have benefited from an inside look into how Congress operates and how legislators and the policies they craft touch the lives of constituents in meaningful ways. The fellowship experience coupled with the KAGC Summer Speaker Series and Korean Americans Mobilizing, a separate advocacy group founded by KAGC members, have both edified me and encouraged me to take more actionable steps in my own community. I have come out of both the KAGC U Leadership Summit and my summer KAGC experiences with a true Korean family. And I’m thankful for that.

When I was younger, I believed that being an American was wholly separate from being a Korean or even a Korean American. I think there still remains an interesting conversation to be had regarding whether it’s truly necessary to place “Korean” before “American,” as if such a practice separates the “half” Americans from the “real” Americans. However, in my mind, it is precisely this distinction that I have come to appreciate. While I am American by birth and by personal identity, I still carry my family’s Korean blood, my ancestors’ customs, and my parents’ sacrifice. In a country that was founded with the intention to accept those from different backgrounds and walks of life, fighting for that ideal — especially when so much is being done to alienate people based on their differences — becomes even more essential. Feeling like an outlier is all the more reason to be empowered. In the process of giving voice to others, we find our own place.

I’m still discovering new parts to my identity day-by-day, and I’ve got a long way to go. However, I’m glad to gain more confidence in my Korean American identity. Perhaps, by the next Korean National Soccer game, I can muster a “Hwaiting!” in my trademark Daegu Satoori-Konglish accent. At the very least, that would give my family one less reason to sigh with hopelessness. Maybe, just maybe, I can even save my mom a facepalm?

David in a meeting with Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D, CA-34) during the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

David is a rising junior at Columbia University and served in the office of then-Representative Gil Cisneros (D, CA-39) as part of the 2020 KAGC U Congressional Fellowship.

Click here to learn more about KAGC, the largest nationwide network of Korean American voters for opportunities 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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