- Purchase/rental options available:
Manoa 14.2 (2002-2003) 8-11
[Access article in PDF]
Rock, Pine Tree, Willow Bough:
In Younghill Kang's novel The Grass Roof, Chung-Pa leads his two best friends behind the village temple and into the dense and scary Grove of Ghosts. There, the boys make a pact: they will grow up to become the three greatest men in the world. Chung-Pa composes a song on the spot, and they sing it as they dance in a circle:
Our will is as strong as the rocks . . .
Our minds are as enduring as the pine trees . . .
And our hearts are as green as willow boughs . . .
Though hard the path, heavy the task, long long the day,
We will march on!
This scene takes place just as the Korean American saga begins, near the turn of the twentieth century. The Japanese will soon invade Korea and attempt to destroy its national identity, and the first wave of Korean immigrants will leave their homeland for America.
The spirit of the boys' song—an anthem of strength, endurance, and optimism—echoes throughout the prose and poems in Century of the Tiger: One Hundred Years of Korean Culture in America 1903-2003.
Today, Korean Americans are one of the most successful minorities in the United States, making significant contributions in the arts, politics, law, and business. And yet, Korean Americans are also among the least visible and least understood. There are many reasons for this. When Koreans began immigrating to America in 1903, most settled in Hawai'i—a new u.s. territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Fewer than one thousand continued on to the u.s. mainland. Within two years, the Korean government, under military control of Japan, halted further immigration. The few exceptions to this ban included five hundred to seven hundred young women who, starting in about 1910, were allowed to travel to Hawai'i for the purpose of meeting their prospective husbands. However, even so-called picture brides were prevented from entering the country when the u.s. Congress passed a law in 1924 that, while intended to restrict Japanese immigration, was applied to Koreans as well; by this time, Japan had annexed Korea and made all of its citizens Japanese subjects.
For the first half of the twentieth century, the size of the Korean American population remained stable: fewer than two thousand in the continental United States and only about eight thousand in Hawai'i. Because Koreans were such a small minority and most did not want to associate with the Japanese, they blended rapidly into the non-Asian population, mastering English and readily marrying non-Koreans. In Hawai'i, they also quickly moved off the plantations and started small businesses. Struggling to survive, this tiny community was overshadowed by American, Japanese, and other cultures. [End Page 8] What little was known in the United States about Koreans was predominantly dis-information from a Japanese propaganda campaign designed to convince the world that Koreans were a backwards people, grateful to Japan for making Korea part of the Japanese empire. Korea's rich cultural heritage was thus unknown or largely misunderstood in the United States.
World War ii created further challenges. Korean Americans had ardently protested Japanese imperialism in Asia for decades, but since they were officially regarded by the u.s. government as Japanese citizens, they were forced to register as "enemy aliens" after 1941. This was a terrible blow to their national pride and sense of justice. Nevertheless, they saw it as their patriotic duty to help America defeat the Japanese. Thus, many Koreans loyally served in the u.s. military and in civilian roles that aided the war effort.
The fall of Japan at the end of World War ii promised a new era for Korea. But in 1950, Koreans in America witnessed their mother country torn apart by a tragic civil war. During the three-year conflict, Korean Americans served as interpreters and combat soldiers, and many earned distinction for military service. War on the peninsula was on the front page every day, and when an...