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Korean-American vs. Asian-American

In a recent conversation, Peter Hong just asked me, so you consider yourself Asian-American or Korean-American?

Not wanting to feel stupid, I hesitated to answer in wonderful Ray Romano fashion, and parried, "Well, what would you say you are?"

The answer across the phone came deadpan, "Well, I would say that I used to be Korean-American until a couple of years ago, and then I made the transition to become Asian-American."

Peter catches me off-guard sometimes with the utterly profound, and this was definitely one of those times where a positively laughable sentence when it first registered my ears, made me stop and think to become quite profound. However, because my manager is Jewish these days, I've learned to try and respond with a question.

"Why did you feel that transition was necessary?"

"Well, I used to be very pro-Korean, only cared about Korean people, and Korean issues. Didn't like the Japanese, that kind of thing. But a few years ago, I stopped. Now I consider myself to be more Asian, more open to other cultures."

I began to see what Peter Hong meant. You see, you could be too tightly wound up in a specific ethnicity to be Asian American. It's the subtle difference between "he's African-American" vs. "That dude's from Nigeria". Suddenly there's this layer that comes off to let you know that maybe you could relate, or not. Interestingly enough, to that end most Korean-Americans, I would say, are not Asian-Americans yet. They play too hard for their own team, and therefore, they want to keep playing in their own leagues, championing their own churches, helping their own peoples. But it's not just the Koreans, doing that. I know that the Chinese have their own churches, and the Japanese have their own and the Hmong have their own, and the Vietnamese have their own, so on and so forth. But question, if the most churched. and therefore, theorietically the most transformed and Christ-influenced culture continues to be focused on itself, why should the other cultures be impressed otherwise?

At what point do we make that jump from Korean-American to Asian-American?


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

12 responses to “Korean-American vs. Asian-American

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  2. david ⋅

    Wow. This is one subject I have never entertained in my pea (read: brain). Isn’t Korean American a subset of Asian American? Or, Do we necessarily become Asian Americans, when we `fess up or disown our own little prejudices against other Asians? Is it possible that one can shed one’s own prejudice that cleanly?

    Does being an Asian American depend only on harboring or disowning of one’s prejudice? Isn’t it more of the cultural distinction that defines one’s own ethnicity?

    Also there is the spiritual dimension to one’s own perception of identity, I believe. In another post about why Korean Americans cannot sing the gospel, it seems clear to me that it takes the “Blalck Spirit” to sing–not only sing, but live–the gospel music. It is just more than carrying the tune. There is far more than the tune.

    The goespel music has been developed, or refined, in the spirit of the Black folk over the centuries of enduring and overcoming the oppression and pain which only the Black folk had to go through. (The same may be said for other ethnic groups.) I think it is natural that Korean Americans cannot duplicate the spirit of the gospel music. We just do not have it in our soul. We have, instead, Ta-Ryung and Chang. And these, I dare say, no other ethnic groups can duplicate.

    Maybe it was a distinct need for Peter Hong, in order distinguish his prior phase of being apart from the current, more open phase of being. For others, I am not sure whether it is necessary to make that conscious distinction.

    I am not certain, if I have any loyalty towards the identity known as “Asianness.” I do realize, however, that I am Korean American, and I claim ownership of it. I do not know what material distinction I would experience, once I perceive that I have evolved into the Asian American identity, if that ever happened.

    And I do not believe that being a Korean American (KA) is mutually exclusive of being an Asian American (AA). I’d rather think I am both KA and AA. It appears to me that the category of Asian American is rather a passive one that had been given to me by others, than the one I had chosen or defined for myself.

    I have chosen to be a Korean American.

  3. david,

    thanks for the comment and reading this older post. i see what you’re saying and similar to your thought process, i’m merely taking a conscious step away from the “nationality-centered” identity to a posture that is more inclusive. while of course, i would’ve answered to the moniker of “asian american” before, i usually would have always clarified it to mean korean american, which now i recognize is heavily infused with prejudices against and a great sense of cultural superiority over others, even other asians. by taking a step towards the category of asian american, i think there is a great deal of new space where reconciliation and new friendships can be made without my nationality being the center. now, i may have put too much thought into this, and you may be absolutely right that i may not be able to shed this notion completely, it is largely a posture that has been helpful for me to assume.

    in the circles i have seen, i have noticed that koreans (being a relative newcomer to diaspora) are much more ethnocentric than others and can be very exclusive, especially if and when we speak korean among other asians. this distinction does seem to be necessary at larger organizational levels as well. i have seen student groups go from korean-american to asian american if only but in title in order to open the door wider to other asians.

    but again, i’m not saying we disown our heritage or root for a different country during the world cup or olympics, but particularly as it relates to the next generation of koreans living and worshiping in the u.s., i think it’s important to build a bigger wall of solidarity and begin self-identifying as asian americans.

  4. william bang ⋅

    It’s interesting that you say that Korean-Americans are relatively new to the concept of diaspora. I would agree if you put this into the context that Koreans have been immigrating to the US in waves since the Korean War. However, the first group of Koreans arrived in Hawaii about a hundred years ago and their descendants moved to the mainland by WW2. The Japanese also arrived in Hawaii but their immigration patterns are more like one dying wave. Therefore, as the Japnese were more culturally isolated from the mother country I would say, assimilation as “Asian-Americans” to the mainstream became relatively easier.

    Delving deeper into this, one significant reason Koreans have a harder time “severing” their ties to just their Korean culture is because of our tragic/victim oriented history and the survival need to be not assimilated into Japan or China through the threat of conquest or invasion historically.

    The Chinese are also ethnocentric because partly due to the same type of history of suffering but I daresay not as much as the Koreans. It’s easier for them to be Asian-American because in a sense they are already diverse to begin with; Chinese are Asians among other Asians. Think Taiwan and other Chinese-speaking countries, Cantonese vs Mandarin etc.

  5. thanks for the comment william. you’re right to make these points, but marginally speaking, the bulk of korean diaspora is really a recent phenomenon historically, wouldn’t you say? i mean, sure they were a couple hundred that went to hawaii a hundred years ago, but tens of thousands came in the 80’s. that’s why i make the case that we’re really rather new at this, particularly as you point out, after centuries of being the “hermit kingdom” and pushing out larger neighbors and their influences.

    but as you say, it’s this very reticence that inhibits many KA’s from interacting with Asian Americans as a whole. I find that sense of detachment troubling when combined with the other “statistic” that more KA’s are Christian than are other AA’s. in short, i think that the fuel for reconciling ethnic differences, being “incarnational” so to speak comes out of a Christian ethos, and yet Koreans rarely express this as a by-product of our prolific church planting in north america. so, it seems to imply that either the faith is not compelling enough to influence the culture to act outwardly in ways that define that faith, or the faith itself is an excuse for the preservation of culture.

    so unless KA communities, particularly churches, begin to see themselves in light of the greater AA community, i would go as far as to say that they discredit the very faith they claim to have. again, i say this not because i’m anti-korean, but because i believe my faith compels me to consider those who are not of my nationality to be my brothers and sisters. and sociologically and historically speaking, this makes me more an asian american than i had previously assumed myself to be.

  6. Jake ⋅

    For me the one thing that caused me to think of myself as Asian American is the fact that I’m Chinese and yet I’ve been called the ethnic slurs of other Asian groups.

    This made me realize that an attack on any Asian ethnicity is an attack on all Asian Americans. Even if you rationalize, “Oh, they’re just angry at this group” sooner or later it’ll trickle down to other Asians.


    @ william bang

    The Chinese are ethnocentric because they think all Asians are really just Chinese—or at least descendants of Chinese πŸ˜‰

  7. P.Dan

    I don’t think Korean-American or Chinese-American identity will dissipate as an inter-cultural phenomenon even if the U.S. government officially decides to use the term Asian-American for all these sub-ethnic groups. So long as people of Asian descent keep on immigrating to the United States there will always be those 1.0-2.0’ers. However, I would like to see a stronger bond among 2.0 and later gens as they conscientiously move towards the Asian-American ideal. As of this moment, I’d prefer to call myself Korean-American to Asians in general, but to Hispanics/Afro-Americans/Caucasians I conscientiously use the label Asian.

    I agree with Will and David that Koreans have a unique historical background. Not only are they late-comers, but they almost lost their country! The day the Israelites, Tibetans, Welsh, or Irish people stop being nationalistic is the day Koreans will stop also! Be that is it may… I still intentionally teach the people under my sphere of influence Asian-American history (i.e., Immigration Acts, Watsonville Riot, Japanese Internment, L.A. Riots, etc.) instead of Korean History (although my 1.5 nationalistic KA girlfriend would beg to differ). Politically speaking this is the only viable option for establishing Asian equality in American (i.e., U.S.A.) soil. However, we will probably end up teaching both if we do get married πŸ™‚

  8. Dion Park

    I feel I am both Asian American and Korean American..
    It just depends on who is asking.. Asian American is more broad, some people still don’t even know where Korea is, but if it was an Asian asking, then I am Korean American, because it’s more specific.

  9. Dion, you are absolutely right. On my side of the world, I suppose I only see Koreans who dislike the notion of associating with other Asians and therefore keep the specificity as though we did not share in the Asian experience at large and reveals a tinge of Korean arrogance/pride. That was my point, not that I am ashamed of my Korean heritage but that I should not be overly proud. But it’s a weird tension. Thanks for the comment though.

  10. Dion Park

    Hi David,

    I think you are right as well. I was raised in Los Angeles and grew up with friends that were minorities from every single back-ground imaginable. I think my views may be location specific..


  11. There is no such thing called ” Asian American”. Saying Asian American is very vague. Every ethnicity who were born or immigrated to United States have there own unique history and culture. Plus Korean American is not recent phenomena. It was during 1970’s there were massive Korean immigrants to United States but beware there were Koreans living in Hawaii and California.

  12. I have never heard ” Asian American”. It always have been Irish American, Jewish American, Italian American, or Korean American. All immigrants came to USA source of cultural, Historical, origin.

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