“Our Soul’s Loyalty”

Defining “America” and it’s denizens has always been a tricky thing to do. The heart of this nation is not bound by borders, and it’s people are identified less in papers and passports and more, perhaps, in spirit and heart.

With the definition of nations and states constantly changing, and America itself following the path of California – a place where the minorities are the majority – it’s certain that our understanding of the Korean American identity in this beautiful melting pot will continue to progress and develop.

This past month, Bud Selig’s experiment in globalization – the World Baseball Classic, hit Southern California again, badly crafted brackets and all. Energetic and vigorous crowds of Korean Americans came out in huge numbers in San Diego and Los Angeles, cheering Team Korea, and, sometimes, booing Ichiro, who admittedly deserves it for his incendiary and racist statements demeaning Korea and Taiwan. The games proved to be exciting and well-worth watching, and as many pundits observed particularly in the case of Korea and Japan, examples of good old fashioned, well-played baseball.

It’s fun rooting for Korea. Growing up as many of us have without role models who looked like us, on a conscious or subconscious level it’s gratifying and fulfilling to have role-models and heroes who we can identify with, at least on an ethnic or physical level. The Korean sides in international sport have traditionally played with more gusto, passion and team commitment than many Western teams, who may be getting too comfortable for their own good. Good sport requires sacrifice. But as Korea progressed towards the semi-finals the possibility of playing the United States loomed large, and many Korean Americans were faced with the possibility of Team Korea facing off against Team USA.

Korean America faced this choice once before, in the 2002 World Cup jointly hosted by Korea and Japan. On June 10, 2002, the Americans and Koreans met in Daegu and after 90 minutes ended a thrilling game tied 1-1. Then, like this time, tens of thousands of Korean Americans throughout the United States gathered in living rooms, churches, city plazas and even the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles to cheer for their ancestral homeland. And then, as now, those thousands of Korean Americans, many of them born and raised in the United States, some having never lived in Korea or unable to speak Korean, chose to root for Korea against the United States.

Support for the Korean team has been near-universal among Korean Americans whenever these international tournaments have captured our interest. And there is nothing wrong with rooting for a team that you support, particularly if it represents the nation that gave birth to your parents and heritage. But begins as harmless sports fanaticism and a good time turns into something more when that team plays your home nation.

When we as Korean Americans don Korea shirts and wave Korean flags during Korea-USA games, we are not choosing a team, we are choosing a nation. We are very deliberately and purposely choosing to support a foreign nation against the one we call our home and protector. It’s true that issues of identity are more complex – many of us feel just as much at home in Seoul as we do in San Diego or Daegu as in Dallas, but there are times when we cannot conveniently declare that we are “citizens of the world”, or “both Korean and American.” There are hard choices to be made.

It is ironic and inconsistent for us to complain of being seen as “perpetual foreigners” and having to struggle to be accepted as Americans, and then turn and root against America when the choice comes. And we cannot be truthful to ourselves and say that Korea’s games against the US are only sport when we consider Korea’s games against Japan as so much more. Culture plays an enormous role in setting the framework for people’s understanding of the world around them.

During World War II Asian Americans proudly and publicly made efforts to support America, despite the outrageous Executive Order 9066. Many, facing discrimination, wore buttons that read: “I am an American.” Still others, like Colonel Young Oak Kim, wore America’s uniform and served abroad. The Asian American 442nd Infantry continues to be the most highly-decorated military unit in the history of the American armed forces.

In a world where so many prominent examples have only strengthened the view that Korean Americans are “not real Americans”, all of this sports hoopla matters. BJ Kim, father to the amazing golf phenom Michelle Wie, claimed in 2006 that “the only thing about her that’s American is her passport, she is definitely Korean.” In 1997 our community’s first and only United States Representative, Jay Kim, pled guilty on charges relating to concealing illegal campaign contributions from, among other sources, five major South Korean corporations – Daewoo, Hyundai, Haitai, Korean Airlines and Samsung. He’s now regularly featured in pieces highlighting criminal congressmen, and one newspaper at the time claimed he “stole the American Dream.”

In 1996, Robert Kim, a US Naval Intelligence analyst, was arrested for passing on classified documents and information to the South Korean Embassy. He was quoted in Korea’s largest daily newspaper, Chosun Ilbo: “When the FBI agent asked me why I did such a thing for Korea, I said I would definitely cheer for Korea when Korea goes against the United States in soccer matches. I do not feel sorry for what I did.”

Each time, leaders of the Korean American community and political organizations asked the American public to separate the individual incident “from the rest of us.” We insinuated that these individuals did not represent the greater Korean American community. I do not presume to equate cheering for a soccer team to treason. It would be a silly assertion at best and dangerous demagoguery at worst.

But the fact remains – sport is not just sport. It is a powerful symbol. Just take a look at the 1980 US vs. USSR men’s ice hockey game at Lake Placid. Or Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as Hitler watched. Or Sohn Ki-Chung for that matter at the same Olympics, a champion marathon winner who was forced to race for Japan, as Korea as a nation did not exist. Upon winning the gold medal and standing on the medal platform, he tried to hide the Japanese flag on his chest with a wreath and told all interviewers of his mother country, which at the time was suffering from brutal colonization. The South Korean daily Dong-A Ilbo later printed an image of Sohn winning the gold medal but erased the Japanese flag on his chest, resulting in the imprisonment of eight of their editors and staff, and the suspension of the newspaper for nearly a year.

Washington State Senator Paull Shin has spoken regularly at conferences and churches about his life story. Here is a true example of a trailblazer, and a public leader of character and dignity. The man was orphaned at the age of 4 and adopted by a US Army officer, who brought him to America. He since has risen to become Senator of the State of Washington, and continues to be re-elected. According to Senator Shin, in late 1990s he was a candidate to be a US ambassador to South Korea, and out of nearly 30 candidates, he was chosen as one of the three finalists. Shin was invited to a four hour interview at the White House, where he was questioned on history, foreign policy and national security matters. He was asked a critical question by one of the State Department inquirers, and he quotes: “Dr. Shin, suppose you become an ambassador to South Korea and there is a conflict between Korea and the United States? Which side would you take?”

Senator Shin tells us how he answered: “You know I am sure glad that you asked me that question. Let me tell you how I feel inside of me. This is how I feel. America to me is my fatherland. This land gave me family, home, love, education and the right to be me. Rene Descartes of the 17th century said, ‘I think therefore I am.’ America provided an education for me to think, therefore I know who I am. Therefore America is my fatherland. Korea on the other hand is my motherland. Korea gave me my life, my blood, and my heritage. You asked me a question. As a son, which side would you take? I looked him straight in the eye as I answered his question. Which side would you take? There is no answer. And my answer to him was what I want as a son is for my mom and dad to get along most beautifully. This is what I want and this is my answer.” (1999 Speech at the KAAN Conference).

This story inspired me as a teenager when I heard it for the first time. Senator Shin has inspired an entire generation of future public servants and advocates. And certainly, the desire for Korea and America to “get along” is always the ideal. But I now realize that while it may pain us to make a choice, and perhaps be seen as unfair, we must choose. You cannot always have a tie. It does not mean choosing to give blanket support to a nation’s actions. It does not mean unconditionally supporting political leadership. It certainly does not mean turning your back on Korea, or wearing American flag pins or making a show of our support for this nation. But it does mean that we must give to this country what we ask it to share with us: honor, loyalty and respect, among other sacred things.

This year, more than any other so far, we have a preponderance of talented, passionate, most worthy Korean Americans seeking higher office throughout the country. For many of them, there is no question as to their qualifications and dedication to America and all that it holds dear. Prominent Korean Americans serve today in all branches of the armed services and government, even rising to the rank of Ambassador – becoming the very representative of the United States of America to nations abroad – even, in the case of Sung Kim, as the representative when dealing with both South and North Korea (and Russia and Japan for that matter) as envoy to the Six Party Talks. They have made their decision, and in the case of the many Korean American soldiers who have given their lives abroad, sometimes paying with their blood.

Standing in Petco Park and Dodgers Stadium on those days, I watched so many Korean Americans sing the Aegukka at the top of their lungs and tear up, only to chat amongst themselves or continue cheering “Dae Han Min Gook” while the The Star-Spangled Banner played. The fact of the matter is this: there is nothing wrong with rooting for Korea, but when the choice comes between Korea and the United States, those Korean Americans among us must realize if we are to claim an American heritage, with all it’s rights and privileges, we must also embrace the responsibility of sometimes getting off the bandwagon and rooting for a team that might not be as fun to root for. It is more than just a passport. You can even use the same red and blue facepaint.

In 1919, Theodore Roosevelt spoke to America’s relationship with immigrants. “We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us he shall be treated on an exact equality with every one else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birth-place or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American. If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn’t doing his part as an American. There can be no divided allegiance here… we have room for but one soul loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.”

Adeuree Ahn. 

Source:  Korean Beacon (22 April 2009)

2010-06-28 12:50:08

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