The Common Good
September-October 1996

The Travails of Finding Home

by David Yoo | September-October 1996

Complications with the immigrant experience.

'Don't fall asleep. Don't fall asleep." A mother's warning prodded a young K. Connie Kang as she fought off drowsiness on a bitter winter night in 1951. As Kang sat perched on the rooftop, a train packed with people and goods chugged its way from Seoul to the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Rope formed an umbilical cord around Kang's waist, with the other end tightly gripped by her mother who prayed and hung on for dear life. Thankfully, mother and child survived the harrowing ordeal, but war and its cruelties brought dislocation and loss, setting into motion a series of migrations for Kang and her family that eventually led to the United States.

So begins the autobiography of K. Connie Kang, veteran journalist with the Los Angeles Times, who chronicles the moving saga of her personal and family history. Though the narrative begins with the war, Kang moves backward in time to her ancestral village of Boshigol in northeastern Korea. Family stories, no doubt idealized over time, are fondly recorded and speak to the prosperity and prominence of the Kang family.

Readers are seemingly transported to a very different time and place and yet also witness how personal history is intertwined with the tremendous changes taking place in Korea. Just after the turn of the century, Kang's great-grandfather becomes an early convert to Christianity and to "modern" ideas that accompanied the American missionaries. Myong-Hwan Kang, Connie's paternal grandfather, fought the brutal oppression of Japanese colonialism, suffering torture and imprisonment. Sharing about Christianity, modernization, the colonial period, and the Korean War, Kang not only discusses key events in modern Korean history, but touches upon the experiences that continue to shape the lives of many Korean-American immigrants today.

The story shifts to America with Kang's arrival in 1961 to start school at the University of Missouri—Columbia. In certain respects, Home Was the Land of the Morning Calm is a classic American immigrant story. Despite real hardships, success and accomplishment emerge as major themes. As is so often the case, education opens the doors of opportunity. Through her schooling, Kang discovers a new world, full of interesting characters and experiences. Even as she is shaped and influenced by American society through her time at the University of Missouri and Northwestern University, Kang also rediscovers her Korean identity through her friendships with other international students.

THE HEART OF the book is the struggle over identity and a search for "home" that so often characterizes the migration process. Unlike earlier periods, however, recent immigrants like Kang have had to wrestle with a more fluid sense of self coming from several internal moves within Korea as well as formative years spent in Japan and U.S.-occupied Okinawa. Kang develops a cosmopolitan perspective, but with it comes a rootlessness that is both a blessing and a curse.

Air transport and technology shrink distances between continents and cultures, but often raise other vexing questions. Toward the end of the book, as the subtitle suggests, Kang resolves her dilemma. The land of the morning calm (Korea) was home, but is no longer. The claiming of America, though, is not an easy choice, coming only after years of moving back and forth between Korea and the United States.

Ambivalence about one's American identity and the longing for "home" is more than a postmodern condition, however. Embedded in Kang's story, we find glimpses into the qualitative differences that Korean Americans and other peoples have experienced in trying to make America home. As a journalist, Kang includes her observations about events and lives that have called into question the misleading, but persistent, myth of America as a colorblind society. The fires and ashes of the Los Angeles uprising in 1992, for instance, are powerful reminders of the issues that continue to plague us. This seasoned reporter has dealt with concerns such as race and immigration with sensitivity and insight—issues that have and will continue to remain vital for California and the nation.

Home Was the Land of the Morning Calm is a story of one Korean-American woman and her family, of a rich heritage, and of the struggle to stake a claim in America. The story itself is not a new one, of course, but for too long one that has treated certain Americans as strangers in their own home. With dignity and humanity, K. Connie Kang reminds us of how much we can learn from listening to each other's stories, especially those who so often are dismissed and marginalized. All are reminded that listening and learning are necessary first steps toward racial reconciliation in America. It is a lesson we desperately need to learn.

Home Was the Land of the Morning Calm: A Saga of a Korean-American Family. By K. Connie Kang. Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1995.

DAVID YOO is assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

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