"The lines between Asian and American and Asian American are increasingly blurred."
Elaine H. Kim is a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California at Berkeley. U.C. Berkeley is widely considered the foremost university in the country in the promotion of ethnic studies and the place where much of what we today call multiculturalism first found a national voice. She is a leading national activist and a widely published writer in mainstream, ethnic, and academic newspapers, magazines, and journals. Kim also produces educational videos and in 1992 made a documentary called Sa-I-Gu: From Korean Women's Perspective. This video, which was shot three months after the 1992 Los Angeles riots (sparked by the acquittal of four white police officers accused of savagely beating black motorist Rodney King and videotaped in the process), details the substantial destruction the riots caused in L.A.'s Koreatown.
Early sense of bigotry
Kim was born in New York City on February 26, 1942. She grew up and was educated in Tacoma Park and Silver Spring, Maryland. Her mother and father were both Korean. Her mother immigrated to Hawaii as an infant in 1903 and spent her childhood working on the tenant farms of California and Hawaii. Her father had come to the United States in 1926 as a student.
Both parents were proud of their Korean heritage, and they instilled that pride in their children. In school, however, Kim was subjected to bigotry. In 1994 she recalled these experiences in a speech she delivered at the University of Maryland: "When I was in the second grade, we read an illustrated book that pictured a globe with a blonde-haired white child standing upright on top of the world, and an upside down Asian child on the bottom, complete with buck teeth, slitted eyes, a long upside-down pigtail, and orange skin. Later on the school bus going home, the girl sitting in front of me turned around, put her arm against mine and said, `You're yellow.'"
Kim also described the physical violence suffered by her brother, reporting, "When I was in elementary and junior high school, gangs of supposedly decent white boys routinely beat my brother up every day after school and hurled epithets ... at me when I walked by." She went on to discuss longstanding bad feeling between the Asian American and African American communities, remarking, "It was clear that racism against African Americans was as American as apple pie, and that as an Asian American I was viewed as occupying a space higher than black and lower than white, for which I was supposed to be grateful. Sometimes students would say to me, `Well, at least you're not black.'"
Return to Korea
Kim graduated from Eastern Senior High School in 1959 and then enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a degree in English and American literature in 1963. From there she went to New York City to study at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree in English and comparative literature in 1965.
In 1966 Kim left the United States for Korea. "When I was 23 years old," she said in her 1992 keynote speech to the Women's Organization Reaching Koreans, "I went to work in Seoul [South Korea] for a year, armed with an Ivy League education and buoyed by a burning desire to `become Korean.' I returned feeling neither `Korean' nor `American.'" The cultural differences were stunning to the young woman, especially Korean culture's view of women as inferior to men. She stayed in Seoul until 1967, working as a lecturer in English at Ewha University. In 1968 she returned to the States and enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley as a Ph.D. student in English. Again she was confronted with, if not the outright racism of her childhood, a cultural bias that discouraged her interest in studying the literature of non-Western cultures. Frustrated by the English department's closed-mindedness, she transferred to the education department, which she found more open to cultural diversity.
The Third World strikes
In 1969 the Berkeley campus was racked by strikes started by students of color who felt underrepresented numerically and culturally. The students, whom Kim joined, wanted greater representation on the faculty and student bodies; they also fought for the establishment of ethnic studies programs to emphasize the cultural contributions of non-European societies and to teach the history of non-Europeans in the United States. These strikes were part of a national movement of democratic expression that combined anti-Vietnam war sentiment with civil rights demands from all minorities. Kim was greatly influenced by the strike and the philosophy behind it, and her dissertation, published by Temple University Press in 1982, was a compilation of the work of Asian American writers. Entitled Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, it was the first scholarly study of Asian American literature and is still considered a major work in the field.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Kim worked to establish Berkeley's Asian American studies program within the newly founded Ethnic Studies Department. She was instrumental in the development of remedial English equivalency programs to help people who speak English as a second language. These courses, which teach critical reading and writing skills, use literature from African American, Native American, Asian American, and Chicano (Mexican American) writers, a practice that became common in the 1990s but was revolutionary in 1970.
Community activist and author
Kim was granted tenure (a status granted after a trial period to a teacher protecting him or her from dismissal) in 1981, and she began devoting her time to community activities in support of San Francisco-area Korean Americans. The organizations with which she worked included Asian Women United of California, the Korean Community Center of the East Bay, the Center for Women's Policy Studies, the NOW (National Organization for Women) Legal Defense Fund, the Northern California Korean Coalition, the U.S. Korea Foundation, the Japan Pacific Resource Network, and many others.
Kim has written extensively on issues of concern to Asian Americans. Her first published article, "The Myth of Asian American Success," appeared in 1975 in Asian American Review. Her dissertation was published in 1982, and the next year she published With Silk Wings: Asian American Women at Work. In 1994 Kim and coauthor L. H. Lang published Writing Self, Writing Nation. Other articles by Kim have been published in magazines and newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsweek, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, A. Magazine, and Korean Journal. She has served as editor of several anthologies, including the highly regarded Making Waves: Writings By and About Asian American Women, published in 1993, and Making More Waves: New Writing by Asian American Women, published in 1997. In 1996 Kim and coauthor Iui-Young Yu published East to America: Korean American Life Stories, a work that tells the stories of a few dozen Korean Americans living in Los Angeles. Due to her expertise in the field of Asian American studies and multiculturalism, Kim has become a much sought-after speaker and panelist.
The state of Korean America
Kim views the riots of April 29 and 30 in South Central Los Angeles as a pivotal event in the history of Koreans in America. In an article called "Home Is Where the Han Is: A Korean American Perspective on the Los Angeles Upheavals," she wrote, "When Koreans in South Central dialed 911 [during the riots] nothing happened. When their stores and homes were being looted and burned to the ground, they were left alone for three horrifying days.... What they had to learn was that, as in South Korea, protection in the U.S. is by and large for the rich and powerful. If there is a choice between Westwood [a wealthy Los Angeles community] and Koreatown, it is clear that Koreatown will have to be sacrificed."
"Today's Asian American communities are maintaining their cultural distinctness," Kim stated in her 1994 address at the University of Maryland, "enabled by modern communication and transportation technology to develop what have been called `private cultures' and new communities, as Vietnamese refugees settle in Westminster, California, and Korean immigrants gather in Flushing, New York.... [They] have moved into cities and towns where few Asian Americans had lived before and are doing things to earn their livelihoods that they could not have imagined in their homelands: Cambodians are making doughnuts, Koreans are making burritos, South Asians are operating motels and taxicabs, Filipinos are driving airport shuttle buses. The lines between Asian and American and Asian American are increasingly blurred ... [suggesting] the permeability of boundaries and borders as well as the possibility of new, hybrid, self-determined identities crafted by Asian Americans themselves."
- KoreAm Journal, December 1992, p. 32.
- Newsweek, May 18, 1992, p. 10.
- San Francisco Bay Guardian, March 10, 1993.