03 January 2004

Koreans in Indiana

I'd say that in the Michiana area -- we're really close to Michigan, so we're called Michiana for MICHigan and indIANA -- there's close to about 100 Korean families. Many of the Korean families come together through the two churches, Michiana Korean Church and Korean Grace Baptist. A lot of families and students come and go because they're either students or professors at the University of Notre Dame. To give you an idea about my life among Koreans … I don't have one. In my high school graduating class of 700, I was the only Korean. But although I mostly hang out with non-Koreans, my two best friends are Korean. Outside of organized gatherings, such as church, there really isn't a large youth and teenage or adult community of Koreans.
The focus of this post is not entirely in jest. The article linked here makes a few points worth emphasizing about the current Korean diaspora in the U.S., which just finished celebrating its centennial in 2003. While the first Korean immigrants came in groups to work on Hawaiian plantations, and later waves filled the Koreatowns of big cities like LA, NYC, or Honolulu, many are scattered across small-town America, arriving as G.I. wives, individual adoptees (who now have their own magazine, Korean Quarterly), or the relatively isolated families of academics at small, rural colleges or pastors of small, rural, "entry-level" churches. It's a different story now, of course, at large American universities, like Indiana University, where Korean and Korean American students are amply represented.

The other reason for the focus on Indiana is that it provides an excuse to profile a dear departed friend, K.C. Kim, a doctor who spent most of his career at Indiana University Hospital before retiring to Hawai‘i, but who was born in the far northeast (near Ch'ôngjin) of a unified but Japanese-occupied Korea, close enough to Russia that the words for 'bread' and 'matches' were borrowed from Russian rather than from Japanese. K.C.'s first memorable glimpse of European women swimming (not in the nude!) was near the resort run by the Russian emigres named Yankovsky not far from where he grew up. His father was a merchant who was able to send his son to the Japanese medical school in Taegu, in the southeast, where he boarded with a rich family that not only had many servants, but treated them in a high-handed manner that scandalized K.C. The class structure was far more rigid in the south than it was on the northeastern frontier. He also found the kimchee rather hot for his taste. (Just as in the U.S., Korean food is blandest in the northeast and hottest in the southwest.) After 1945, he fled into the mountains, but was shot at, captured, and escorted north. He finally managed to escape south during the Korean War, and then find refuge in the U.S., where he not only completed medical school a second time in a third language (in Chicago), but also acquired a Ph.D. (in anesthesiology, IIRC).

K.C. showed up one day at the Korean studies center where I used to work, offering to help organize the periodicals in its small library. He and I quickly became friends. To a certain extent, we had shared the experience of growing up "in Japan"--although in vastly different eras and circumstances. But he has been educated in Japanese, not Korean, and he read Japanese newspapers and magazines with greater interest and facility than he did those in his "own" language. I would often watch the (subtitled) Japanese news on a local TV channel, and we would discuss current events in Japan and Korea, arguing regularly about one of his favorite topics, "Asian values"--which, like "family values," I saw more as a political agenda than a uniquely possessed value system). Both us shared a distaste for traditional Confucian class structure and for excessive nationalism. I preferred rice for lunch, while he would always opt for a ham or turkey sandwich with mustard--no doubt conditioned by his many years of eating in hospital cafeterias. He was amazingly devoid of false pride--especially for a Ph.D. or an M.D.--and never hesitated to help with whatever menial task we were doing. Although he and I both suffered many indignities and insults at the hands of the nasty secretary there at the time, he never retaliated or complained to her boss (as I regularly did). Even when stricken with pancreatic cancer, he managed to take a detached scholarly as well as intense personal interest in an experimental new treatment program run by colleagues in LA.

At K.C.'s memorial service, his son remembered how on weekends during his childhood in the 1960s, K.C. would get the kids up early, bundle them into the family car, and drive all the way to Chicago to enjoy dim sum. I wonder how far you'd have to drive from Bloomington nowadays.

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