The Western powers attempted to wrest Korea from Chinese influence, but it was Japan, following its victories in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), that finally annexed Korea and subjected it to colonial rule from 1905 to 1945. To suppress Korean resistance, the Japanese purged nationalists, controlled the land system, and imposed rigid rules. The oppression led to the March First Movement of 1919, in which millions of Koreans demonstrated for independence. The Japanese crushed the revolt, and introduced drastic measures such as banning Korean language and even family names to erase their national identity (see Richard E. Kim’s Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood, 1970). After Japan was defeated in World War II, Korea split into South Korea and North Korea.
The first hundred Koreans arrived at Hawaiian plantations in 1903, and about eight thousand more departed before Japan took over Korea and stopped Korean emigration in 1905. Thereafter only limited numbers of students, political refugees, and picture brides managed to leave for the United States, where discriminatory practices also applied to Korean immigrants. As a result of their small numbers, the first phase (1903-1945) of the Korean American experience is characterized by the sense of uprootedness and invisibility. The small body of Korean American literature written in this period deals mainly with life in Korea. Examples are New Il-Han’s When I Was a Boy in Korea (1928) and Younghill Kang’s The Grass Roof (1931). Other themes include displacement and exile (No-Yong Park’s Chinaman’s Chance: An Autobiography, 1940) and immigrant life (Kang’s East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee, 1937). Kang’s East Goes West describes the life of Korean students as exiles, migrants, and immigrants in New York and in Canada. The book is also a passionate, soul-searching meditation on the relative strengths and weaknesses of Asian and American civilizations. In presenting the tragedies of American Koreans as exiles caught up in the enchantment of American life, thereby losing their cultural bearings (and sometimes even their lives through suicide), Kang attempts to negotiate a new identity by amalgamating the legacies of the two cultures. His intimation that in order to survive as a Korean American he had to re-create himself as an “Oriental Yankee” continues to be relevant.
In the second phase of Korean American experience (since 1945), Korean Americans gained increasing visibility in the wake of the Korean War (1950-1953). The United States sided with South Korea. As a result of this military connection, after the Korean War South Koreans began to come to the United States in increasing numbers. Among the first to come were war brides, Amerasian children, orphans, and refugees. Immigration after 1965 increased at such a rate that Korean Americans numbered more than 800,000 in 1990. A large proportion of them are Christians, the legacy of missionaries. Many Korean Americans are urban professionals and owners of grocery stores and small enterprises.
Post-Korean War Literary Developments
Two developments can be identified in Korean American literature written during the post-Korean War period of immigration. The first development is the continuing reconstruction, whether autobiographical or fictional, of the experience of exile, immigration, and settlement. One example is Peter Hyun’s autobiography, Man Sei! The Making of a Korean American (1986), which describes the author’s childhood in Korea under Japanese occupation, his exile to Shanghai, and his arrival in Hawaii. Kim Ronyoung’s novel Clay Walls (1986) covers the period from 1920 to 1945. In it, the author describes a Korean couple’s immigration to Los Angeles and their attempt to put down roots. Told from the perspectives of characters from different generations, the novel negotiates a tentative Korean American identity by interweaving themes of Korean culture, American racism, Korean nationalism, and...
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