Eight hours after boarding the early morning bus at the Williams Inn, I arrived at the East Brunswick Hilton, reeking of Bonanza Bus and still reeling from midterms. For the next three days I would be among nearly 800 other college students attending the 14th annual Korean-American Students Conference (KASCON) hosted this year by Rutgers University. I had registered with only a superficial knowledge of the planned events and KASCON’s notorious reputation as a party disguised as a conference. As I stumbled through the revolving doors I had few expectations. Little did I know that I would cycle out these doors profoundly affected the following Sunday morning.
The next morning in the brimming hotel ballroom, New Jersey politicians, including Governor Christine Todd Whitman, welcomed the audience. Some addressed the growing influence of the Korean community. Others revealed their limited perception of Korea as foremost a military protectorate of the United States, and their limited perception of Korean-Americans as a “model minority.” All attempted to polish the state’s tarnished image with limited success. While leaving the ballroom I looked around at the energetic crowd. Tribes in black, club kids with complicated hair and button-down preppies, among others, slowly shuffled to the doors.
Although the Korean-American community remains a fraction of a percent of the U.S. population, the amount of variation within is high. Differences in circumstance and education and the coexistence of different generations persist and emerge in Korean America. While simple ethnic and racial identity may be the principal means by which most Americans group Korean-Americans, families and individuals sustain strong independent identities and history.
KASCON revealed this diversity. From the eloquent exhortations of first-generation English Professor Ty Pak to the profanity-laced diatribe of cantankerous first-generation newspaper editor K.W. Lee, from the Valley girl-laced feminism of second generation author Helie Lee to the self-satisfied musings (e.g. “I don’t discriminate, I date lots of women”) of second generation model/actor Rick Yune, the seminars gave a cross-section of a teeming, growing Korean-America.
Though I often felt a strong, almost immediate connection to the issues discussed and had a certain kinship with others, I had not felt more detached from the Korean-American community in some time. I had not questioned my Korean identity with as much scrutiny in some time. Perhaps it’s a symptom of being of the second generation and a student at Williams College. More likely it’s a symptom of being American. What may be considered “Korean culture” has existed for millennia, defying Emperors, Khans, Shogun, colonialism and devastating war. As the train from East Brunswick sped through the sun-bathed industrial wastelands of New Jersey I realized that this defiance remained in me.