The Useful Koreans: Labor, Ethnicity, and Form in Contemporary South Korean and Korean-American Literature
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In a 2004 interview in Amerasia Journal, the Korean-American literary scholar Elaine H. Kim insists on the “continuity” between two important historical events, the May 1980 Kwangju Uprising in South Korea and the April 1992 Los Angeles Riots (sa-i-gu) in Korean-America. “Don’t kid yourself,” a South Korean acquaintance had told her, “sa-i-gu is not on the level with Kwangju,” an assessment she considers “patently unfair.” His idea, Kim says, was that Kwangju was more important than the riots because it was related to “global issues, such as labor exploitation, global capitalism, flexible accumulation.” And that response was unfair, she argues, because, like other South Koreans, he didn’t understand the situation of Koreans in America—“what it’s like to live as a racialized person in this country, where race shapes people’s daily lives.” If the crucial problem for her Korean acquaintance was the global exploitation of the working class, for Kim, it was the racialization of Korean-Americans of all classes. My dissertation, “The Useful Koreans: Labor, Ethnicity, and Form in Contemporary South Korean and Korean-American Literature,” is not about taking sides in this debate or even, in the end, accepting its terms but about understanding its significance and, in particular, its meaning for the development of two different but, I argue, significantly related literatures. “The Useful Koreans” looks simultaneously at the development of South Korean and Korean-American literature during a twenty-year span between the mid 1970s and the mid 1990s, a period during which South Korea emerged as a newly industrialized country, gaining its reputation as the “Miracle on the Han River,” while South Koreans in America emerged as one of the U.S.’s most successful immigrant groups, gaining their reputation as a model “model minority.” Juxtaposing texts like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée (1982) and Se-hui Cho’s A Little Ball Launched by a Dwarf (1978), I show that despite or even because of their fundamental formal differences, they can usefully be understood in relation both to each other and to the development of a world political economic structure that produced the ethnic question of what it means to be Korean in America in conjunction with the economic question of what it means to become middle class in South Korea. My contention is not simply that ethnicity mattered in America and class in Korea since, for example, I also show that in Leonard Chang’s The Fruit ‘N Food (1994) and Mun-yol Yi’s Guro Arirang (1989), what makes the question of who you are essential for Korean Americans is their desire to be middle class and what makes the question of what you own essential for South Koreans is their desire to be Korean. Rather, I argue for a dialectical interplay between ethnicity and class, and, going on to read texts by writers like Younghill Kang, Kichung Kim, Ed Park, and Ae-ran Kim, I show the ways in which the related but by no means identical demands of class and ethnic membership have contributed to redefining and sometimes altering the relationship between aesthetic and political praxis.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha