The American Dream
Frank Kang’s 1992 journey from Seoul, Korea to pursue a better life
essay written by Caleb Yoo
Frank Kang immigrated to Los Angeles, California in 1992 with the hopes of achieving a better education and ethnic freedom. He graduated from University of Southern California with a degree in political science. Kang has worked to give his wife and two daughters the peaceful life that he has always dreamed of. Kang has been living in America for more than twenty years and he has only had positive views of this land of freedom and opportunity.
South Korea is a developed country with a high standard of living. Classified by the International Monetary Fund and the Central Intelligence Agency, South Korea has become the 2nd largest advanced economy in Asia. It is one of the world’s top ten exporters and a leader in technologically advanced products such as electronics, automobiles, and robotics headed by Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. More recently, South Korean culture has gained international interest, a trend known as the Korean wave. Because of the many Korean immigrants, Kang believes that the American economy has been increasing instead of decreasing. Due to many of the Korean headquarters like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai established in America, these companies open up job opportunities. Immigrants too have created an impact on the American society. Kang firmly believes that America should increase its flexibility and benevolence towards the mutual benefits for the global community as a whole.
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined."1 In search of the life he has always imagined, Frank Kang immigrated to America from Korea. This story of a man, who once dreamed of finding a peaceful and a united nation, began his journey in 1991. As a young child, Kang grew up watching Hollywood movies and believing that “America, in terms of the material well being is non comparable to the Korean society.”2 Those Hollywood movies that he viewed as a child had shaped his dreams in successfully coming to America and pursuing the American dream. Although, Kang was always afraid of the vast diversity of the ethnicity and the racial discrimination, he confidently took the direction which he believed was the best for both him and his family.
South Korea’s transformation into a developed country during the latter half of the 20th century is often called the Miracle of the Han River, and South Korea is considered one of the Four Asian Tigers. Officially known as the Land of the Morning Calm, the Republic of Korea was liberated in 1945, ending Japan’s thirty five year occupation of Korea. In addition, after its post-Second World War liberation, South Korea was governed by a series of autocratic rulers until its transition to democracy in the 1980s. Although Kang was not born until 1961, the history of Korea greatly affected his childhood. Even at the age of six, Kang vividly remembers the golden memories of how “American soldiers in Korea gave [him] chocolates and all kinds of canned foods.”3 In addition, because “you couldn’t get American food… everything made in America was precious, highly valuable.”4 Furthermore, the first colored TV in 1979 played a huge role in influencing the Korean community and its media. Kang recalls the crowds of people gathered in one of the stores watching the American Military TV channel in which they displayed National Football League, American football. America, a highly praised country, greatly inspired the Koreans to live the American dream.
During the 1980’s the violent transition of Korea from the autocratic rulers to democratic rules shaped many Koreans to envision once again the American dream. Although Kang was only a college student during the time, he engaged in civil disobedience and participated in demonstrations supporting the political democracy. In general, when college students were expected to study, Kang and his friends’ explained that everyday instead of studying they would be involved in “fighting [with] the police officers.”5 Many of Kang’s friends who have demonstrated with him were sent to jail and, few even passed away. Because of the political controversy, schools were always closed and “Korea was not good for students to keep their studying.”6 In a way, the political turmoil that Korea was facing in the 1990’s led people to believe that America had a stable society and was a powerful country.
Most importantly, the catalyst of this chain reaction of unfortunate events was Korea’s poor economy. Although Korea is currently known to be the 15th largest economy in the world, this wasn’t the case before. Back in the 1990s Korea had just transitioned to a democracy, causing even more problems and economic issues. Kang remembers his wife stating that the “economy wasn’t really that great in Korea because the population is so [dense] with not enough jobs.”10 America having an image in the Korean community as the “great golden land of opportunity” gave excitement to Kang and his family of three. Taking the opportunity, Kang applied for the school University of Southern California. (USC) These bright images and hopes of a better future eventually led to his arrival in Los Angeles, California.
Attending University of Southern California was one of the reasons Frank Kang decided to study at America. He knew that Korea no longer gave students the hope to further extend their education. From his sister and other relatives, Kang heard that USC offered many scholarships to foreign students and also “supplementary language courses in order to catch up.”7 Kang who had thought that “Korea [holds] no future for the younger generation”8 came to USC in which he believed was a place where “many different races can unite and share the American dream.”9 The life that Kang desired was in which he and his family could live happily in an education friendly area for both him and his two daughters.
Kang took the Asiana Airline and flew to America with his wife and his daughter in 1991. Kang proudly stepped in the land of mysteries and sought to find hope. Although Kang was excited for the many new opportunities in store for him, he was yet fearful and worried about the communication and the racial discrimination. As a PH D. student in USC, Kang barely knew how to speak English. Whenever he attended three hour long seminars, Kang only “understood twenty to thirty words maximum.”11 In addition, when the class was assigned at least three or four books to read per week, Kang had to “spend at least six to nine hours a day.”12
Along with communication and language problems, Kang was turned to face racial discrimination—the difficult journey had just begun. Kang was forced to face one of the most violent racial discrimination riots in Los Angeles. Kang had always seen Hollywood movies that were filled with “violence between the police and especially the African American shooting each other.”13 However, when he actually witnessed that the Los Angeles Riot was exactly what had happened in the Hollywood movies he viewed in Korea, he was in shock. Furthermore, what he found to be surprising was that USC was the headquarters of the military education of the California government. Not knowing what to do, he and his family ran away “out of the south central Los Angeles and moved to the San Francisco where [his] aunt was living there.”14 Although at the time Kang was stunned and in fear, when he witnessed almost sixty percent of Korea town being burnt down, it “inspired [him] to write a paper regarding the African American and Korean relationships”15 during his graduate school in USC.
Lastly, this hardship that he had faced was the most tragic and hurtful as a husband and as a father. While most immigrants face difficulties from being alone, Kang faced difficulties for having a family. At the end of Kang’s PH.D period, Korea and all of Southeast Asia was faced with the International Monetary Fund. Similar to America’s Great Depression in the 1920s, the stock markets in Korea crashed and the financial sector also collapsed. Unemployment rates had increased up to thirty five percent and the currency exchange ratio for Korean money to American money increased three or four times. Because of this sudden economic crisis, many Asian foreign students who were funded by their parents back in home country had to drop out of school. Kang, who was also affected by the situation, had to send his family back to Korea for two years. In order to fully finish his PH.D program at USC, Kang received his first job as a “reporter and [he] didn’t have a good apartment.”16 Although Kang lived a harsh life for two long and lonely years, he managed to survive and be a proud father of two daughters.
The first impression of America by Kang was of great awe. The moment he stepped onto the land of America, he felt the country’s great freedom and opportunity. However, Kang first arrived at Los Angeles Airport, he wasn’t surprised. He had been “familiar with the American culture through the movies.”17 However, he noticed how large, rich and advance America was compared to Korea. In particular, the palm trees and different weather from that of Korea caught his attention from his arrival at Los Angeles, California. His first impression of the weather was memorable because he had grown to love “good and not too cold weather.”18 Because he came as a student, he didn’t have to dress formally, but instead only “one t-shirt and short pants to keep one year of living [in America].”19 Other than that temporary fear caused by the Los Angeles riots, Kang held a positive views of America. In general, Kang has had good first impressions of the country and adjusted to the changes accordingly.
Because of the differences of America in comparison to Korea both culturally and physically, Kang needed to make major adjustments. The very first difficulty that Kang was to endure through was the inability to speak English fluently. Luckily for foreigners, USC had supplementary language courses, in which Kang had to take with additional courses in order to learn basic English grammar and the English techniques. Thanks to all of these additional courses offered by the school, Kang believes that “in terms of the development of English skill and conversation, the American college system is perfect compared to any institution in the world.”20 Another small adjustment that Kang was forced to make was the change in food style. However, it wasn’t that difficult to adjust to the American food as compared to being adjusted to the American language. Kang believes that “America is like Korea because Korean community is the largest here and in terms of the influence of culture and food [he] can go anywhere.”21 Only through hard work and many efforts, Kang was able to successfully adjust to the American cultures and values.
The most heartbreaking and the most difficult times for Kang—was when he lived through the two years of lonely days as he was forced to send his family back to Korea. Working part time job as a Korean Broadcasting Station broadcasting reporter, Kang, who couldn’t afford a car, was forced to walk from the company to the bus station at around 2A.M. Every night, whenever he walked that lonely and dangerous road, he imagined himself as a “nobody and the gangsters and the homeless were very scary”22 When he got on the bus, he explained that everyone in the bus during that time were all African American. It seemed to him that they were “staring at [him], waiting to rob any precious items from [him].”23 Although at one point Kang became paranoid from his fears of the harmful people, he was able to overcome it by thinking about his family in Korea that was waiting for him.
The fear of walking around downtown LA wasn’t the only thing Frank Kang had as a reporter at the KBS broadcasting company. Kang, in addition, was able to report a lot of major incidents and also report about Major League Baseball players. One of the most valuable experiences for Kang was covering the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. When one of the nights, Kang was monitoring the satellite TV, he saw that there were serious pictures of blood and violence in the Columbine High School. Not knowing what to do, Kang called the chief of the department and told him about the situation that he saw on the satellite TV. After finding out if the Columbine High School shooting was a variable source or not, Kang and a couple of other staffs physically went to Columbine, Colorado in order to cover the news. After checking that there were several casualties in the high school, Kang searched hospitals to find if there were any Korean Americans that were injured. Once he found the parent of the Korean American who was severely hurt, they interviewed her. Kang stated that the story from the parents of the injured Korean American was “one of the most interesting stories [he] had ever covered.”24 Another interesting part that his reporting job covered was reporting the Major League Baseball players. He was allowed to meet a lot of the superstars in the baseball world like Randy Johnson and Mark McGuire. Later, Kang explains that “America gave [him] a lot of experience not only difficulty, but also happiness.”25
American culture and Korean culture varied dramatically in Kang’s eyes. According to Kang the “so called second generation kids are totally (from) a different point of view.”26 Korean culture is based on the Confucianism; the hierarchy in which you must respect your king, ruler, parent, elder, and God. In addition, all the people high people in the hierarchy and God are the same. Kang believes that the “younger generation must follow the older generations’ teachings”27 Kang later explained that most Asians, Korean American in particular, want their children and even themselves to be government officials, doctors, or lawyers. The Asian parents want to provide the best opportunity for kids to live a better life. In the beginning, Kang opposed the assimilation of American culture within his home. He too once pushed his children to take more than four Advanced Placement classes and go to law school or medical school. However, his daughter who loved music and played the cello wished to major in music. After the long nights of quarreling and stressing, Kang has finally concluded that his daughter should decide her own major. According to Kang, he “learned his experience from [his] daughter’s experience that most Korean Americans push their kids not for their own individual future but for the parents’ dream of being a doctor, lawyer, and dentist”28 He now believes that the main tensions between the parents and children come from the education conflict. In the end, Frank Kang’s children, in the end assimilated greatly into the American culture as it exists all around them, yet through intensive education at home, they have also developed the deep roots in Korean traditional values.
Currently, Kang lives with his wife and two daughters. He currently resides peacefully in Irvine as a private teacher for both English and United States history. Successfully graduating from the USC PH.D program in political science major, Frank Kang takes pride in teaching and helping Korean Americans achieve the American dream just like how he had worked hard to achieve the same dream twenty years ago. After living here for more than twenty years now, Mr. Kang feels that he is already “part of the America, that means this is [his] country and this is [his] identity”29 In conclusion, Mr. Kang believes that the America for the future is the ideal society due to the more open society and the dynamic population which will come to all the countries to develop American society a better upgraded community.
1. Kang, Frank. Personal interview. 19 May 2009, 2.
2. Kang, 19 May 2009, 2.
3. Kang, 19 May 2009, 2.
4. Kang, 19 May 2009, 1.
5. Kang, 19 May 2009, 1.
6. Kang, 19 May 2009, 4.
7. Kang, 19 May 2009, 12.
8. Kang, 19 May 2009, 4.
9. Kang, 19 May 2009, 3.
10. Kang, 19 May 2009, 4.
11. Kang, 19 May 2009, 4.
12. Kang, 19 May 2009, 2.
13. Kang, 19 May 2009, 2.
14. Kang, 19 May 2009, 3.
15. Kang, 19 May 2009, 6.
16. Kang, 19 May 2009, 3.
17. Kang, 19 May 2009, 3.
18. Kang, 19 May 2009, 3.
19. Kang, 19 May 2009, 4.
20. Kang, 19 May 2009, 5.
21. Kang, 19 May 2009, 6.
22. Kang, 19 May 2009, 6.
23. Kang, 19 May 2009, 7.
24. Kang, 19 May 2009, 7.
25. Kang, 19 May 2009, 10.
26. Kang, 19 May 2009, 10.
27. Kang, 19 May 2009, 11.
28. Kang, 19 May 2009, 13.