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Korean-American Professor and Poet - 2003-01-31

English Feature #7-37126 Broadcast January 27, 2002

This month the Korean-American community is marking the one-hundredth anniversary of Korea immigration to the United States. It was in January 1903 that the first group of Koreans went to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations there. Today on New American Voices, we introduce you to a Korean-American professor and poet who talks about his experiences during three decades in this country.

“All-in-all I am positive towards US society and the US government and the American people as the leading nation and the leading people of this world society in the 21st century. Sometimes I see the glorious aspect of American life, sometimes I see some tragedic, or arrogance-of power side, sometimes I see the human-being dominated, or law-dominated society, and I try to reflect this in my poems.”

Yearn Hong Choi came to the United States as a student in the late 1960s. At Indiana University, while studying for his doctorate in political science, he became involved in student activities that were part of the social and political upheavals this country was experiencing at the time.

“I was so attracted to the United States. What made the United States great was that kind of vitality. The civil rights movement for human equity and equality, and the environment movement for the man and nature relationship, and the anti-Vietnam war movement, an unjust war the young people tried to stop. I think all these three movements that I observed in the first part of my American life were unforgettable, and I believe that such power and such forces still remain somewhere in this country.”

For most of his life in the United States, Yearn Hong Choi has been a university professor – with a break in the early 1980s, when he worked in Washington in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as an assistant for environmental quality. He says that although he acquired American values very quickly, not everything went smoothly.

“Well, I shouldn’t say this, but during my Pentagon experiences NATO people couldn’t come to my office, or they were led to another room, skipping my office. I felt some bias and prejudice still existing in this country. All these kind of things are still in my memory, but I still say this country is greater than any other country in accepting and accommodating foreign people, and that it is the land of hope and opportunities.”

While pursuing a scholarly career in the United States, Yearn Hong Choi has all along been writing poetry – mostly in English, which he then translates into Korean.

“It’s more or less personal poetry, it’s basically my life, my 30-some years of American life reflected in 50 poems. I try to show my anger and my happiness, my pathos, almost everything is there. But poetry and literature is what I have been dependent on in a sense to sustain my life.”

One of Mr. Choi’s early poems, entitled “MY SAIL”, shows his dichotomy of feeling on leaving Korea to come to America.

“A gull/ and solitude with the solidity of a thing./ My sail shines fresh venturing along/ In the shadow of the Pacific./ What am I searching for in a distant land?/ What have I cast off in my native land?/ The waves are playing, the winds whistle,/ And the mast bows and creaks./ Alas! I am searching for happiness!/ Below the soul a stream of glistening azure/ Between the vast expanse of the sky and the waters.”

For the past three years Mr. Choi has been commuting from his home in a Washington suburb to Seoul, Korea, where he is a professor and chairman of the environmental policy program in Seoul University’s Graduate School of Urban Studies. He accepted the job, he says, because he has an aged mother in Korea, and as the eldest son he has a duty to take care of her. Mr. Choi says that after 30 years in the United States, he still embodies strong Korean, as well as American, values.

“I’ve been Korean in the sense that I am going back to Korea to take care of my mother, that’s the Korean aspect, filial piety, but I enjoy my freedom of thinking and freedom of expression, as a poet and writer I appreciate the country I am living in.”

Yearn Hong Choi is married to an American-Korean woman, and has two grown children, both of whom work on Wall Street, the financial district of New York. He says their values are quite different from his.

“(laughs) Oh, yes. They are American. They are not Korean-American, they are totally American. It’s a totally different world they live in. This is their country, English is their mother tongue. Probably the language and the value systems they acquired from kindergarten and all the way… They are good American citizens.”

Yearn Hong Choi, who considers himself to be both Korean and American, finds it somehow ironic that in Korea he himself is often seen as an American.

“Well, some people think I am a foreigner, some people think I am too pro-American, but it’s all right with me. I have two countries I’m living in. And maybe this is still much freer and more comfortable than my home country. Both sides have virtues and things I care about and value highly. I’ve been very fortunate to live in two worlds, and get good things from two worlds. I appreciate my life, I thank you to the society I have been in, and I’m grateful particularly in this centennial year of Korean immigration.”

To hear Yearn Hong Choi read two poems entitled “America”, one written recently and the other shortly after he arrived in the United States, please click here.