Tien: Can you provide a brief introduction of who you are (name, class, academic interests, etc.)?
Paul: My name is Paul. I’m a super senior in Paul Murray college. I’m majoring in political science. Let’s see, I’m interested in a lot of things. At Yale, I’ve been involved a lot with THiNK [There’s Hope in North Korea], which is a group that puts together different North Korea human rights, history, culture, and politics related events and activities on campus. I think that’s the most important and best part of my experience at Yale. I really like learning different languages. I guess it also has to do with my interest in North Korea. I also play cello, which is something I’ve played since I’ve been really young. I’m a FroCo [First-Year Counselor] in Pauli Murray, which makes me feel young again despite being a super senior.
T: What languages have you learned?
P: I came in actually thinking I was going to be a Latin American studies major. I took Spanish and studied abroad in Spain the summer after my freshman year. [I know] Korean as well, which is something I grew up speaking, and Mandarin. I took a gap year [and did] a Light Fellowship in mainland China and Taiwan between my sophomore and junior year. That was kind of exclusively for Mandarin and Chinese study. Then, I took Japanese. I tried to learn some Russian last semester.
T: You tried?
P: I tried unsuccessfully. I took Intensive Russian, but no more. This is actually my first semester at Yale I’m not taking a language. My life feels so free.
T: I was wondering if we could back it up a little bit and talk about where you grew up and some important experiences that really show who you are today.
P: Sure, I think there are two very important things in my childhood. One, I was born in Seoul, South Korea. I basically grew up with my grandparents, because my parents were both really busy working. I would spend the week with my grandparents whose house is also in Seoul. On the weekend, my parents would come pick me up, and I would spend time with them. I grew really close with my grandparents during that time. I guess I don’t remember too much up until I was four, but I do have these memories of spending time with my grandparents.
When I was four, my family decided to move to the U.S. We immigrated to Dallas, Texas, and my grandparents ended up joining us as well. I didn’t have any time to prepare really so it was a really sudden change. I didn’t speak any English. I didn’t know anything about the U.S. I just started kindergarten, and I remember I was in the ESL class [English as a Second Language].
I would say I had a very happy childhood without a lot of huge challenges and problems, but I would say that was the most challenging part of my childhood, because there was a lot of bullying. There weren’t a lot of Asian students at that school. There was this other kid named Ryo, who was my first friend in the U.S. from Japan. I had come from Korea. He had come from Japan very recently. We were both in this ESL class. We were both bullied during recess in the playground. We became really close, and our families became really close too.
A really particular memory I had was one time during recess, Ryo was being bullied. This kid was picking on him and hitting him. I don’t even remember what happened, but I guess I hit that kid. I punched that bully or did something to him. I got called to the principal’s office. She was saying all these things I don’t understand. All I could say while crying was, “He hit him.” I remember Ryo and I got really close after that.
When I was in Japan last summer, I was doing some field work in Tokyo, and I saw Ryo and his family for the first time in like fifteen years, which was a really heartwarming experience.
T: When did they move back?
P: I think they moved back a couple of years ago. It made me think a lot, because we basically started at the same place. We [couldn’t] speak English at all. We didn’t know anything about the U.S. But fifteen years later, I think he had forgotten a lot of his English and considers himself purely Japanese now even though he spent many years in the U.S. It was really weird to see how our paths had diverged after starting from the same point.
T: Were there particular reasons why your family moved to Dallas? Did you stay in Dallas, or did you move somewhere else?
P: My dad’s a doctor, and he wanted to get a degree in the U.S. I think there was a small college, a medical school in the Dallas area that he was accepted to. We were there for two years. In the middle of first grade, I was around five or six, we moved to New Jersey, which I consider one of my hometowns. It’s where I used to say where I’m from. I spent first grade to eighth grade in New Jersey, not a specific town but all over very close to New York City, because both of my parents started working there.
T: You said near New York City, but did you feel particularly tied to the New Jersey area?
P: Yeah, absolutely. There weren’t a lot of other Asians or Koreans besides my family and Ryo’s family and a couple other immigrant families that had recently arrived in the Dallas area. But in New Jersey, there’s this place called Bergen County, New Jersey. This specific town we arrived at was called Fort Lee. Next to it is this other town called Palisades Park. I think those are the only two towns with—at least Palisades Park—a Korean American majority in the country. It was like we were in this little Korean enclave.
Even though it was so Korean, I feel like in school, I didn’t really accept that I was Korean. I have this distinct memory. Even though there were a lot of Asians and other Koreans at my school, I wanted to feel distinct. I remember every morning—man, this is another really poignant memory that I will always remember. From elementary to middle school as well, my mom and grandma would wake up at 6am to make and pack my lunch for the day. Usually it would be some form of rice or gimbab, which is a—it’s like a Korean sushi. I cringe every time I hear that. But yeah, with multigrain purple rice. I guess it had this vinegary smell. One time, I opened my lunchbox, and my classmates were like, “What’s that?” about the purple rice. “Are those bugs?” I don’t know, [it was] something that made me feel really embarrassed. I was too embarrassed to tell my family to stop packing me that. I would just not eat the lunch, throw it out, get something from the cafeteria or give it to this other guy, who would eat anything. I still feel so guilty that they put so much effort and time every day into making me that. I was too embarrassed to appreciate it.
T: With your difficult experiences in your elementary school, did you ever tell your family about it? Did you eventually tell them about the lunch, maybe later on?
P: Oh no. Maybe I should tell them at graduation. Maybe they’ll understand. Now, I would gladly accept it. I think they knew, because they would pick me up from school, and I would be crying or my teacher would tell them. Growing up in New Jersey, I was a lot more comfortable. For some reason, even though people still made jokes about me being Asian or Korean and there was still discrimination, I don’t think it really bothered me or I didn’t think about it seriously. I’m not sure why, because it definitely bothered me when I was in Texas.
Another thing about growing up in New Jersey was my grandparents were still living with me so I would speak Korean in the house. They would bring a lot of Korean history and culture books, which I would try to read. I always felt really proud to be Korean even more so than other Korean Americans who weren’t as in touch with their heritage. I always saw myself as different from them until recently when my family moved back to Korea. This was when I was in high school, and I ended up going to a boarding school [in the U.S.] while my family moved back to Korea. When I went back and found people my age, I found it really hard to relate to them. They kept on saying how American I was. Then, coming to Yale too was a very different experience, where there’s a lot these different groups both Asian and Korean kind of come together.
T: Could you go into this more? You were really close to your family, and learning about Korean culture and history was really important to you, but at the same time, you wanted to feel distinct. How do you describe those feelings that are at odds with each other at times?
P: I’m not sure. I was listening to my friend’s, Jae Shin’s interview on Negative Space, and he was talking about how he really came to terms with his heritage. Even though his first year at Yale he didn’t hang out with any Koreans, but his senior year he basically exclusively hung out with Koreans. For me, I just feel—it’s the same thing with this Divided Families project I’ve been working on where I try to encourage other Korean Americans to get in touch with their grandparents. I, myself, have a really hard time talking about personal things with my grandparents. Even though I’m really passionate about learning about Korean issues like Korean diaspora, history, and culture, I find it difficult in my personal life to really integrate into the Korean community whether it’s the Korean international community or the Korean American community. I guess I haven’t found a way to reconcile that yet.
T: And you don’t have to. It’s a process. I was wondering what is your idea of integrating into the Korean international community or Korean American community. What does that mean to you?
P: I’m not sure. I was thinking about this a lot as I was thinking about what my life would look like after Yale and where I want to be in the future. I just feel like I would always be restless. Even when I was abroad in Korea, in Asia, I would feel like I would want to come to the U.S. Even in the U.S., even in a place like New Jersey or New York, where it’s very diverse and very cosmopolitan, metropolitan, I still feel like I don’t belong 100 percent. Even though at Yale—Yale is not a perfect place by any means, I didn’t feel this way before but for some reason this year I found a real sense of belonging here.
T: Were there people, spaces, or groups that facilitated that or was it more being a senior and being more okay with yourself in a way?
P: I think both. I wouldn’t say there was one turning point or specific group where I found that I belonged completely. THiNK means a lot to me, and I feel like I belong there. Maybe it’s senior emotions that are getting to me.
T: How did you start getting involved with THiNK? Did you know about it before coming to Yale? In my high school, I know there was a THiNK group.
P: Was it a LiNK [Liberty in North Korea] group?
T: Oh yeah, sorry.
P: LiNK actually started at Yale in 2004. I was always interested in North Korea. I have this theory that people—they don’t have to be Korean—people who are abroad or who are not in their home country tend to be more interested and attached to these issues, their history and culture. Maybe because they don’t experience it every day or maybe because it helps them find their own sense of identity. Maybe it’s the same for me. I’ve always been interested in North Korea, and it seemed like such an anomaly today.
As I mentioned, I was studying Spanish, not really interested in Asia, but my grandfather who I was really close to growing up was my role model. He’s someone I really strive to be. He passed away the summer after my first year at Yale. It was the first time I really experienced a death of someone who was really close to me. I guess it’s a lot later than a lot of other people. But it was a really sobering moment for me because I realized my grandfather is not the only—this whole generation of people who have divided family members in North Korea or who still remember the Korean War or who still remember what Korea was like as one country, they’re passing away. We’re not able to hear their stories. I think that’s what really gave me the sense of urgency. With THiNK too, I started getting involved around then, toward the end of my freshman year and early on in my sophomore year.
It started out really small actually. It was just a bunch of washed up seniors. I guess I’m one of them now. I never thought I would be one, but here I am. There was a couple, maybe four or five washed up seniors who were burned out and ready to leave, and then there was me. Once they left, they kind of just peaced out. It was just me and this other guy who had to reboot the program and the group. But now I think it’s grown a lot. It’s probably around 15 people in our core board. What’s more important to me than the actual activism that we do or the events we put on is how close and cohesive the group is, which I think we’ve succeeded at doing. That makes really happy and proud. I just hope after I graduate, they keep on going.
T: You said you had the Divided Families project. Is that part of THiNK?
P: Kind of. I guess I have to be honest. I’ve been able to introduce a lot of different projects through THiNK, different ways of tutoring North Korean defectors. We did this media campaign where we recorded footage of campus life in the U.S. We compiled that footage and actually sent it into North Korea. So really a diverse array of projects. But the Divided Families project was something that I was personally interested in and got other people in THiNK involved. We had a documentary screening. But the project is beyond Yale. It’s kind of a national coalition, which has dwindled down to only a handful of members. At one point, it was pretty big.
T: Do you interview people or what do you do?
P: The original project started off as a documentary. This guy named Jason Ahn, he’s a doctor. I think he had a similar feeling that I did that his career and professional life he would have his whole to work on it. But [with] the divided families issue, there wasn’t as much time. He went around the country, interviewing different people. He made a documentary called the Divided Families documentary. That was really inspiring for me, and I started to get involved. The idea is one, to keep in contact with these divided family members, grandpas and grandmas, around the country, but to also advocate for a mechanism of family reunions between Koreans in the U.S. and their loved ones in North Korea. A lot of it involved political activism, advocacy, and lobbying U.S. Congress and the State Department.
T: Were you able to organize a reunion?
P: There have been a couple of resolutions and bills passed saying that family reunions are a good thing, but the North Korean government has always been the biggest barrier to making it happen. Just to give some context, there have been over 21 reunions. You read about it a lot in the New York Times. These are 2–3 day reunions between North and South Korean families, and they have to say goodbye again after those few days. There haven’t been any between the U.S. and North Korea. What we are trying to do ultimately is to provide these grandmas and grandpas with some kind of closure whether it’s actually being able to see their loved ones again temporarily or permanently. We can just agree that right now, they’re reaching the end of their lives—many have passed away already, but they still haven’t been able to say goodbye or leave some kind of message for their loved ones. This afternoon [March 29, 2018] actually, we’re hosting a Berkeley College Tea and exhibit, interviewing and showcasing their stories.
T: Growing up, did you your grandparents ever talk about the Korean War?
P: My grandfather who fought in the Korean War talked about it occasionally but not really in depth. I never wanted to press too much either. I wish I had more uncomfortable or personal conversations with my grandpa especially and with the rest of my family. They think of my interest in these issues as kind of a phase. I wouldn’t say they’re supportive, but I wouldn’t say—they’re just letting me do my thing until I forget about it or lose hope. One of those.
T: Why do you think that they think it’s a phase?
P: I’m not sure. Maybe I am very idealistic about this. Maybe this is a tragedy that’s happening, and we just have to look back on later and remember and reflect on—not necessarily something we can resolve. Not just for my family, I think most people have accepted the fact that this is the harsh reality of what happens when families are divided by war. Today, there’s not much you can do about it.
T: You also talked about how you learned a lot of East Asian languages and have done a lot of research in those countries. Could you describe your favorite research project and your favorite language and explain why those were your favorite?
P: I’m not sure if it was before or after we took that class on Asian Diasporas [Since 1800] with Professor [Quan] Tran. I’ve always been interested in Korean or diaspora in general, because I considered myself one, and I still do. When I was in China, I spent a lot of time in this autonomous province of ethnic Koreans in northeast China. I went to an ethnic Korean church. I tried to learn about the ethnic Korean community there.
It was last summer when I was in Japan, I tried to learn about ethnic Koreans in Japan. They’re called Zainichi Koreans. That was really eye-opening for me. This kind of research is kind of selfish I have to say. I’m doing it because I’m interested, and it’s an interesting topic of academic study. But I’m also doing it unconsciously because hearing other Korean stories, other Korean diasporic stories. How they cope with their identity and how these Korean Japanese or Korean Chinese, I think their identity crises are more serious than mine. I think it helps me cope with or think about my own identity.
T: Why do you what they’re experiencing is more serious than you?
P: I think on a couple of levels. I met this guy. He’s kind of a North Korean Japanese guy, ethnically Korean but was born and raised and working in Japan. I think he has much less mobility to go somewhere else or take on a different identity. As a Korean in Japan, you face a lot more overt discrimination when you’re applying for a job or when you’re in school. It’s much harder to protect your culture.
T: This past spring break, you were in Hong Kong. Was there similar research?
P: I wish. Well, Hong Kong was through YUNA [Yale University-New Asia College], which is an exchange program through Yale and China University of Hong Kong. I was helping organize that trip with Professor Tran.
T: I always wondered what other people in Asian Diasporas thought of the class. What did you think of the class? What were some big takeaways?
P: Overall, I liked the class. I will say I wasn’t the best student in the class. I remember I sent in my paper 2 or 3 days late. I liked the class and hearing other people’s stories. Your presentation had to do with the church?
T: Yeah, Catholicism. It was about my dad and thinking about his values as a Vietnamese Catholic man and how does that relate to the way he thinks of fatherhood.
P: It’s coming back to me!
T: It’s fine. That was a long time ago.
P: Part of me—I still feel this way—we ended up having a similar discussion. It was a variation on a theme like diaspora and identity [are] very expansive. It’s whatever you want it to be, and it’s not bounded by anything. I think it’s fun, thought-provoking, stimulating discussion to have, but I don’t know if it really helped me process my own identity. But I’m glad I took the class. Professor Tran was great. She’s really cool.
T: I remember feeling disoriented every time I read something or go to class. I would think, “Who am I?”
P: The fact of the matter is you have to kind of go on with your life after you do that reading or after you have that discussion. I’m not sure. Maybe this is a theme for Negative Space. The hardest question is when people ask me where I’m from. I never know what to say.
T: Are there other interests that you feel like you haven’t explored yet? Why haven’t you been able to explore it?
P: Yeah, definitely. I do feel very tied to Korea and North Korea, bridging the generational gap, but I think a lot of it has to do with this pressure or sense of responsibility I feel to do something about this issue before it’s too late. But recently, I’ve started to think about whether these big lofty things like Korean reunification or geopolitics, I wonder if that’s what I really want to do and find doing that really meaningful as opposed to—I always found that I really liked being in New Haven as well. Doing things on a local level makes me feel really fulfilled and happy even if it doesn’t have to deal with these bigger issues.
T: Have you been involved with New Haven organizations?
P: A couple of times a month, I go to soup kitchens. There’s this place I really like called Amistad, a Catholic worker house on Rosette St. near the Medical School. I really like it there. Sometimes, I feel it’s really challenging to be in that space in particular, but I like being there.
T: Can you explain that more?
P: Yeah, sure. Amistad is a place where they basically cook and serve free meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner for people in the neighborhood or anyone who wants to go come by, homeless or not. I tend to see a lot of the same people. I went last month and saw people I had seen 3 or 4 years ago. For them, I’m just another Asian guy. I have to be okay with the fact that for the people there, their perception of me might not be as nuanced as the way I see myself. I’m okay with saying, “Yeah I’m from Korea.” I don’t necessarily have to justify myself or explain my whole story of where I came from to them, and I think that’s okay.
T: I’m sensing at the same time you want to tell your story, but it also can be exhausting. I’m wondering in what ways—have you come to a conclusion of how or when you want to tell your story? Or who you want to tell your story to?
P: I don’t have a neatly packaged story. I wish I did. I guess I can make one up or I can tell a different story every time. I can definitely tell the beginning, the middle, but I’m not sure I’ve come to terms with where I want to be.
T: You also worked on an oral history and interviewed Marvin Chun and other people.
P: I was part of KASY [Korean American Students at Yale], and I was political chair for KASY. I noticed that KASY does a great job with cultural events and activities, food, dance, music, and the Adopted Friends. But those are very much focused on South Korea or traditional Korean culture. I didn’t think there wasn’t anything focused on the Korean American experience so I really pushed for a project that showcases the diversity of Koreans at Yale. I don’t know if that’s going anywhere. I interviewed Marvin Chun. I really do think Yale is a place where there’s not just one kind of Korean at Yale, there are many different people who are Korean from different backgrounds. Even though they might not get along, they all share something. I think the hope was to show that to students, faculty, and New Haven. I think they did a couple of other interviews as well, but I think Negative Space is doing a much better job.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is—I think Haewon mentioned this—this Humans of New York glitzy style, you just see a picture or short video, and there’s something that you immediately see and think that you kind of get this person or understand what this person is all about as opposed to a longer form, text-based interview like Negative Space. I was thinking about the positives and negatives of that, which was something I didn’t even consider when I was first thinking about that oral history, stories of Koreans at Yale project. I do think that sometimes when you’re trying make a point whether it’s raising awareness or trying to get people to do something like Divided Families or Korean story project, I do think you have to sacrifice nuance and the whole story for the shorter message.
T: Was there anything else you wanted to share or talk about or ask?
P: I briefly touched upon this. This is about my relationship with my grandparents. I think other people can relate to this as well. I just feel so attached to my grandparents in a way that I can’t explain. My grandfather who passed away in particular was the only one who really loved me unconditionally. Not to say my parents—I felt that they loved me unconditionally in a way that I didn’t have to get good grades or get into a good school or do any activities or do anything, but they would always be proud of me and be supportive. I know my parents feel the same way. I certainly didn’t feel that way growing up. I think that’s why I try to stay in touch with them and try to call them every day. When I think of my future or what I’m doing, anything I do really, I try to think about them.