Our History Remembers

A CAUTIONARY TALE: DEEDS, NOT DEGREES, THAT MATTER

By K. W. Lee

A TRIBE, A PEOPLE OR A NATION is likely known or judged by its heroes by whom it reveres above all others.

Such is Abraham Lincoln, an icon of all humanity beyond borders.

So are Korean diaspora pioneers Dosan Ahn Chang Ho (Island Mountain) and Charles Ho (Nobody) Kim who are now among the pantheons of not only Korean but American heroes.

These towering figures from our American heritage share one common trait: They couldn’t afford attending a day in college.

Lincoln, the great emancipator born to a log cabin, mostly taught himself in the frontiers of the slave-owning republic.

Dosan and Nobody, upon arrival for American education a century ago, gave up their dream to devote their lives as freedom fighters for their conquered kingdom as well as community organizers for their struggling migrant workers in the apartheid West.

To them, education was a life-long learning journey.

Fast forward to the unfolding New American century where Harvard graduate Barak Obama began his historic ascent to presidency as a lowly community organizer.

It’s a singularly bitter irony that today’s Korean parents on both sides of the ocean are hell bent on sending their children to top-ranking universities by any extreme means --- the short cut to fortune and fame.

Across the ocean, the education rankings craze is sweeping the digitally wired South Korea in a mounting education crisis. It’s the top colleges the overzealous parents pressure their children to gain admission for an extra edge in the fiercely competitive job market. In turn the wretched students are driven to fulfill the parental expectations, cramming from dawn to midnight to pass a national entrance test.

But that isn’t enough for tens of thousands of middle-class Korean parents who uproot themselves by sending away their children (numbering 190,000) for study overseas in an unprecedented education exodus. It spells an alarming sign for the future of Korea in a global economy meltdown.

On this side of the ocean, it’s as if the future of a child born to the Korean womb is already programmed at birth –bound for Harvard, or Yale or Princeton in that order. In the esteemed UC system, it’s Berkeley or UCLA, and the other branches don’t count, as far as the rankings-obsessed parents are concerned.

Embedded deep in the Korean and Korean American psyche is this ultimate success route: SAT, Harvard, Ivy Leaguers, six-digit-figure income, Ph.D.s and MDs, CEOs, big corporations, tenured professors and Benz-Mercedes.

Private cram schools for elite schools make up a thriving enterprise in major Koreatowns. Ethnic dailies run regular sections on prestige universities.

Perish the thought when it comes to state universities, this nation’s historical mainstay of higher education called land-grant universities. Fabulous academic institutions abound among them, drawing an endless stream of world-class talent from advanced and developing nations alike.

As for community colleges as well as vocational or technical education ladders, vital first steps toward the upward mobility for most immigrant student populations, they draw scant communal attention.

Have we learned any lesson from our journey to the New World?

Out of the fog of our century-old passage, the saga of three nationalist reformers Dosan, Kim Ho and Syngman Rhee tells this cautionary tale for today’ Ivy League-bound generation.

It’s the deeds, not lofty degrees nor titles, that really matter in pursuit of the American Dream.

Lesson One:

Rhee, with the coveted degrees from the Ivy League universities, turned into a dictator to be thrown out of presidency by an army of high school and college students in Korea’s first democratic revolution in 1960.

At the dawn of the last century, these three nationalist reformers, all converted to Christianity and modernity, left the corrupt kingdom for the United Sates to get western education and fight for independence.

In exile, however, Rhee and the latter pair went separately ways, bitterly wrangling over how to achieve their homeland’s freedom.

With generous missionary support, Rhee studied successfully at George Washington, Harvard and Princeton, earning the crowning Ph.D. degree as the self-appointed disciple of President Woodrow Wilson.

An autocrat and Machiavelian at heart, he flaunted his exalted Confucian title Baksa (Great Scholar) in his divisive power struggle with other factions. Ever resourceful on public donations, he never had to engage in any physical labor, although nearly all other American-educated leaders including Seo Jai Pil, Park Young Man, Kim Kiu-Sik toiled as domestics or farm hands at one time or another.

Riding the anti-communist tide in the host country since the Bolshevik revolution leading to the Korean War, Rhee rose to the first president of the Republic of Korea and was anointed by the compliant National Assembly as the father of the country for life.

In stark contrast, both Dosan and his former reform colleague Kim Ho (Nobody) abandoned their study and plunged into the mission of fund-raising for the Korean government in exile and organizing a network of community groups among the Korean settlements in Hawaii and the mainland and Mexico’s Yucatan slave plantations.

Dosan, 22, along with newly wed wife Helen, arrived in San Francisco in 1902 only to confront the tiny feuding enclave of ginseng peddlers in Chinatown. Prompted by the urgency of action, the education reformist gave up his study plans, organizing the stumbling hamlets up and down the farming belt of California with branches of the grassroots Korean National Association (KNA), the Korean equivalent to the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He spread the KNA network into Mexico and Siberia. His KNA has gained a de facto self-government status in dealing with the state government of California and the U. S. State Department.

In 1913, he established the Hung Sa Dan (Young Korean Academy) toward developing an elite cadre of leaders to meet the challenge of a new community and a free Korea.

Throughout until his prison death in Korea in 1938, he practiced what he preached: don’t lie, be honest, speak the truth, act with courage, work together for a common goal and are born again as responsible citizens prior to gaining independence.

Indeed, history reveals, he was an incarnate of a Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, all combined transcending time, border and race.

In 1914, then reformist school teacher Kim Ho, 28 and married, followed his mentor’s passage to the U. S., leaving behind his all-female household. Like Dosan, he gave up studying and combed the Western states to raise money for KNA’s independence activities, while working in dangerous coal mines to send meager wages home.

In his 40-year partnership with Harry S. Kim, his Reedley ranch just off Highway 99 in Central California grew not only a multi-million-dollar nectarine agribusiness on a global scale at the height of anti-Asian hysteria in California, but a new generation of leaders for post-liberation Korea.

As he faced the influx of second-wave immigrants, Kim Ho felt the urgency of developing competent leaders for the future. In retirement, he donated the bulk of his wealth to build a community center and a foundation to bankroll training a legion of professionals and community builders in the emerging Koreatowns.

Dosan’s Young Korean Academy since his martyrdom has produced a new cadre of community builders on both sides of the ocean. A park, a road and an academy in Seoul were named after Dosan.

Here in Los Angeles in recent years, a post office station, a freeway interchange, a hospital hall and a city square have been named in his honor.

A half century after “Peach King” Kim Ho’s passing, rows of nectarine trees are blossoming in the school yard of the Charles H. Elementary School in the heart of L. A. Koreatown.

According to the Los Angeles Unified School District, it’s the first neighborhood school specifically designed and built for students of all colors living in the inner cities of the City of Angels.

At last, Kim Ho without college education has gotten even with history by posthumously playing a key role in establishing the nation’s first public school bearing an Asian and Korean American name.

As for Rhee Baksa (the Great Scholar), the first Korean to receive the Ph. D. degree from Princeton died at age 90 in ignoble exile in Hawaii, where he settled after he was deposed in the so-called April Student Revolution of 1960.

 

 
 

KW Lee Writings

A CAUTIONARY TALE: DEEDS, NOT DEGREES, THAT MATTER
By K. W. Lee

A TRIBE, A PEOPLE OR A NATION is likely known or judged by its heroes by whom it reveres above all others.
Such is Abraham Lincoln, an icon of all humanity beyond borders.
So are Korean diaspora pioneers Dosan Ahn Chang Ho (Island Mountain) and Charles Ho (Nobody) Kim who are now among the pantheons of not only Korean but American heroes.
These towering figures from our American heritage share one common trait: They couldn’t afford attending a day in college.

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