American Calls for Korean Culture Center

by Emanuel Yi Pastreich, 18/05/2012

I recently received a note from two individuals in Grand Rapids, Michigan (U.S.A.), who have engaged in an ambitious project to build a center for Korean culture in Grand Rapids that could serve as a hub for introducing Korea to Americans. Tragically, although Americans drive Hyundais and watch Samsungs, many know more about North Korean missiles than they do about Korean history and culture. The approach put forth is very innovative and inspired.

Dr.Deborah Havens, a scholar who has taken a deep interest in Korean culture since her son Haight married an Korean woman (and she was blessed with three grandchildren with Korean roots), has teamed up with the Korean-American Professor Arthur K. J. Park to launch a new initiative for education about Korea in the United States. Professor Park has already started his own effort to introduce Korea to Americans through his Morning Crane Tea and Morning Earth Korea projects (including cultural tours to Korea).

Havens announced an ambitious drive to create a Korean Cultural Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a place where Americans can learn more about the history, culture and philosophy of Korea, one of America’s most important allies.   Havens said her son’s interest in Korean culture over the years sparked hers as well. But the delightful time she spends with her grandchildren was the decisive wake-up call for her to the traditions the family shared as a result of their American and Korean heritage.

“I was fortunate to have the special guidance regarding Korea from our daughter-in-law Jungson and her family. They welcomed us into their home and taught us a great deal about the beauty and tradition of Korean culture. We learned about what the Korean War meant to them and we learned just how profound the Korean tradition is,” Havens explained. “It is clear that now that the alliance with Korea has reached a new level of maturity with the signing of the KORUS FTA Agreement that we need to understand more about that remarkable country—not just the brand names Samsung and LG, but the legends and the wisdom of Korea.”

One striking aspect of Dr. Haven’s and Dr. Park’s work is their focus on introducing Korean culture to Americans, rather than just Korean Americans. I feel their pain. When I worked with the Korean Culture Center of the Korean Embassy in Washington D.C. (2005-2007), I was constantly frustrated by the overwhelming emphasis on engaging with Korean American groups only, to remind them of their Korean roots. Often the rest of the United States was engaged with only through Korean American groups. There is so much room for Koreans to engage with African Americans, Hispanics, Korean adoptees and other groups in America, each of which will have a different take on what is Korea. In fact, I was most proud of our program at the Korean Cultural Center to bring in Korean adoptees for cultural events.

Arthur Park writes:
“We may be able to see Korean culture take a greater role in contemporary society here if our project becomes what it potentially can be with a Korean Tea Center or ‘Korea House’ in the form of a Hanok ultimately being built here.

I have a friend who is the Intangible Cultural Asset in hand formed Korean roof tiles so I have a great interest in Hanok (traditional Korean houses). It is one of my dreams to influence the building of such a house here for general American citizens not just Koreans, perhaps a series of them across the country each promoting aspects of Korean culture – perhaps with his roof tiles.  “One of my most frustrating, but often repeated, experience is to witness extraordinary Korean traditional performances here in the USA performing for only Korean Americans because the event was not advertised for anyone else.

Our work promoting Korean arts and culture has almost solely been directed to non-Koreans because other Koreans are simply not doing it.

Dr. Haven’s son Haight has lived in Pusan for twenty years and now lives in Guam with his three, half-Korean children. Haight recently translated a collection of poems by the  Korean monk Ch’o Eui (1786-1866) with the assistance of the scholar Taeyoung Ho. Dr. Havens has made great efforts to introduce this book to a broad audience in the United States. That activity led her do consider the possibility of a Korean culture center. What is novel about this request for a Korean cultural center is that it is not driven by Korean national policy, but rather by American interests in the full complexity of Korean culture. 

*About the Author: Emanuel Yi Pastreich is an Associate Professor at Humanitas College of Kyung Hee University and a Director of The Asia Institute.

Photo of Deborah Haven’s family: Mrs. Haven’s mother is on the far left next to her mother-in-law. She is next to her husband David Charles Limbaugh who served in the Korean War. Their grandsons Brennan and Henry are in front, next to Henna and her daughter-in-law Jungson.

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