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Korean American Coalition National Convention
Saturday, January 11, 2003
Honolulu, HI

Talking Points

  • Thank you for inviting me to this wonderful celebration, and it is an historic occasion. I am honored to be with you this afternoon to celebrate the centennial of Korean Immigration to the United States, and to help launch KAC national chapters. We have come a long way since the first brave Koreans landed here in Hawaii. The 102 passengers aboard that ship came to America to "earn money and to have a better life".

  • Today, we are more than 1 million strong, and are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States.

  • We contribute and are successful in business, the arts, engineering, medicine, and literature.

  • We lead churches and invigorate academia.

  • We have the highest rate of entrepreneurship of all ethnic groups, owning more than 135,500 businesses with more than 333,600 employees with gross sales of around $46 billion annually.

  • Some of us are even Presidential appointees.

  • And President George W. Bush recognized all Asian Americans in his proclamation last year for Asian Pacific Heritage Month, by saying that our "love of family, hard work, and community has helped unite {America} as a people and sustain us as a nation."

  • I would like to share a story about what being Korean American means to me. When my son Toby was about 10 or 11, we lived in a community where we were the only Asian American family. Toby was apparently teased by his school mates for being different. Of course, both my sons were born in Evanston, Illinois. They grew up thinking that they are just as American as anyone else. Every night, I told Toby that he was the best looking boy on earth. Toby was not all that convinced.

  • He asked his teacher, "Who am I? Am I Korean or American? She looked at Toby and said: "Toby, you are someone with two dollars in your pocket as opposed to one dollar in your pocket." It was a wonderful way to look at someone's ethnic heritage as the most enriching and positive life experience.

  • When the teacher, Ms. Goldman told me this story during the Parent and Teacher Conference, I thanked her again and again. At the time I was working at the Bilingual Education Service Center in Illinois. Because of Toby's experience, I decided to leave the program to develop my own, called the Asian American Ethnic Heritage Studies Program. It was a teacher-training program to assist teachers of kids like my Toby: children born in America with ethnic heritage who are often confused about their identity.

  • As I worked as the manager of the Title 9 ethnic heritage study program, my eyes were opened to the experiences of many immigrants from China, Japan, Ireland and others. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, as I shared with public school teachers the struggles, hardships, hopes and dreams of these immigrants.

  • I developed a deep sense of appreciation for the hard work immigrants had done to pave our way.

  • Without the backbreaking work of Chinese laborers, the construction of the transcontinental railroad would not have been possible. Their legacy was a railroad that opened up the west, expanded markets, and unified the states by making travel more accessible.

  • And many Japanese Americans were loyal Americans, but suffered by being placed in internment camps during World War II. Their children, however, served in the 100th Infantry Battalion, and are remembered as some of the most highly decorated soldiers in U.S. military history. Yet, at the time, many of these men and their families were considered potential traitors to America.

  • The Irish Americans too, came to the United States to escape famine, expecting the Golden Door and many times found signs that said, "NO IRISH NEED APPLY", or "IRISH ARE NOT ALLOWED". More than 80% of their children died as infants. Yet they did the work that others would not do. They built bridges, canals, and railroads. The women worked too. They did the work disdained by Early Americans, work as chamber-maids, cooks, and caretakers of children.

  • So my appreciation for those who came before me grew and I am so grateful for the opportunities, freedom, and liberty they gave so that I could participate in the American Dream. Most of us in this room have not had to struggle as those I described earlier have. We are among those Asian Americans who benefited from the change in the immigration laws that increased Asian immigration from 8% in 1965 to 41% in 1988. We came in boom times for the United States and succeeded in applying our skills and abilities to our advantage while contributing to the American economy.

  • When I attend senior staff meetings with my boss, Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao, I am reminded of the progress that we have made. Secretary Chao, a Chinese American, came to the United States when she was 8 years old, speaking no English. She has become the first Asian American woman to be a Cabinet Secretary, and she oversees 180 statutes, 17,000 employees, and a budget of about 60 billion. She works side by side with the President to assist America's dislocated workers.

  • Look at Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a Japanese American who was forced from his home and into an internment camp during World War II. After a distinguished career in Congress, he went on to serve America as Commerce Secretary and now, as Secretary of Transportation, he is responsible for the safety of all American travelers.

  • This is historic that President Bush appointed 2 Asian Americans as Cabinet Members, and invited over 100 Asian Americans to serve in his Administration. And this number continues to grow.

  • We have come far, and we still have a long way to go. We shouldn't let anyone define us, telling us who we are and what we can or can't do. Looking ahead, I often hear things that make me think that our own worst enemy is ourselves, and our notion that we can't do this or we can't do that. Let's remember that the glass is always half full, not half empty.

  • That is why what KAC is doing is so important, and you have such a clear mission and focused agenda.
  • You have an outstanding record of educating and empowering Korean-Americans on civic, legislative and political issues.

  • You have registered voters, conducted forums on matters of interest to Korean Americans, and you have helped many Koreans become American citizens.

  • You are also a significant force in developing the future leaders of our community and this country. Your sponsorship of leadership conferences and internships is the first step in bringing the American Dream to many.
  • But at the end of the day, our impact is not being felt like it could be. Too few of us are involved in civic activities, or politics. Many of us do not even vote.

  • Certainly, our second generation of Korean Americans are not involved in the community or in the public sector as they could be. We need to encourage them to participate in government at the local, state and federal level. We need to reach out to government officials and let them know about our talents and our desire to make a difference, and make this country a better place.

  • We are not where we could be. We could do more than succeed economically. We should enter the political mainstream.

  • Every time I see Charles Kim, we dream the dream, a dream of a Foundation that would make all things possible for our young Korean Americans. A Foundation that would fund a program to train them and prepare them with leadership skills, and foster our next generation of Korean Americans to more fully participate in the mainstream of American life. We think about how we can support them in responding to a higher calling to serve this great nation.

  • We have much to offer this country and the country has much to offer us. Only through full participation at the point where policy decisions are made can we fully experience the American Dream.

Thank you, and God bless all of you.