On January 16th 2017, Hank Kim, a Bible Study teacher at Dong San Youth Group, gave a speech at the Masters School for its Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Posted below is the transcript of his speech.
Hello everybody, My name is Hank Kim and I am a Korean-American. My birth name is Heng Jin Kim, which roughly translates to the “propagator (or facilitator) of happiness or fortune”. My family immigrated to the United States over 30 years ago. Before coming here, we lived in a few other countries, namely Taiwan, Japan, and Brazil, because my father worked for the Korean foreign service – he was a diplomat working for the Korean Embassy and Consulate.
Everywhere we went, I became acutely aware that I was not a native. In Japan, other kids ostracized me because I was only one of three ethnically Korean students in a school of roughly 200 students. The pejorative term that they called me was “chosenjin”. In Brazil, right out of the airport, I was met with local kids who emulated my eyes and said, “ei Japonês” (meaning, “hey Japanese”). My experience in the US, in the beginning was not that different. Now, the American kids were calling me Chinese instead and showed the same fascination with my eyes.
My family came here, as many immigrants do, to pursue the American dream. We started out in Flushing, Queens, then moved to Brooklyn to begin our first business venture, the typical Korean American enterprise: a deli/grocery business. As soon as we purchased the business, my father’s intestines ruptured and he was hospitalized. Now, it was up to me and my mom to hold down the fort until he recovered. I was about ten years old at the time. Throughout that summer, I worked 12 hours a day: working the register, stocking the groceries, accompanying the previous owner to the wholesale market to buy products, and sweeping and mopping the floor at closing time. Long story short, the business burned down and we went into debt. So, we tried other businesses. In Bensonhurst, we failed twice. Then we moved out to Cincinnati, Ohio and we failed there miserably as well. Left with no other choice, we returned to NY thinking that these pastures would be greener.
After a few years of working long hours in low-paying jobs and living frugally, we decided to try again one last time. We bought a busy Italian deli in College Point and put our heart and soul into it. It wasn’t easy, my parents and I each worked over 100 hours a week, with no days off, for about ten years. But it thrived, we paid back all our debts, bought a house, and that’s where I met my lovely wife, Miae.
Look, we are all aware of race. I heard one student describe race as something that does not really exist, because biologists believe that there is more genetic variation within groups than between them. But we all know that if you look at me and then at Mr. Comerford, you can easily tell that we do not come from the same mother. Heck, even Mr. Wood’s young son, Luka, can recognize race. Just last year, he saw some random Asian boy walking into Strong Dorm and yelled out “Uncle Hank”. Well, at a distance, sometimes I confuse one of the VanBrummelen boys for Luka so, it’s all good. Sometimes, when I am walking home from work and when both of Mr. Wood’s children see me, they run towards me yelling “Uncle Hank” to give me a big hug. Yeah, I know that they are using me because with the hug, I lift them up and twirl them around. But that look, filled with warmth, closeness, and trust makes me think that our relationship transcends race because they see me purely as their friend, neighbor, and family member. I would like to believe that as these precious children grow up, we as adults (and adults-to-be) can provide them with an environment where people are not separated by the walls of bigotry and the chaos of misunderstanding.
I am also a Christian. I have been attending church since I was ten but I have not always lived a life most pleasing to God. In my earlier years, one of the things I struggled with most was turning the other cheek. Every time, a car slowed down and the windows proceeded to roll down, my fist became clenched. Every instance of explicit racism and bigotry are even now ingrained in my head. However, now my fist is no longer clenched. Part of it has to do with something my dad told me once.
During the early Chosun dynasty, which followed the Koryo dynasty, there was a king named Taejo who was almost forced to abdicate. One of his sons, whom the abdicated king did not appoint, rose to the throne. In his stubbornness, Taejo refused to relinquish the royal seal. The new king tried to send messengers to plead to his dad to give him the royal stamp. However, every messenger sent, returned in a casket. Finally, the son sent his dad’s childhood friend who was a highly respected Buddhist monk and statesman. When the monk arrived, Taejo greeted him with open arms and invited him to have dinner and drinks. During dinner, Taejo, for fun, proceeded to roast him by saying, “My old friend, when I see you, I see a dog in heat, foaming at the mouth when he sees a beautiful young lady, ha ha ha!” Unflustered, the monk replied back, “My lord, when I see you, I see Buddha…”
When I first heard this, I didn’t really know what the monk meant. My dad later explained to me that the abdicated king saw others with a lustful, selfish, and destructive perspective because that was who he was. The monk, though knowledgeable and wise about worldly affairs, was able to see the good in others because that was who he was. I do not think that that was the way he was born. I believe that he made a conscious choice, which probably required tremendous effort and discipline. This story is slowly making me better understand the concept of turning the other cheek.
Last week, I was visiting a family in Sleepy Hollow. I was impressed by their beautiful home but I was more impressed by their inner beauty. They had two daughters who greeted me at the door so politely and with such reverence that it made me think that I had gone back in time. By humbling themselves and showing me such respect, they embodied what the Buddhist monk was talking about.
Earlier this year, I asked one of my respected students what makes America special. What makes us an example for others to follow. He told me that he would think about it and get back to me.
A few weeks later, he said that in America, someone from any background feels that he or she has a fighting chance to succeed, almost as if it is a birthright that anyone who is willing to put in the effort, receive a fair chance to move up in the social ladder. I tend to agree. It is the reason why almost everyone around the world knows the term “The American Dream”.
To me, the American dream is not about reaching success (in terms of money, fame, and social status), it’s about the pursuit of happiness. To me, it’s about the working hard and never giving up, working honestly, sacrificing for others, having hope when things seem hopeless, and showing respect to others who share your journey. I would like to believe that my parents, who did not succeed according to worldly standards, truly embody what the American Dream is all about.
To make America “great”, we need to make America great for all. This Masters community, like that family in Sleep Hollow, has made it easier for me to see the good in people. I believe that part of our collective American dream should be to help carry out Mr. Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As we continue with our MLK celebrations, I hope you enjoy the performances and please remember how impactful each of your actions is to those around you. Thank you.