Koreans and Tigers and Bears
Historian to examine cultural identity, oral narratives and fairy tales
By Katherine Yungmee Kim
Myung Choi is telling a story. A legend, to be exact, on the origin of the Korean people.
“There is this godly figure, Hwanung,” she narrates. “He wanted to come down and rule the human world.” She pauses to shift focus. “Actually, the story is about a tiger and a bear who want to become humans.”
Choi (M.A., East Asian Languages and Culture, ’04) is a first-year doctoral student in history at USC College. Her master’s thesis applied the Russian theory of “narratology” to Korean folk tales and Chinese ghost stories.
“The tiger and the bear have to stay in a cave for three months eating only garlic and mugworts,” she continues. “The tiger, being more masculine, runs out after ten days and loses his opportunity to become human. The bear endures the test, becomes a woman and marries Hwanung. From there, Korean people came forth.”
Choi doesn’t really believe that her ancestors were bears, but she does believe in the power of oral narratives. “The reason I’m interested in folk tales is because I want to look into Korean Americans in the United States and see what helped them create or maintain their cultural identity,” she explains.
Born in Seoul, Korea, Choi came to California when she was 20 years old. Although she wanted to go to high school in the States, she was deemed too old and enrolled in a junior college. Soon, she transferred to Occidental College, where received her B.A. in English and comparative literary studies.
At USC College, Choi’s scholarship has homed in on the Southland region. She is planning to do her Ph.D. dissertation on the Korean community in Los Angeles. More than a quarter million Koreans live in the Southern California-metropolitan area, with over 90,000 in Los Angeles alone.
“Myung plans to study Korean immigrant culture within the larger context of U.S. Western and urban histories,” says professor of history Phil Ethington, Myung’s advisor. “Most students of urban immigrant communities have taken a social history approach, but Myung Choi’s approach is intensely cultural, in a very learned way.
“Her biculturalism,” Ethington adds, “having grown up in Korea and yet having become a U.S. citizen a decade ago, gives her a remarkable ability to explicate the transnational cultural currents.”
Choi explains that there is no other place for her to study than Los Angeles. “L.A. is the best place to study Koreans and Korean Americans,” she explains. “I live here. USC has great resources and is so close to the Korean community. I don’t have to look far for my interviewees or cultural resources.”
As 2004 marks the centennial of Korean American immigration, Choi hopes to trace back to the first Koreans who landed in Hawaii as sugarcane plantation workers at the beginning of the century. Through research and interviews, she hopes to discover what attracted Koreans to Los Angeles in the 1920s and how the Koreatown community grew in the following decades.
“I want to see how these stories and experiences are passed on to the next generation,” she says, lamenting the loss of culture in younger Korean Americans. She adds that she is sad that folk tales and legends are not being passed down.
Through recapturing stories, Choi hopes to give the younger generation some kind of cultural bedrock and to educate others on her community. “I want to do this research to tell people, ‘This is who we are,’” she explains. “That this is our experience as immigrants in the United States.”
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