Why is the Korean Church So Important to the Korean-American Community? (I Made a Podcast!)

1.23.2020


"When you come to a strange place, you need someone to help you. You need someone to talk to you and share your meals and your life and your job. So we need as a person, we need community, we need somebody other than yourself. That’s natural. We need each other."  - Barbara Park

During my first semester of college, I took a freshman seminar called American Soundscapes. In this class, we explored a variety of music in the United States and the diaspora and communities behind them. From traditional Irish music in Boston to North Indian classical dance in San Francisco and Arab music in Detroit, our case studies ventured to unexpected and vibrant nodes of culture.

In the seminar, my peers and I had the opportunity to engage with our studies outside the classroom.  I had the opportunity to attend my first Native American powwow, meet Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum, and serve as a tour guide for student refugees during a visit to my college campus. Our final project continued this engagement: rather than write a paper or study for an exam, we were challenged to research an American community and create a podcast that delved into the role of music in that community.



Pretty early on, I knew that I wanted to do something with the Korean-American community. My mother is a Korean immigrant to the United States, but it was only recently, in high school, that I became more comfortable with my Korean identity. Today, I am so proud to be Korean-American. But in middle school, I felt embarrassed to bring "different" foods for lunch and look "different" from my majority-white peers. I tried to distance myself from being Asian and did not learn the Korean language-- one of my greatest regrets today. It was not until my junior year of high school, after I had consumed some media featuring Asian-Americans, like Jenny Han's To All the Boys I've Loved Before, and researched Asian-American stereotypes and political activity for an English project, that I questioned why my identity had made me feel so "other". As I have become older, I have developed a greater appreciation for my mom’s culture and language. I described my growth in my discussion of the importance of films like Crazy Rich Asians for young Asian-Americans.

My reflection on my identity as a Korean-American brought me to the Korean church. Although I did not grow up in a religious household, I'd attended a handful of Korean church services. My mom sought to connect with other members of the Korean community after our family relocated to new places. I learned that we were not alone: approximately 70% of Korean-Americans attend church regularly, according to Okon Hwang's "Korean Music" in the Garland Encylopedia of Music. For my research, I settled on the question, "Why has the Korean church become so central to the Korean-American community, both to the religious and nonreligious?" Through working on my podcast, I hoped to better understand the role of music in preserving the Korean culture and language while embracing aspects of my heritage that I once overlooked.

You don't have to look far to find a Korean church. Queens, New York City alone hosts over two hundred Korean churches, and I was delighted to bring my project to one local to my home away from college, in Central Pennsylvania: the Harrisburg Korean Presbyterian Church (해리스버그 한인 장로교회). In October, I interviewed pastor In-Ho Kang, choral director Young-Shin, and 80-year-old churchgoer Barbara Park to get their perspectives on the significance of the Korean church and its music to the Korean-American community in Central PA.
In mid-November, based on my preliminary research and interviews, I created a proposal for my podcast. I edited my podcast in the hectic finals season of December, pouring over audio clips between practice problems for my economics class and tired, sugar-fueled rants to my friends.

 I presented my podcast to my class before I headed home for winter break, but now I am happy to share my podcast with you. I hope you'll give it a listen, and join me in celebrating the Korean church community and its ability to endure and support. :)


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4 comments :

  1. I am so glad you ended up taking such an enriching course your first semester. There are some amazing classes at W&M. I am not personally religious, but I can relate to trying to find a group of people to whom you relate to and feel a sense of belonging with. Getting in touch with your culture is an amazing goal. I can't wait to listen to the podcast, thanks for linking it!

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    1. Thanks Erin! I am not religious either, but I think that's part of the reason why I found this topic so compelling. I was amazed to see how the church has become such an integral part of the Korean-American community, both to devout believers but also those seeking a sense of community in somewhere unfamiliar.

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