The first memory I have of the name Dr. Philip Jaisohn was as a teenager. I walked into a slightly run-down waiting room and sat, looking curiously about me. It had been awhile since I was in any sort of medical clinic in the U.S., having lived in Seoul for three years now.
“Ah, the waiting rooms still have magazines,” I thought.
I asked my grandmother how she was feeling. “괜찮지 [I’m fine],” she replied, next to me.
Soon she was welcomed by a nurse who addressed her by name, and I saw my grandmother’s dentures flash as she realized she could understand everything the young health professional was saying. This an anomaly for a woman who immigrated to a country where she still didn’t speak the language and had managed to survive as head matriarch of a transplanted and scattered family.
A short time later we left, and I asked my mother, “How is there a Korean hospital in the middle of Philadelphia?”
She answered, “This is the 서재필 (Dr. Philip Jaisohn) Memorial Foundation.”
This week I was honored to emcee the Korean American Lawyers Association of Greater New York (KALAGNY)’s 28th Anniversary Gala Dinner. The theme: The Korean American Experience: 150 Years in the Making, as it recognized what would’ve been the 150th birthday of Dr. Philip Jaisohn, believed to be one of the first Koreans to immigrate to the United States in the 19th century. He was the first Korean to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen, the first Korean to graduate from medical school, went onto marry an American woman, and then later returned to his native soil to demand democracy for the people.
His accomplishments are far-reaching, but knowledge of them is not. At the New York event, one of the evening’s honorees asked the room of 300+ attendees who had heard of Dr. Jaisohn prior to that night. Barely a few dozen raised their hands.
In a conversation with the honoree afterward, he lamented the ignorance, including his own. “Honestly, I didn’t even know of him until I started researching him for my speech,” Young Lee admitted. “Yet how many others still don’t know of this great man?”
Thankfully, there seems to be progress. I was privileged enough to attend a university (go Quakers!) where Korean history classes were an option, leading to my Asian Studies minor.
At UC Riverside, a center devoted to Korean American Studies opened its doors just four years ago. It is named in honor of the only Korean American officer in a mostly Japanese-American Army unit during World War II: Col. Young Oak Kim. Be sure to learn more about him, as my dear friend’s father is the one who researched and brought awareness to this great Asian American advocate’s accomplishments.
Clearly, this is only the beginning.
I’m getting ahead of myself, but these are the conversations I hope to keep having in the next few months. I look forward to these triggers, catalysts, sticking points where I’m forced to stop and self-ask,” Is this where my heart wants to venture forward?”
More thoughts and questions to come. Let’s chat.