Jim Kim’s Search for Identity

This one’s for Jodi.

Jim was born in South Korea and grew up in Muscatine, Iowa, in the 1970s. For as long as he could remember, the place had seemed too small for his ambitions. He hardly noticed the Mississippi flowing by the lovely old downtown or the fragrances of grains on summer nights or even the famous local produce, the Muscatine melon….

Jim’s father had schemed and charmed his way out of North Korea and become, proudly, Muscatine’s periodontist, with an office upstairs on Main Street. Jim’s mother had come from South Korea–a grandfather had served as a minister to the last Korean king–and she had studied at Union Theological Seminary with Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and become a Confucian scholar, and ended up for many years a housewife in Muscatine. A small, elegant woman walking across the local golf course when her children were too young to play alone, diligently trying to make sense of American sports so she could understand her children’s milieu. At every opportunity she took Jim and his siblings to Des Moines and Chicago so they’d know the world was larger than it seemed from Muscatine. She taught her three children, by example, the arts of debate around the kitchen table, while her husband, who had early morning appointments, went to bed grumbling that he didn’t know what they had to talk about that was more important than a good night’s sleep. She’d tell them to live ”as if for eternity” and tutor them on current events, translating for Jim the images of famine and war that upset him on the TV news. Early on, Jim imagined himself becoming a doctor to treat such suffering, and excelling in science quickened his interest.

He was quarterback on the Muscatine High football team, a starting guard in basketball, the president of his class and its valedictorian. But the Kims were the only Asian family in town, except for the one that owned the Chinese restaurant. When they went to the malls of Iowa, adults stared and children followed them around, the bolder ones approaching, crying out, “Kiai!” and making as if to deliver karate chops. For Jim, embarrassment at his parents’ Koreanness was the loneliest feeling of all….

He went to the University of Iowa and felt liberated there until he was told that Ivy League schools were better. He transferred to Brown, where he discovered an organization called the Third World Center. He became its director. He broke up with his Irish Catholic girlfriend because he suddenly believed he shouldn’t date white women. He made his friends among black, Hispanic, and Asian students. He learned “the pimp walk.” On parents’ weekend he and his friends would dress up in black and stride around the campus, a phalanx of about thirty African American and Hispanic students, and one Korean, sometimes chanting, sometimes maintaining a threatening silence, and noting with pleasure the double takes and frightened looks on the faces of some of the parents.

Before Brown, Jim hadn’t known that the United States interned Japanese Americans during World War II. He read up on the subject, then lectured about it. He embraced the idea of Asian “racial solidarity.” He didn’t realize back then just how complex a matter this could be. He didn’t find out until much later that, for example, Koreans were supposed to hate the Japanese. From time to time, doubts cropped up. It seemed as if for other Asians at Brown, racial identity meant little more than eating with chopsticks and finding an Asian mate, and the paramount political issue seemed to be the “glass ceiling,” the fact that Asians weren’t yet rising to the very tops of institutions. But the idea of being a member of an oppressed minority was very alluring. Jim decided to learn his native language. “I wanted to learn Korean, be down with my people, be an authorized third world person, so I could say shit.” He got a fellowship to travel to Seoul and happened on an interesting story for his Ph.D. thesis in anthropology–it had to do with the Korean pharmaceutical industry. In Seoul he did his research and made a mighty effort to fit in, hanging out at bars with new Korean friends and performing karaoke–beforehand on each occasion, he’d go to the bathroom and study the words to songs like “My Way.”

He had left Iowa prepared, naturally enough, to think that ethnicity was the central problem of his life. By the time he came back from Korea to Harvard, to continue medical school and write his thesis, he had grown bored and a little disgusted with what was known in academic circles as the politics of racial identity. It seemed like an exercise in selfishness. “I discovered South Korea was doing just fine, and that what Koreans wanted was for me to write grant proposals so they could come to the States and get degrees. I had looked at student movements. They were all about Korean nationalism, just sort of troublemaking.” When he met [Paul] Farmer, he was ready to change directions. At one point during their talks in the old, one-room PIH [Partners in Health] office, Farmer told him, “If you come to Haiti, I’ll show you you’re blan, as white as any white man.” Jim thought of his black, Hispanic, and Asian friends at Brown, and how angry that remark would have made them.

He told Farmer that he felt liberated from “the self-hatred and evasion of ethnicity” he’d felt in Muscatine.

“It’s good to have to come to understandings of that, but you’ve got to put that behind you now,” said Farmer. “So what are you going to do? Be the first Asian to do some stupid thing like walk on the moon?”

They hadn’t talked long before Jim declared that he wanted to make Farmer’s preferential option for the poor his own life’s work.

SOURCE: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder (Random House, 2004), pp. 166-169

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