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July 2003, Vol. 28 No. 2
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Korean American author Gary Pak

Local and Korean roots nourish UH writer Gary Pak

by Jennifer Crites
Gary Pak’s conversation resonates with Korean words such as heung (joy) and its opposite, han (an agonized and grudging perseverance in the face of oppression). He talks about his we halmeoni (maternal grandmother), a picture bride who immigrated to Hawai‘i in 1905 and worked on a sugar plantation. “Growing up, I understood Korean enough to converse in simple terms with my grandmother,” explains Pak, an assistant professor of English at UH Manoa and former creative writing professor at Kapi‘olani CC, “but I’m a local boy. My first language was pidgin English.”

Still, listening to his grandmother’s stories of her homeland sparked Pak’s interest in his Korean roots. “My grandmother kept telling me I should go to Korea, and I always knew someday I would.” In 2002, Pak received a Fulbright grant to lecture at Korea University in Seoul. "Every day was an education in some aspect of Korean culture,” he says. When he wasn’t teaching American and Korean American literature classes, hanging out with his students or attending the Andong International Mask Dance Festival, Pak explored Seoul on foot, frequently ending up at a bookstore watching movies. “Today’s Korean movies portray everyday life,” he says. "Through them I began to understand Korean responses, attitudes and points of view."

Pak is transforming his detailed daily journal entries from his four months in South Korea into a non-fiction book. “It will document my reactions to changes in my beliefs and in the way I’ve come to perceive the Korean culture as a third-generation Korean American traveling for the first time to the land of my ancestors,” he says. He’s also working on a novel based on his grandmother’s life.

“I love to write," he says, “For me, the process is the important thing—writing words and reconstructing sentences, ideas and images—not publishing." Even so, the UH alum (MA ’90, PhD ’97 Manoa) has published continually since 1992, when he won the Cades Award for his short-story collection, The Watcher of Waipuna. His novel, A Ricepaper Airplane, followed. Based on a real incident related by his mother and aunt, it tells of a sugarcane plantation worker who builds an airplane out of ricepaper, bamboo and bicycle scrap-parts hoping to fly back to Korea, away from his harsh life of forced labor.

Pak also contributed to “Century of the Tiger,” the 2002 Manoa journal issue celebrating 100 years of Korean culture in America, and co-edited Bamboo Ridge’s YOBO: Korean American Writing in Hawai‘i. His short story, “Hae Soon’s Song,” appeared in New Press’ anthology, Crossing Into America: The New Literature of Immigration. And he’s written plays for Honolulu Theatre for Youth and Kumu Kahua.

Pak didn’t go to Korea to become Korean. Nor does he consider himself gyopo, or overseas Korean national, as he was called in Korea. "“I’m Korean American," he says. “My culture is from Hawai‘i; my parents’ and grandparents’ generations helped create that culture. Still, now I’m much more aware and proud of my roots.”

Jennifer Crites (AA ’90 Windward, BA ’92 UHWO) is a Honolulu freelance writer/photographer