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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .

Doing What Had To Be Done: The Life Narrative of Dora Yum Kim
Soo-Young Chin

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999
xi + 229pp. Index. Photos. Hb.: $65.50; ISBN 1-5663-9693-X. Pb.: $21.95; ISBN 1-5663-9694-8.

This biography depicts the long, active life of Dora Yum, born in 1921 in California to Korean immigrant parents. The story continues to the mid-1990s, by which time Dora been designated a "Living Treasure" for her lifetime achievements. Her biographer is an anthropologist at the University of Southern California. The work contributes to the interesting discussion on differences between European and Asian conceptions of autobiography: that the Western autobiography implicitly promotes the subject as a dynamic, individualized, almost independent entity; by contrast, many non-Western cultures place much more emphasis on a sense of self or identity diffused through a community.

Dora's life embodies changes that have taken place in Asian communities in the USA since the 1920s. A virtual apartheid system operated until the 1940s: "I grew up with discrimination. Discimination affected every aspect of my life?I never thought of Chinatown as a ghetto. We just couldn't live anywhere else" (p. 17). The Second World War brought changes, mainly because of the increased demand for military and industrial personnel. Also, new legislative reforms reflected the antipathy to Nazism and began to erode white supremacy: soon after the war, Asians moved into higher education, professional employment, and wealthier neighbourhoods.

The success of earlier immigrants paved the way for a large influx in the 1970s: it is estimated that in the San Francisco area alone, the number of Koreans jumped from about 100 in 1965, to perhaps 100,000 by the mid-1990s. In Los Angeles and New York, the growth was even more spectacular. It was with these new arrivals that significant tensions arose, particularly with the Black communities.

Dora has a number of observations to make about the Korean-Black animosity which led to violence in recent years. While believing that many Blacks were envious of Asian success, Dora also criticizes her own community. She sees most Koreans as clannish, narrow-minded, and deeply involved in factional squabbling; inevitably they feel little solidarity with other sectors of the community. Proximity and contact have increased, for example because of the numerous small Korean businesses in Black districts; but mutual antipathy seems to increase rather than decline (p. 133). However, apart from this major problem, Dora's story illustrates the remarkable achievements of the Asian community in the USA.

Dr Alan Hunter
Centre for the Study of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

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