Critical Link Between Past and Future
Mu Young Lee, Ph.D.
I was a college freshman in 1988 when I found myself in a hub of activity, surrounded by renowned statesmen, scholars and business leaders. It was the US-Korea Trade Relations conference, co-sponsored by East Rock Institute and Yale Law School, and I was there as a new ERI volunteer, fresh out of high school. The subject matter of the proceedings seemed abstruse, but I remember the energy in the room that day, and I was excited to be a part of it.
At the conclusion of the whirlwind event, with all the dignitaries long departed and the meeting rooms cleaned up, Professor Koh gathered up the student volunteers and asked each of us to share what we learned from the event and how we could improve upon future conferences. The surprising thing was that unlike what I had come to expect of Koreans of her generation, she was not engaging us in a pedagogical exercise, but rather, she was genuinely convinced that as volunteers and as young people we would have had uniquely valuable vantage points to offer about the conference. Actually, merely being called back for a lessons-learned session was surprising in itself. I had volunteered for various Korean American organizations while growing up in New York City in the 1970's and 80's, and I knew that such an invitation for feedback was unusual. Prof. Koh even used honorifics when speaking Korean with some of us despite our discomfort and protests; we were 40 years her junior, after all. I came to realize that this was a sign on her part to let us know that she took our opinions seriously.
That same year, she invited one of my friends to give a presentation on his first hand experience with Asian-American gang activity in the New York area. Again, she seemed to break the mold of my expectations of first generation Korean-Americans by inviting open discussion of a difficult subject matter. The forum would be open to non-Koreans, and the topic could cast a negative light on the Asian immigrant community as a whole. We were uncertain that the halls of academia would even be receptive to all of this, but our concerns were unfounded. It wasn’t long before Prof. Koh began suggesting to one or another of my cohorts that we assume greater roles in executing some of East Rock's other planned activities.
Some of the tasks appeared rather too great an undertaking. Prof. Koh must have seen some potential in us that even we did not realize about ourselves. Not that she would be satisfied with shoddy work, mind you. Excellence was always understood to be a given. Part of it, of course, was learning to be inventive and resourceful on a shoe-string budget. Where we fell short she encouraged us to do better. At the end of the year, she invited us back for a reception to say good-bye to the graduating class, and to once again show her appreciation for us college kids.
More than two decades have passed and I’m still an active member of ERI, and still learning things from Prof. Koh. I once thought rituals and tradition were superfluous shackles of a reactionary mind. But what better time to realize that, on this occasion of her 80th birthday, Korean traditions of life-cycle rituals are opportunities to celebrate not just one person’s life, but all of the lives that have been touched by it, including mine. As Professor Koh often says, we are all a “critical link between the past and future,” inseparable from community and family.