Rep. Kim’s English lessons
By Jason Lim
With all the hoopla surrounding the emergence of second-generation Korean- American leaders in diverse fields spanning politics, entertainment, social activism, finance, business and more, it’s easy to overlook that former Congressman Jay Kim, an unassuming Korean man in his 70s, had already achieved something more than 10 years ago entitling him the most historically significant Korean American around.
Kim's story is well-known. He was the first Asian-American, not just Korean- American, to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican. In fact, his election was historically significant enough that he received a standing ovation from his fellow representatives when he stepped foot into the chambers for the first time.
Kim’s achievement becomes even more impressive when you consider that only one out of the eight Korean Americans who ran for public office along the East Coast won in 2009, with none of them even running for national office. Many high-profile candidates, including Sam Yoon, the Harvard-educated boy-wonder of Boston politics who ran for mayor against the entrenched establishment, failed to break through with an election victory. The only bright spot was Mark Keam, who was elected as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, representing the 35th District.
Kim’s achievement becomes stunningly more impressive when you consider that Kim did this in 1992, serving for three terms till 1998. And his election victories were landslides, with Kim garnering over 60 percent of the vote each time. Kim wasn’t a flash in the pan, but an integral part of the mainstream political landscape during the time he was the representative of the 41st district. Contrast this to Jun Choi, the celebrated incumbent mayor of Edison, New Jersey, who lost in his attempt to be reelected, showing how difficult it still is for Asian-American candidates to gain a lasting foothold in the American political landscape.
Ultimately, Kim’s achievement becomes almost supernatural when you actually speak with him and realize right away that his English, while serviceable, is by no means native fluent. He is unabashedly first-generation Korean-American with a first-generation Korean-American accent. From the first sentence that he utters, he would be marked as a ``foreigner” by any mainstream American, a fact that Kim himself freely and, almost with relish, admits. As Kim recalls with a smile, how he began his political career by going to every house in his town and knocking on doors. ``Some would laugh at my accent and slam the door at my face,” he recalls. ``Others would hear how I sounded and just say incredulously, ‘You?’ and then slam the door on my face.”
Then how did he do it? How did he convince the voters to overwhelmingly elect a first-generation Korean American with less-than-native English fluency to represent their interests in the U.S. Congress for three straight terms? Also consider that this was an era before the popularization of the Internet, let alone Facebook, Twitter, and other Web 2.0 social media tools that can help lesser-known candidates get their message out through written words, rather than face-to-face interactions requiring spoken English.
``Easy,” he says, ``It’s just a matter of having a simple message that people can relate to and delivering it with sincerity and authenticity.” As an example, he points to President Obama’s successful ``Change” slogan that he used in 2008. ``That was effective because it was so simple. People might not have known what types of changes they wanted, but they knew that they wanted something other than the status quo. And Obama tapped into the sentiment brilliantly with a simple one-word slogan that summed up his candidacy.”
But it’s more than just the message. The delivery must be believable. ``Any parrot can say the word,” Kim says, ``but you have to become the message that you want to deliver. That takes sincerity and authenticity.” According to Kim, Obama’s ``Change” message became all the more credible because Obama embodied change in his person; from the color of his skin to his background, Obama became the message.
Similarly, Kim recalls his campaign message being effective because it came straight out of his experience as an immigrant who achieved the American Dream. ``I ran as the CEO candidate because I had built up a successful engineering firm from the ground up,” he recalls. ``When I spoke about hard work always paying off in America, I was speaking from personal experience, not mouthing off platitudes to appeal to some abstract sense of patriotism. I was the person that I was speaking about. There is no stronger authenticity than that. I didn’t have to have my words roll off my mouth fluently and with perfect pronunciation for voters to appreciate who I was and where I stood.”
Speaking with Congressman Kim brings up a central question for English learners in Korea. Do you want to be a fluent English speaker or an effective English communicator? For some, this is a false choice because it’s possible to be both. But for others, for whom English is not their native tongue but a functional language for business, academia and diplomacy, being an effective and persuasive communicator is far more preferable than being able to say, ``What’s up!” with fluency and aplomb. Ultimately, you realize that Congressman Kim’s English lessons are, in essence, leadership lessons, and should give pause to all English learners to reexamine the fundamental reasons why they are investing so much time and effort in studying the language.
Jason Lim is a non-resident fellow at The Peace Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank researching policy options for peace on the Korean Peninsula. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Facebook.