Lost in Transnation

Alternative Narrative, National, and Historical Visions of the Korean-American Subject in Select 20th-Century Korean American Novels

by David S. Cho (Author)
©2017 Monographs X, 178 Pages
Series: Asian American Studies, Volume 1


This volume examines the engagement with national histories, citizenship, and the larger transnational contexts in the narrative plot lines in selected twentieth-century Korean American novels. Critics have often expected, or even demanded, that the Korean American novel present the ideal and coherent American citizen-subject in a linear bildungsroman plotline.
Many novels – Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, to name a few – do deal with the idea of an “American identity”, however, they consistently problematize such identification through multiple and conflicting national memories, historic eras, and geopolitical terrains. The novels are typically set in contemporary America, but they often refer either to the regional context and era of Japan’s colonization of Korea (1910–1945) or the Korean War (1950–1953). The novels’ characters are “lost in transnation”, contextualizing the multiple and multiply-interrelated national contexts and time periods that have formed immigrants and Korean Americans in the twentieth century.

Table Of Contents


In the words of the late, inspirational Detroit community activist, Grace Lee Boggs, “you make your path by walking.” Indeed this book has taken quite a few paths to get to its destination.

In that “walking,” there are many people, of course, to thank. First and foremost, many thanks go my parents and brother, my initial family of four. From Seoul to the Chicago area, your journey models much of the content of this book. The same needs to be stated of my larger extended families, the Cho and Yoon clans, particularly the latter who I grew up with in the Chicago area. Without our collective journey together, this book, and so much more, could not have been written.

Many thanks to my dear family of five. Our journeys over the years, from Chicago, to W. Lafayette, to Seattle, back to the Chicago area, with stints in Indiana and Michigan, are indeed testimonies to those “migrations” and “narrations.” You all are the baseline of my life, and this book itself.

There are the various faith communities in the Seattle and Chicago areas. There are too many names to write here. Your presence and influence in our lives run deeply, and are also interwoven in this manuscript.

As an “academic,” there are many learning communities I need to thank as well—faculty, staff, and administrators from W. Lafayette, Chicago, Seattle, West-Central Indiana, to Holland, MI. Here as well, there are so many names and stories to mention, to share your contributions would take many chapters. Thank you all for your friendship and support.

Many thanks to a range of people at Peter Lang who helped with this book. You first contacted me years ago while I was in Japan. From there, like this book, we kept in touch in my travels to China, S. Korea, Chicago, Seattle, LA, San Francisco, Indiana, and W. Michigan. Your time, efforts, and correspondence over the years and nations are literally and figuratively interwoven in this book.

And of course, I am deeply indebted to the Asian American activists, artists, creative writers, scholars, and countless lives this book represents. For Korean America, which this manuscript focuses on, without your ← vii | viii “migrations,” “narrations,” and “histories,” this moment, and future ones, would not be possible. ← viii | 1 →

Chapter One

The Geopolitics of Narration: An Introduction to the Historical, National, and Narrative Patterns in 20th-Century Korean American Novels


Written in the early 20th century, Younghill Kang’s East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee (1937) begins with a self-deprecating remark by the protagonist, Chungpa Han:

To the old-fashioned Oriental, life goes back, step by step to many forefathers, in unbroken chain, and onward into descendants which are somehow his not in any abstract cold philosophical sense, but as the solemn vehicle of his Ghost and his God, his most material ghost which eats with them.…This lifetime, threaded to theirs…can it be the same which now sees New York City?—And I ask myself, did I fall from a different star? (4)

Here, as Han has arrived in New York from Korea, he refers to himself as an “old-fashioned Oriental,” curiously invoking the long-held stereotype for Asians and Asian Americans.1 The opening lines focus on Han’s self-professed Confucian notions of ancestry as opposed to his astonishment at the modernity of New York City. Though these lines express long-held Western notions of modernity, particularly in comparing it with “pre-modern” countries like Korea during this era and his “Oriental” presence, one may wonder whether Kang is stating these notions with a sense of irony. After all, Chungpa Han, a presumed “pre-modern” Korean migrant, has made his way from “a different star,” Korea, all the way to New York City. If these lines are indeed rhetorical, Kang is here alluding to the discursive ← 1 | 2 layers structuring the “modern” or “pre-modern” notions surrounding the Korean migrant during the first decades of the 20th century.

Han’s trek to New York City symbolizes the intricate global, international, and transnational relations of nations like Korea and Japan with the U.S. during this period. As this book details, the relationships between these nations held, and continue to hold, an integral historical shaping of Koreans, particularly their patterns of migration and immigration and domestic reception in the U.S. Kang’s novel then not only fictionally represents a host of Koreans who arrived in the United States in the early 20th century and the assumed patterns of assimilation often perceived of these early sojourners but also a clear delineation and exposition of the domestic and global shapings surrounding those early Korean and Korean Americans, who, as the title of this book indicates, are “Lost in Transnation.” Kang’s work and the other 20th-century Korean American novels that I cite provide, “Alternative Visions” to the popular historically narrated versions of Koreans in the U.S. even within this early full-length novel by a Korean American.

Similarly, Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life (1999), Lee’s second and much-lauded novel, chronicles the life of Doc Hata, the protagonist, a post-WWII, “ethnic” Japanese immigrant to the United States. After a series of flashbacks to his past in the Japanese army that are infused with the days Hata spends planning his retirement in suburban New York, the dark secrets of Hata’s past are slowly and lyrically revealed. As an “ethnic” Korean who passed as a Japanese national during his young adult years, Hata’s life has been a series of racial passings or national “gestures” in order to present his life and his family’s lives along nationally accepted lines, often suppressing critical moments that ran counter to “model minority” self-presentations. Such “gestures” of assimilation in Lee’s novel represent the tenuous line between reading the character’s claim of national identification as a means of survival and social mobility common among Asian immigrants and Asian Americans historically and the textual deconstruction of the larger social structures which have produced these choices in the United States and globally. Thus though the U.S. is Hata’s current home and his “homeland” is Japan, the novel refuses to situate Hata or his family along any specific nation-based lines. Lee’s novel ends with these lines:

Similarly, in her seminal work, Dictee (1995), Theresa Cha presents a complex portrait of the multi-faceted historical, social, and national conditions surrounding the Korean and Korean American woman, shifting from the various moments before and during Korea’s colonial era (1910–1945); to the years of the Korean War (1950–1953); and then to contemporary times. Her book moves through these eras and geopolitical references in a jagged, fragmented, pattern, including her own immigration to the United States. On the last page of her book, she writes in lyrical fashion:


X, 178
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. X, 178 pp.

Biographical notes

David S. Cho (Author)

David S. Cho (Ph.D., University of Washington) is Associate Professor of English and Director of the American Ethnic Studies Program at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.


Title: Lost in Transnation
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190 pages