Expression through art
Korean-American student shares journey to self-discovery
Photo by Dan Addison
By Jane Ford
Extreme close ups of Asian-American facial features slowly move in and out of frame. Two side-by-side images of young women then fill the screen and a voice repeats over and over the words: I am American. I am Korean. I don’t want to be American. I don’t want to be Korean. The voices begin to overlap until the film’s final statement stands alone: I am a Korean-America.
The two-minute film “I Am” portrays Burim Jung’s conflicted feelings and the identity issues with which she has grappled since coming to the United States in 1995.
That theme has permeated her digital and film work, which also includes “My Mother,” “Roots” and “My Fantasy.”
Jung mastered the academics in America well. A double major in studio art and drama, she has a 3.61 GPA, has been on the dean’s list four semesters and is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. For her, the difficulties came with awareness of her identity and how she fit in — both in America and in her native culture. She is neither a first generation immigrant, who comes with his or her family, nor a second generation, who is born here. Instead, Jung is referred to as a “1.5,” a common term in the Asian-American community to describe one who comes alone to America at a young age, Jung said.
When Jung immigrated to America 10 years ago, she left her mother behind to stay with her uncle and grandfather in Florida, where she attended school as a seventh-grader. Her vocabulary consisted of only the words: “Hi. How are you?” Her proficiency grew rapidly with the help of an after-school tutor and by hanging out with the receptionist at her uncle’s Florida hotel. From eighth through 12th grades, she attended boarding school in Maryland. The student body there was small and diverse and the atmosphere very protective, Jung said. It was a community in which she thrived.
As a first-year student at U.Va., she felt overwhelmed by the school’s size and began to question how she fit in. “U.Va. is reality. It is the real world,” Jung said
Her journey of self-discovery and questioning of her place in the real world began when her resident adviser recommended she take Claire Kaplan’s course on Gender, Violence and Society. “It opened my eyes,” said Jung, who learned, among other things, that one in four women have the chance of experiencing assault by the time they graduate from college.
That experience — coupled with classes in Asian-American culture where she learned about the Japanese invasion of Korea and the Korean “comfort women” that the Japanese soldiers shipped to Japan and repeatedly raped — heightened Jung’s interest in her Korean heritage. She said she came to a startling realization: “These are my mothers. These are my ancestors.”
Two of her projects, “My Mother,” a mixed media work, and “Roots,” produced with a digital video camera, were the results of her research of these events and similar ones throughout Korea’s history of repeated invasions.
“My Mother” combines historical still photographs intercut with Jung, wearing a hanbok, a traditional Korean garment worn today for special celebrations and weddings. In the work, Jung dances while singing a women’s folk song traditionally sung as they worked in the fields or the ocean. The singing was “a comfort for them and a remembrance of the sacrifices they made for their country,” Jung said. “Generation after generation had these songs.”
In “Roots,” Jung splits the screen into four segments that show images that are abstract illustrations of past rapes of Korean women and represent a cleansing of these injustices.
Jung manipulates familiar film footage in “My Fantasy,” to shatter the stereotype that the Asian woman exists to serve the man. She intercuts clips from “Madame Butterfly” and “South Pacific” to depict the subservient Asian woman as a symbol of the common stereotype and provoke the viewer to consider whether it is an issue for them.
“Differences in cultures make people have these fantasies,” Jung said.
Jung’s struggles with her own perceptions of cultural stereotypes has changed her and helped define her identity, she said. “I look at everybody not by race but by human beings. It’s being who you are that is important.”
She praises her art classes for helping to shape her views. “There’s something about art that asks you to look differently, see differently.
It encourages you to be open-minded, to explore, and to experiment and look beyond for other meanings.”
Jung concluded the spring 2005 semester with her senior art show “F.O.B. at U.Va.” The installation piece portrays an Asian-American student’s experience at U.Va. F.O.B. stands for ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ and the student is stereotyped as an immigrant to the United States. The abstract 16mm piece does not have a film’s traditional beginning and end. And it is not representative of Jung’s background at all, she said, though she has an accent and is often stereotyped as F.O.B., even among her Korean-American friends and in the Asian-American community.
Today, Jung navigates easily among the diverse friends she has made at U.Va.
“In America there is the most diverse culture. It’s not a one-race society. It’s like living in one place and 20 different countries at the same time,” Jung said.
After graduation she hopes to spend two years teaching students at the high-school level “how to see the world differently,” After that Jung intends to continue her art studies in Europe where she can experience another culture, and where she says she will continue to ask the same questions: “Where am I? Who am I?”