Illustrating the complex nature of transnational identity, “Layers of US,” a documentary film from 1999 by Miriam Kim, explores attitudes toward Korean-ness among Brazilian Koreans who had then recently immigrated to the United States.
Koreans moved to Brazil starting in 1962 as a result of the South Korean government passing of an Overseas Emigration Law encouraging emigration as a means of alleviating unemployment and controlling population during the post-war period. In December of that year, the Ministry of Public Health and Social Affairs set up an emigration section that encouraged seventeen families or 92 individuals to move to Brazil.1 Many of these Korean emigrants developed businesses in the garment industry and some later moved to Los Angeles, attracted by the possibility of improved economic opportunities in its garment industry as well as by the growing community of Koreans residing in the city.
At the beginning of the film, when asked what country they most identified with, each person answers, “I’m Brazilian.” When asked whether they are Korean as well, one interviewee responds that his only identification with Korea was through his parents but that ultimately, he felt Brazilian. The majority of subjects interviewed had moved to Los Angeles with their families to take advantage of improved economic possibilities in the garment industry. One interviewee observes that among the Korean-owned garment businesses in downtown L.A., 40% were owned by Koreans from Brazil.
The most telling part of the film reveals how some interviewees felt they had become “more Korean” after moving to Los Angeles because of their exposure to a much larger Korean community and culture than they had experienced in Brazil. Yet, even within this community there are social divisions among non-Koreans, Korean natives, Korean Americans, and Brazilian Koreans. As one person states, “each group hangs out with its own clique.” The film shows that the cultural identity of Koreans in Los Angeles is by no means homogenous and that affiliations to nation are often multi-layered, and resistant to any reductive categorization.
© courtesy of Miriam Kim.
Ivan Light and Edna Bonacich, Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Koreans in Los Angeles 1965-1982, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1988), 103. ↩