Younghill Kang (1899 or 1903?-1972) fled Japanese-occupied Korea in 1921 because he had participated in demonstrations for Korean independence. He came to the United States, via Canada, to study first at Boston University, and then earned a graduate degree from Harvard University.
He taught in New York University’s English Department where he met Thomas Wolfe (author of the classics, Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again) who introduced Kang to his editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons. Thanks to Wolfe, in 1931, Kang published The Grass Roof with Scribner, about a young man’s life before and after the arrival of the occupying Japanese forces in Korea, until his departure for the United States. It was the first-ever Korean American novel and critically well-received.
In 1933, Kang traveled to Europe on a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship and returned two years later. With that support, he was able to write East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee, a fictionalized memoir published in 1937, based on Kang’s own experiences as a newly arrived Korean in the United States.
To put East Goes West into a larger historical context, Kang’s book was written for a mostly white audience, as the Asian American population was very small at the time the book was published. It was also written during a period of growing anti-Asian sentiment, reflected in the ever-more stringent laws against Asian immigration. The first excerpt below acutely reflects this awareness. However, in spite of the hardships an immigrant must face, by book’s end as seen in the latter excerpt, the protagonist comes to realize that, indeed, he has become American.
In addition to his literary career, Kang was also a curator at New York’s famed Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also worked for the U.S. government as an Asian expert.