January 14, 2022

The Board of County Commissioners on Thursday, Jan. 13, issued a proclamation recognizing Korean American Day in Multnomah County. The proceedings featured testimony from invited guests and a special musical performance to honor and celebrate the heritage and contributions of Korean Americans in the community. 

More than 20,000 Korean Americans live in Oregon, making them among the five largest Asian American and Pacific Islander populations in the state. Many of them live in Multnomah County.

“I am so pleased and excited to have the honor of commemorating Korean American Day here in Multnomah County,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, a Korean American herself, who sponsored the proclamation. “There are thousands of stories of Korean Americans and how they came to be an integral part of our County.” 

(Left to right): Brothers Paul and Tim Lee perform Korean folk songs on their violins

The first group of 102 Korean immigrants arrived in the United States on Jan. 13, 1903. Over the next two years, an additional 7,500 immigrants would follow them. The first group of Koreans arrived in Multnomah County as early as 1949. In addition, many Korean adoptees were placed with families in Oregon in the aftermath of  the Korean War. 

“Thousands of those Korean adoptees are still calling Oregon home,” said Greg Caldwell, the Honorary Consul for the Republic of Korea for Northern Oregon, who was among the invited guests. 

Growing up as a Korean American adoptee in a white-dominant culture, Commissioner Stegmann said she desperately wanted to fit in. Having experienced bullying, taunting and discrimination, she felt pressure to conform. 

Today, Commissioner Stegmann said she is proud to own her story. In her role as a county commissioner, she said she strives to ensure everyone has the opportunity to benefit from the County’s goals of safety, trust and belonging.

“One of the greatest barriers is the sense of belonging,” she said. “Belonging is being accepted for who you are, fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else. Today’s proclamation recognizes that difference, and the importance of being seen and accepted for who we are.”

“As a fellow immigrant, thank you for shining a light on our immigrant communities and our experiences here,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal.

Giving back to the Korean American community

Commissioner Stegmann met Sydney Taggart, the vice president of the Korean Society of Oregon, when Taggart reached out for support to provide COVID-19 vaccines for Korean-American elders. 

Taggart told the Board that she arrived in the United States a few decades ago with the hope of achieving the “American Dream.” When she arrived, she said she was moved by the generosity, kindness and curiosity of Americans. She was motivated to promote that same spirit among the Korean American community.

“This inspired me to encourage the same spirit with my fellow Korean Society members, who we call ‘Koregonians,’” she said. “Just as I try to inspire myself every day, I promote this same spirit with Koregonians.” 

Taggart has been able to give back to the Korean community through her role with the Korean Society of Oregon, which serves about 40,000 Korean American residents in Oregon and Southwest Washington through health, education, legal and social services. As well as cultural events.

In recent years, the Korean Society of Oregon has helped protect their community members from anti-Asian hate crimes. The organization provides educational and entertainment programming to seniors and low-income family members. The nonprofit also aims to support the next generation of Korean American leaders by connecting students with up to $10,000 per year in scholarships. 

“Sydney, thank you so much for being here, for talking about your work, for talking about the history of Koreans and Korean Americans,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said.

Students Paul and Tim Lee celebrate Korean culture through the joy of music

Paul and Tim Lee are students at Aloha High School. Born in Oregon to Korean parents, they described how their Korean-American heritage influenced their upbringing. Today, they imparted lessons learned from their ancestors to navigate being students in the United States.

Paul said his grandfather passed on three Korean characteristics: affection, emotion and joy. 

As a musician, he noted, “you can recognize the Korean joy from their passion for singing and dancing.”

“Having the opportunity to live in America is a true blessing, and I would like to contribute to society in a unique way through my Korean heritage,” Tim added. 

From there, the brothers performed Korean folk songs with their violins. The beauty of their music brought tears to several of the commissioners. 

“I honestly could have sat here and listened to you all day long,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “Brought tears to my eyes.

Chair Deborah Kafoury thanked the group of presenters for sharing the fullness of their identity and experiences.

“Your willingness to share your stories about yourselves and your community gives people the opportunity to learn not just about you, but about the depth and diversity of what it means to be a Korean American today,” Chair Kafoury said. 

Asked if she had any parting words, Commissioner Stegmann encouraged people of all backgrounds to  lift up and honor themselves. 

“My message is no matter where you come from or who you are, be proud of that.”