An ancient Korean legend tells the tale about two long-separated lovers united across a bridge, built of stones called nodutdol. Both an entryway and an overpass, the bridge symbolizes yearning in separation and joy in unification. Nodutdol, explains Seung Hye Suh, was an obvious choice for the name of the group she cofounded to bridge divides within the Korean immigrant community, between Koreans and other immigrants, and even between the two Korean nations.
It’s not incidental that Suh, raised in California by Korean-born parents, came into awareness about their homeland and the power of protest at the same time. “People who were older than me, but not that much older, were burning themselves to death in political protest,” Suh remembers of the demonstrations against Korea’s military rulers. “It had a huge impact on me because I had no knowledge of Korean history or politics. It got me really interested in what was going on.”
Today, Nodutdol, based in Flushing, offers English and Korean language classes, a youth group, and events like film festivals to promote cultural and political awareness among Korean Americans. But with members boasting professional skills as well as activist experience in groups like the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, Nodutdol aims to build much more: local institutions that, in Suh’s words, “can help transform the Korean community in the long term.”
So a proposed clinic will care for the uninsured, using both Eastern and Western medicine. A charter school is in the planning stages–bilingual, so children won’t forget Korean the way Suh did before deciding to learn it all over again.
The relationship between language and identity is important to Suh, who commutes weekly to Duke University to teach Asian American literature. But while she’s considering a teaching job in Los Angeles for next fall, Suh feels a deep grounding in Nodutdol and its quest to combine issue-based activism with essential neighborhood resources. “We feel like this is a community that we’re making a permanent commitment to, regardless of where we live,” says Suh. “It’s where your heart is and it’s where your commitment is.”
There’s more to it, she notes, than making sure people are schooled and healthy. “In America, we have all of these pressures on us to succeed as individuals, but there’s also this whole other dimension to our lives which is about collective, about building community,” says Suh. “I find that many, if not all, people have what one of our members calls ‘a longing for collective life.'”