Seeking One’s Place in America
Chaplain (Maj.) Daniel OhPhoto by Jorge Gomez

When Chaplain (Maj.) Daniel Oh first heard about the Virginia Tech shootings he was disturbed. Then he felt shame to learn that the gunman was Korean.

“I think it’s because Korean culture is collective,” said the Army Logistics Management College chaplain. “When one person spoils water, we all hurt, we all feel ashamed.”

Unlike American individualism where one is able to disassociate oneself from others, Koreans collectively feel guilt as if a member of their own family disgraced them, Oh said.

He attributes this strong sense of group cohesion to the Confucian virtue of placing the community before the individual.

From an early age, most Koreans are taught to live up to their family’s values.

That may also be true for some American families, but Oh emphasized that for Koreans, the concept of family goes beyond blood ties to include all Korean people as a nation.

The U.S. Army as an organization also adheres to similar values, and Oh commends the Army for placing others before one’s self.

“When we hear about Soldiers who do shameful things, we all feel embarrassed about it,” Oh said. “There’s a sense of belonging to a community.”

The Army community comprises members with various cultural backgrounds, and Oh said he has come a long way in embracing this reality. When he came to the United States from Korea at age 18, he said he wasn’t prepared for its diversity.

“In Korea everybody is Korean, you don’t see any other people from other countries, but in the United States, especially in San Jose (Calif.), I was shocked to find that there were not only whites, but blacks, Hispanics, Arabs and others,” Oh said.

“There were all kinds of people living together, and I was amazed. I thought, if that’s the case, then maybe I can be a part of this diverse culture.”

It wasn’t easy, and Oh said he went through an identity crisis. He became a U.S. citizen in 1985 and began to feel American. But other Americans saw him as Korean, and Koreans in Korea saw him as American.

“Koreans thought it was really odd for a Korean man to be wearing a U.S. Army uniform,” he said. “For them I was part of America, but from the American side, I was obviously Korean, so then I asked myself, ‘Who am I? Am I Korean? Or am I American?’”

Oh eventually concluded that he was a Korean American. By reflecting on the wisdom of the United States motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” which means, “out of many, one,” Oh recognized his role in a nation of immigrants.

The talents and gifts he possesses now as chaplain have been shaped by his life, not as a Korean, nor as an American, but as a Korean American, he said.

“I bring this unique background into American culture,” he said.

At the same time, Oh said he feels especially American because he serves in the Army. If he were just a civilian minister, Oh said he would probably pastor a Korean American church, “but in this (Army) environment, I deal with all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, so I feel more American because I’m serving diverse Americans.”

In fact, Oh said one of the reason he became an Army chaplain is because he wanted to serve others and not be limited to a Korean American community.

His decision to spiritually minister others only came after a lengthy struggle to overcome the fear of speaking English.

As an undergraduate, Oh hid himself in the world of engineering where calculations were more important than speaking English.

“For the first 10 years that I was in the United States, I was scared to speak English in public,” Oh said.

“I was afraid of making mistakes or speaking with an accent. But I finally realized, ‘So what? Southerners have their own accents, northerners have their own accent, I’m Korean and I speak with a Korean accent.”

If he were not afraid of speaking English, he said he may have entered the ministry much sooner in life. Now he accepts the fact that he speaks with an accent and isn’t afraid to preach in English.

In spite of his accent, Oh sees himself as “Americanized,” because to him, that means belonging to a nation colored with diversity.

Note: “Pathways” highlights the paths Soldiers take as they steer through American culture in the U.S. Army.