Second and Third Generation Korean American Assimilation and Hybrid Identities
We all have a past. We each may choose to be educated about our past, or we may decide not to concern ourselves with it at all. We may feel we are connected to our past, or we may feel no connection at all. With the exception of Native Americans, within the United States we are all immigrants. As time progresses, the ties many of us have to our immigrant past normally fade, and we define ourselves solely as Americans. Although, when it was our grandparents or even our parents who left their country for America, it is more difficult to deny our heritage. Korean immigrants have been coming to the United States, officially, since 1903. Several heavy waves followed, and as Korean tensions grew along the 38th parallel, many more Koreans were willing to leave their homeland for America. After the Immigration Act of 1965, Korean immigrants greatly increased with the new opportunity for family reunification and the ability to receive visas more easily. According to the 2000 United States census, the population of Korean Americans has reached 1,076,872, a substantial increase even from the 1990 census (NAKA). In this paper I will argue that as generations pass and individuals become further removed from their immigration to the United States, they become less connected to their past and become more entrenched in American culture and tradition.
I was able to interview three Korean Americans, all students at Miami University. Thomas, who is a good friend of mine, is a third generation Korean American and encouraged me to explore this subject. I was also able to speak with two of Thomas’s friends. I interviewed Chris, another third generation Korean American, and Andrew, who is a second generation Korean American. I learned about their families, their feelings on preserving Korean culture in America, and how important their Korean heritage was to them. They all had a different story to tell. In Paul Johnson’s book, Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa, he remarks that “. . . a diaspora group remains at least partly separate, distinct or alienated from the mainstream society within the host country. ‘Whoever passes from one (territory) to the other finds himself physically and magico-religiously in a special situation for a certain length of time; he wavers between two worlds,’” (Johnson 3). Thomas, Chris, and Andrew each waver between two worlds. Their Korean heritage is a large part of their diasporic horizon and each of them have decided how important that horizon is, and how often they will look to it. As children, they each had to deal with the fact that they were different. As they grew up knowing they were different, they had to establish their identities. Each of them has accepted American culture in different ways, and each has preserved their Korean culture on different levels. Their identity as a Korean and their identity as an American, are each a part of them.
First, I will explore how each of their differing childhood experiences and family histories have shaped their attitude about their place in America, and their status as a Korean American. Thomas’s family was originally from South Korea, yet prior to the Korean War they moved to North Korea. His paternal grandparents were invited to the United States by other family members, and accepted. His maternal grandfather came to America for his education and eventually brought his entire family back to the United States with him. Chris’s family is from South Korea. His grandparents believed there would be greater opportunities for their children in America due to the fact that in Korea one must show an extreme amount of ability and intelligence to enter college, and many students are not accepted. His grandparents wanted all of their children to have the opportunity to further their education. Andrew, who was actually born prematurely in the Philippines, came to America with his parents in 1991, when he was merely two years old.
In Philippe Bourgois’s book, In Search of Respect, the Puerto Rican immigrants who had been driven to the street culture and the underground economy of selling drugs were further motivated to accept this lifestyle by the fact that they were not accepted during their school days. Bourgois notes that “the complex interfaces of family, school, and peer group are crucial to the construction and enforcement of social marginalization, especially in one’s pre-teenage years (Bourgois 174).” All three of them remember experiencing crude jokes and racist comments in elementary school more than any other time in their life. Now, they each attribute this racism as a lack of education; that these young children did not understand. It was difficult for me to listen to their stories and imagine how they, as young children who also did not understand, would have felt when other children were making comments about their “small eyes, yellow eyes, and flat faces,” as Thomas put it. Most of the jokes concerned their uniquely Korean physical attributes and Asian ethnicity. Andrew remembered that when he attended school in Alabama, which was more diverse, he experienced little racism. Yet, when he moved to Ohio where “there were many more white kids, the teasing began.” Andrew stated, “I remember going home to my dad frustrated; there was a point when I would just cry to him because kids treated me so differently.” In areas where less diversity is present, children in minority groups experience a greater amount of social marginalization. Thomas, Chris, and Andrew each experienced times during elementary school when they were not accepted due to their Korean heritage. Chris and Andrew each agreed that during school they experienced a phase in which they wished they had not been born Korean due to the ridiculing they experienced. They only wished to fit in, but they soon realized that they could not change their heritage. As they grew older, the blatant racism and stereotyping were not as prevalent. Without constantly fearing that they would not be accepted in American society, they could now decide how they would preserve their Korean heritage.
Second, I will show how family influence, particularly parental, has affected their differing levels of connectedness to Korea and how they wish to preserve Korean culture in an American society. One way in which each of these three families celebrates their Korean heritage is through the traditional Korean New Year celebration, Seol. This holiday is the most important of the uniquely Korean holidays, and Sebe is an important part of the holiday (About Korea). Children pay their respects to their parents with a traditional bow, wishing them luck for the coming year. They then usually receive payment from their parents and some words of advice. This was a part of the celebration for all three informants. For Thomas, it was one of the very few Korean traditions his family still practiced besides the occasional Korean meal. However, Andrew’s family has kept other traditions surrounding the holiday as well. They gather with other Koreans in the community, eat a special soup, and play traditional games. They even wear hanbok, brightly colored traditional Korean clothing. This holiday seemed important for each family to uphold their Korean heritage, although especially for Andrew and his family.
Another important aspect of any culture is the language. Many immigrants choose to preserve this part of their heritage. Yet, as generations come and go, it is often lost. Both of Thomas’s parents are professors, and although they know Korean, they chose to speak English to their children at home. Thomas can speak very little Korean, and although Thomas would like to incorporate Korean tradition in his future home he commented that, “It would be nice if my kids understood more about Korea, but I don’t know enough to teach them.” Chris’s parents use Korean in the home and although he often answers them in English, he is able to understand Korean and can speak it fairly well. Chris hopes that his children will have “a well balanced Korean and American culture”. Andrew’s family speaks Korean in the home and he hopes to continue to preserve the language when he has children. Although, he realizes that he can not speak Korean as well as his parents and does not expect his children to speak it as well as he can. Both Chris and Andrew noted that they desired to incorporate Korean ideas of respect and morality into their future families. In the Korean language, terms of respect are always used when addressing your parents or your elders. Andrew stated, “A lot of American kids I see address their parents by their first name, in extreme cases the relationship between parents and kids become too close, and there is no respect. In that sense, I feel parents need to be respected. There are distinct boundaries.” However, Andrew is thankful that his relationship with his parents is less formal than in purely traditional Korean families. He told me that usually in parent and child relationships, especially with fathers; it is “non-deep, vague, and awkward.” Yet, his father was actually an orphan and did not grow up in the traditional Korean style. He believes he was raised more liberally than most Koreans, therefore; he has a closer relationship to his parents and he appreciates that.
Thomas, Chris, and Andrew have all visited Korea and feel different levels of connection to Korea. Thomas has visited Korea once and does not feel a strong connection with the land his grandparents immigrated from. He is not particularly interested in Korean news, and admits that he knows as much about Korea as any other country. Thomas also has no remaining immediate family members living in Korea. He is not concerned as to whether or not he marries a Korean or raises a Korean family. Chris has been to Korea several times in his life, and feels a deeper connection. He will occasionally read the news on Korea, and still has aunts, uncles, and other family members living there. He hopes to find a Korean girl, yet believes that it is not that important if he does not marry a Korean. Although Andrew has only visited Korea once, last winter, he feels a strong connection to Korea and he commented on his trip; “I felt right at home. A lot of the culture and mentality has stuck with me. There were some weird things there too, but I felt at home. I could live there.” For Andrew, finding a Korean girl to spend his life with is very important. Andrew’s mom is not very well spoken in English, and he hopes to find a girl who will be able to converse with her to avoid cultural misunderstandings. He believes he will have many more common interests with a Korean and wants his children to grow up “in a place where their grandparents, aunts, and uncles are content…a wholesome life… getting married is not just for you, it’s for your parents as well.” Andrew also hopes to live in Korea for a couple of years following graduation so that it may become a larger part of him than it is now.
Lastly, I will show how each of the informants has accepted American culture into their own lives and their differing feelings of loyalty to Korea and America. Growing up in the United States, these three also have a large amount of American culture in their lives. Between their home, their heritage, and the country that they live in, they all have created a different hybrid identity. They celebrate all of the traditional American holidays and each feel they are a product of American culture on different levels. Thomas commented, “My family decided to accept American culture almost totally and I feel completely Americanized”. Chris recognized that his tastes are primarily American when it comes to clothing, music, and television. Yet, he believes that the American tastes that he has are still influenced by Korean culture. He enjoys dramas because in Korean movies “there’s always crying.” Andrew incorporates a larger mix of Korean and American tastes into his life. He believes that with the globalization of music he can hear American influence on Korean music as well as Asian influence in American music. He also believes that his American perspective has caused him to view Korean men’s’ fashion as much too metro sexual for his American tastes. With globalization it is easier to incorporate both cultures into one’s life. After expressing the ways in which they had become Americanized, as well as ways in which they still held on to their Korean heritage, they explained to me the strength of their loyalty to each country.
As for Thomas, whose family practices almost solely American traditions, he recognizes that he has accepted American culture in almost every way. He is not connected to Korea through relatives and is not able to speak the language. After growing up and spending his entire life in America, his loyalty and cultural identity are American. “I’m not as Korean culturally as other third generation Koreans. . . I’m pretty much American,” Thomas stated. For third generation Korean Chris, he was not able to decide where his primary loyalties lie. Chris feels a stronger connection to Korea. His family speaks it in the home and he still has close relatives living in South Korea. However, neither Thomas nor Chris can imagine themselves living in Korea after growing up in America. Yet for Andrew, who lived in Korea until he was two, Korean culture is something he loves and feels an extremely strong connection to. He feels much more comfortable with Korean culture, and would enjoy living there. His parents have kept the culture very preserved in the home with the use of the Korean language, Korean meals, and Korean traditions. “In the end, I would lean towards Korean culture, but both are an important part of me,” Andrew said when asked if he felt a stronger connection to American culture or Korean. Andrew is a second generation Korean American and the fact that it was his parents instead of his grandparents who decided to move to the United States seems to have a large effect on the connection he feels to Korea. Andrew stated “Just for a brief time I didn’t like my Korean heritage. But it wasn’t worth being “white-washed”. There are some Asians who are completely American, and it comes with a price . . . America is a melting pot, why throw that away?”
Paul Johnson remarks that “For a diasporic culture to be maintained or transmitted, information like memories, tastes, and habits must move from individual mind to individual mind . . . Individual minds must receive and reproduce the words, habits, and tendencies. . .” (Johnson 4). As information is transferred between generations, cultural distinctions and traditions are often lost. For Chris and Thomas, two generations have gone before them, and Korea is much more distant to them. This has made a difference in how much of American culture they accept, and how assimilated they feel they are. Yet, Andrew was brought to America as a very young child and, understandably, Korean culture is still very much a part of him. He has assimilated into American culture to an extent as well, yet keeps Korea very close. It became clear, and I was able to conclude, that even though only one generation separates them, Andrew feels a stronger connection to his Korean heritage as a result of his family’s more recent immigration to the United States as opposed to the families of Thomas and Chris. As time passes, our pasts seem to become less important. We carry the values that our parents instill in us, but as generations come and go the past always fades. As an immigrant group who has not inhabited the United States for as long as other immigrant groups, or with as large a population, the Korean impact on American culture is not as widely reflected as other groups, such as Germans, Irish, or Italians. Yet as Asian immigration continues, Asian influence will become stronger, and American culture will greater reflect that influence and will develop a better capacity to serve the needs of all of its citizens regardless of their ethnic background. Whether it is dear to us and we accept it or whether it is in the distant past and does not affect our lives today, we all have a different story and a unique past.
"About Korea." Korean Festival: SEOL: Lunar New Year. 1998. 16 Nov 2008 .
Bourgois, Philippe. In Search of Respect. 2nd. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Johnson, Paul. Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa. California: University of California Press, 2007.
"In Observance of Centennial Korean Immigration to the U.S.." National Association of Korean Americans. 2003. 16 Nov 2008 .