Difficult Balance Between Identity and Acclimation

Korea America

Korean-Americans: The Difficult Balance Between Identity and Acclimation

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Adjusting to life in a new country is inherently difficult. For those enduring the immigrant experience, there is often a sense of isolation, an experience of cultural otherness and a tendency to congregate in ethnic enclaves that while socially comforting may yet prevent assimilation into a broader sociocultural context. This is particularly so in the United States, which over the last century has been a bastion to immigrant arrivals from throughout the world. Indeed, the United States is often referred to as a ‘melting pot’ society for its ethnic pluralism and the scale on which it has these received arrivals. And yet, the immigrant experience has both historically and presently been difficult and beset by institutional obstacles, even for those groups which have established themselves with firm roots, widespread population distribution and a sustained, positive image in American culture. These characteristics speak directly to the experience of Korean immigrants to America, who though they have been present here in both large numbers and for more than a century, still must face many of the difficult trials that are inherent where ethnic difference, racial distinction and linguistic divergence are concerned. The discussion offered here considers that Korean-Americans are faced with a unique set of challenges in adjusting to life in America. The overarching hypothesis of the research conducted hereafter is that though Korean immigrants have made considerable gains in America owing to their longstanding presence here, many opportunities remain socially, culturally and economically closed off to Koreans due to America’s historical discomfort with ethnic difference.


The United States boasts a reputation of receptiveness to the arrival of immigrant populations which seems directly to contradict the actual treatment which is frequently visited upon said immigrants by policy, social engagement and economic realities. This juxtaposition is particularly useful to our understanding of the Korean experience in America. Even as great promise is extended to the students, professionals and families continuing to arrive here in substantial numbers, these same arrivals must prepare for the inherent complexity of absorbing new cultural cues and experiences. So warns Cresswell (2008), who reports that “some have stated that the most difficult obstacle when trying to adapt to a foreign country is learning the culture. This difficulty also presents one of the best opportunities for learning. This is especially true when comparing two countries whose cultures are very different. Korea and North America are places that are by no means exceptions to this rule.” (Cresswell, 1)

Given the significant differences in practice and custom between these respective societies, individuals arriving here from Korea often find that they must overcome and adjust to fully different ways of relating and interacting. This is true in educational, professional and recreational settings, where differences in ‘power distance’ tendencies between the United States and Korea may make it difficult for nationals from the latter to relate in the context of the former. So indicates the article by Carey (2006), which points out that power-distance is a more significant determinant of the way that individuals relate both personally and professionally in Korea than it is in the United States. Carey points out that research within Korean working environments have demonstrated that “the country’s culture values power distance — hierarchical relationships not conducive to equality or teamwork.” (Carey, 1)

Instead, this orientation denotes an emphasis on status and conformity to behaviors accorded by that status. Signs of respect and humbleness before one’s hierarchical superiors is considered of greater importance for Koreans. The result is an orientation which might cause the immigrant to America some discomfort. The competitive and socially mobile philosophical propensities which underscore American capitalism also tend to differ considerably from the values to which Koreans are raised to hold. This accounts for a significant share of the emotional, psychological and practical rigors that await Korean immigrants as they adjust to the highly socialized demands of life in America. This is rendered that much more complex by the enormity and diversity of America’s cultural palette. Even with respect to its dominant, white, English-speaking populations, America’s geographical scale denotes a complex intermingling of cultural identities. And the wide distribution of Korean immigrants suggests exposure to all of these cultural subsets. Danico (2006) reports that “there are almost a million Korean-Americans living in the United States with 44% residing in the West, 23% in the Northeast, 19% in the South, and 14% in the Midwest.” (Danico, 1)

These numbers demonstrate a presence that has permeated all parts of American culture. However, evidence suggests that for many, the world within America is defined by the borders of an ethnic enclave or community. This is especially true for a generation of Koreans which Hani (2006) refers to as the ‘1.5 generation. Hani reports that “the so-called 1.5 generation of Korean-Americans, or those that emigrated from their birthplace while children, sometimes struggle over their identity because they emigrated to a foreign land in the midst of their formative years. The sudden cultural and language gap only aggravates the situation.” (Hani, 1) According to the Hani article, many young Koreans have attempted to cope with this sense of isolation by gravitating to social circles that are homogenously Korean. This results in fewer opportunities to improve one’s capabilities in the English language, to familiarize one’s self with social customs and to gain access to social circles or organizations. Thus, in a sense, many young Koreans are limiting their own opportunities by conceding to the institutional obstacles that are significant in the United States.

This is a problematic pattern for many Koreans, who endure a continued sense of isolation based on the extensive cultural differences between America and Korea. Nash (2003) describes this experience as a distinct consequence of the difference in power-distance patterns, with many Koreans never truly achieving full comfort with the manner in which individuals in America relate. Nash notes the psychological difficulty for many, noting that because they come “from a traditional society greatly influenced by the Confucian principle of placing elders, family, and community before the individual, Korean immigrants struggle to make sense of the American concept of individual freedom. Since the first immigrants arrived in Hawaii, Korean-Americans have preserved their identity by creating organizations, such as Korean Christian churches and Korean schools. The Korean word han, used to describe an anguished feeling of being far from what you want, accurately conveys the longing that accompanies most Koreans to America. Korean-American organizations provide a sense of community for new immigrants and a way to alleviate this longing.” (Nash, 1)

This tendency is not uncommon. Most ethnic groups who arrive in the United States will tend to gravitate toward those with common ethnic background, religious practice and linguistic tradition. However, it has come with some grave consequences for Korean immigrants. During the first decades of arrival in the United States, largely as hard laborers for sugar cane plantations in Hawaii, Koreans were lumped in with Chinese and Japanese immigrants as a swell of anti-Asian sentiment emerged in the public discourse. Though the passage of a century has seen myriad changes in the way public discourse is conducted over race and ethnicity, it remains the case that Koreans are occasionally the brunt of racially-motivated hostility. In addition to the historical opposition of white supremacy and segregation groups to Asian integration, Koreans have experienced a pointedly uncomfortable relationship with African-Americans as well. According to Chang (1998) “the Korean-African-American relationship involves immigrant-minority-merchants and native-minority-customers, unique conditions and circumstances that must be examined. In the context of economic despair, many African-Americans have perceived Korean-American merchants as “aliens” who have “taken over” their communities and are a threat to their economic survival. Some African-Americans perceive Korean-American merchants as newcomers in a long line of ‘outsiders who have exploited African-Americans.” (Chang, 1) So was the extent of this sentiment revealed in 1992, for instance, when the anger of African-Americans living in the Los Angeles area over the acquittal of police officers charged with the brutal beating of Rodney King bubbled over into the neighborhoods of the inner-city.

Korean business owners were specifically targeted based on the impression that these were representatives of the middle class brazenly exploiting the impoverished. However, Nash points out that “statistics that show the mean income of Korean-American families to be higher than that of the general public are misleading because most Korean-Americans live in large cities where the cost of living is much higher. These stereotypes have led to boycotts of Korean greengrocers in Brooklyn, Chicago, and elsewhere. . . Korean-Americans have come to represent wealth, greed, materialism, and arrogance because they have started businesses in inner-city neighborhoods that have been abandoned by corporations. The people still living in these neighborhoods often use the Korean small businessperson as a scapegoat for their anger against corporate America.” (Nash, 1)

This misplaced hostility highlights the continued racial tension throughout the United States, where countless groups who are in some regard seen by the racial hierarchy as cultural others have come into conflagration with one another. In many ways, this simply underscores the general difficulty of cultural adjustment to life in the United States. But in a more specific way to the Korean culture, this also illuminates the particular difficulty of retaining a valued heritage while finding ways to gain greater cultural comfort in the United States. Kim-Rupnaw (2001) points to this as promoting a tension not just between Koreans and other ethnic groups in the U.S. But of further challenging the cherished unity of Korean communities themselves. For many younger Koreans who recognize the value in adopting some aspects of the western cultural identity, there is a mounting sense of disconnect from those from prior generations who have sought to maintain distinct elements of the Korean culture and its attendant philosophies. Thus, Kim-Rupnaw reports on this disconnect that such is the natural product of the sharply differing value systems of Americans and Koreans. Of the latter, Kim-Rupnaw notes, “they have strong ties to family, and value education, hard work, and ambition to excel. Commonly cited virtues in traditional Korea include filial piety, respect for elders, benevolence, loyalty, trust, cooperation, reciprocity, and humility (Hur & Hur, 1999). These traditional values are often challenged, however, by younger generations influenced by western culture.” (Kim-Rupnaw, 1)

That said, evidence also suggests that the strong family structure and sense of spirituality which permeate Korean-American culture do help to bring compromise, if not harmony, to this mounting generational divide. The research by Kang et al. (2010) points out in a survey of college-age Korean students, “findings suggest the possibility that narration of positive change is a culturally salient process by which many Korean-American emerging adults come to terms with early family challenges.” (Kang et al., 441) This is to suggest that in spite of the cultural differences which are emergent amongst younger Koreans, culturally and ethnically defined communities and customs promote a continued sense of closeness for Korean-Americans as a whole.


This points to both the greatest defense which Koreans have against isolation in the United States and to a pattern that will continue to subject Koreans to a feeling of broader social or cultural exclusion from American culture as a whole. As the research also points out though, ensuing generations of Korean-Americans are finding more and more in common with their western counterparts. Ultimately, it seems likely that several more generations in the United States will erase many of the cultural barriers which make psychological adjustment difficult for so many in the United States. However, for Korean-Americans, close contact with others of their ethnicity is an important way of preserving the unique identity made by the merging of Korean and American experiences.


Carey, W.P. (2006). Take Off Your Shoes and Ask for Slippers: Integrating Corporate Culture in Global Business. Arizona State University.

Chang, E.T. (1998). Toward Understanding Korean and African-American Relations. Organization of American Historians.

Cresswell, J. (2008). Cultural Differences. Ask-ETO Recruiting.

Danico, M. (2006). Korean-American Diaspora: Transcending Cultural Boundaries. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Montreal Convention Center, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Hani. (2006). Koreans who come to U.S. As children face language, cultural barriers. The Hankyoreh.

Kang, H.; Okazaki, S.; Abelmann, N.; Kim-Prieto, C. & Lan, S. (2010). Redeeming Immigrant Parents: How Korean-American Emerging Adults Reinterpret Their Childhood. Journal of Adolescent Research, 25(3), 441-464.

Kim-Rupnaw, W.S. (2001). Asian Culture Brief: Korea. Center for International Rehabilitation Research Information & Exchange, 2(1).

Nash, a. (2003). Korean-Americans. Every Culture.com.

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