Powers, K.Q. (1996). Korean culture. S. Hamilton, MA: Center for Youth Studies.
Korean culture influences Koreans living in America today. This broad overview of Korean American statistics and trends will provide the youth worker keen insight into serving Korean American youth. It is important to remember that this overview does not depict all Koreans or Korean Americans. It should be understood as a generalization based on history and noted trends. It is also important to remember that the longer a Korean family has been in America, the less likely they are to follow predictable Korean patterns of behavior and the more likely they are to have meshed American practices and values into their lives.
There are over one million Korean Americans in America. Approximately 90% are foreign born. This group accounts for 13% of Asian Americans.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Koreans immigrated to the U.S. to seek political asylum and work the Hawaiian sugar plantations. A few Koreans immigrated between 1910-18, escaping Japanese oppression. During the mid 1920s, most Asians were prohibited from entering America. At this time, Korea suffered Japanese occupation, division into North and South, and the Korean War. By the 1950s, however, many Koreans began immigrating to the U.S. From 1965-1970 nearly 25,000 Koreans entered America. This new immigrant population, predominantly settling in California, consisted mostly of highly educated professionals between the ages of 20 and 45. Approximately 30,000 South Korean immigrants arrive in the U.S. annually. New York City, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Chicago all have growing numbers of Koreans.
Korean American communities, generally found within large metropolitan cities, are quite insular. The spoken Korean language, one of the few Asian languages not linguistically related to those used in East Asian countries, restricts Korean Americans into isolationist patterns. Being tightly knit, they rely heavily on word-of-mouth and peer group recommendations. It is common for Korean-Americans to fully occupy an apartment and use the same consumer brand products (i.e., all might use the same brand of detergent).
The Korean language is hierarchical and patriarchal. There are four levels of speech, and the level one speaks generally correlates with the level that person occupies in the Korean society. As previously mentioned, the spoken language is not linguistically related to the others spoken in East Asian countries.
Confucianism is a major influence on Korean culture. This philosophy encourages the group over the individual, respect for authority (especially parents and teachers), hard work, discipline, delayed gratification, harmony in all things, and long-term reciprocal relationships. Confucianism is followed by the elite in Korean society.
Another great influence in Korean religion is Shamanism. Predominantly practiced by lower-class Koreans, it offers primitive rituals to bring fortune and rid misfortune through contact with spirits. All can become either good or bad spirits after death. Shamanism also encourages ancestor worship and animism. The oldest religion in Korea, it has influenced the faiths that have since spread to Korea (in chronological order, Buddhism, Confucianism, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism). Due to its influence, it is common for Koreans to participate one type of religious activity at church and Shamanist activities at home. Buddhism is currently the major religion in Korea.
The first Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries arrived in Korea over 100 years ago. Protestantism is a minority Korean religion. However, the number of Protestant churches reaching Koreans in the U.S. proliferated during the 1970s, as large numbers of Koreans arrived in America. Koreans are now one of the fastest-growing U.S. Protestant groups, with over 4000 churches nationwide. Korean Protestants are highly evangelical, but they also help new immigrants meet other Koreans. Cultural attraction to the church is very strong, and many Korean Buddhists convert when they immigrate. Korean Protestants are generally business owners or professionals, creating an upscale Korean Christian population. This group fervently respects Christian holidays and celebrations.
Koreans, influenced by Confucianism, maintain a strong work ethic. They average a 55-hour work week, and boast the highest self-employment of any Asian immigrant group. Koreans in America maintain the highest business ownership rate of any ethnic or racial group, including whites (90 Korean businesses owned per 1000 Koreans versus 65 per 1000 in the general population). Because of their long working hours, they are a very tired group of people. This is also a factor in their isolationism. They often suffer from occupational stress that, in turn, affects their family relationships. Those working with youth should know that Koreans are eager to find ways to save time.
Probably because they are so driven, they appear colder, more direct, and more individualistic than most other Asians. They are much more willing to say “no” than other Asian Americans.
Loyalty is highly valued in the Korean family. It is common for Koreans to provide financial support, employees, and unpaid laborers for their family. Respect for elders, education, and frugality are all important. The culture is paternalistic, as is illustrated by a Korean proverb, “A woman is like a dry fish-both are hardened, and only by hitting on a rock can they be softened.” There is high domestic violence within the Korean household.
Many refuse to integrate into the mainstream. Their values and ways of life that help them to succeed also isolate them from the mainstream and other ethnics. This insularity, compacted with a lack of English fluency, occasionally results in cultural clashes, often within the communities that the Korean Americans serve.
Koreans are visible to the outside cultures by their unique language (Han’gul) and foods.
Personal relationships dominate everything. The family, peer group, and work unit are often the same. Because of work demands, Korean Americans are frustrated by the lack of time available to spend with their children.
Most Koreans are highly educated, yet speak little or no English upon U.S. arrival. They feel very strongly about maintaining their cultural traditions and values. They resist the idea of American assimilation; many see their stay in the U.S. as only temporary. As many Koreans in America are first generation, the language barrier and absence of long-standing community seem to slow acculturation. This community reads Korean language newspapers, watches Korean TV programming, eats at Korean-owned restaurants, and shops at Korean-owned stores. Often, the first generation mother does not learn English; this accounts for further slowing of acculturation. They have very little exposure to national consumer brands, and most mainstream organizations have not yet targeted this population. Valuable entry points in the Korean community include ads in Korean media and relationships with merchant associations and Chambers of Commerce.
(Editor’s note: Much of this discussion is based on an October 1994 class presentation of Koreans in America given by Dr. Young Lee Hertig, psychology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.)
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Does this discussion accurately depict Korean American families and youth with whom you interact? How does it conflict with or support your personal experiences?
- How can you better equip yourself to reach young Korean Americans?
- What can American society learn from Korean culture? What can Koreans learn from Americans?
- How can you balance respect for the Korean culture while helping a Korean American teen adapt to the U.S.?
- How can you teach those of other cultures about the Korean culture? How can you teach the Korean family about the American culture?
- How can you help a new Korean American become accepted by American peers?
- It is absolutely essential to understand the culture of a foreign teen-especially one whose family is native to another country.
- One does not have to be of the same culture of another in order to effectively reach him or her. In other words, one does not have to be Korean to help and serve Koreans. It may help initially, but it is not a necessity. True knowledge, understanding, and respect for the Korean culture are key for reaching Koreans.
- Language will often be a barrier in helping new immigrants. Resources in your area will help overcome these hurdles.
Kathryn Q. Powers