CultureCulture
Accepting DifferenceA report about first and second generation Koreans in America
Kim Hee-won Assisstant Reporter  |  yazawa@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2005.03.01  00:00:00
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MR. KIM and Mrs. Kim came to America in 1976. Suffering from social inequalities and restrictions in their own country, they decided to leave their home town and move to America, the land of opportunities and freedom. However, the unfamiliar environment, racial discrimination, and the lack of English ability kept pulling them back from joining the society. Giving up on their own future dreams, they started to work hard to earn money for another dream, so gaining wealth in order to make their children a huge success became a new goal of their life. Now, they are the owners of a Korean market and their two children went off to college to study as they have always wanted. However, as their children flew away to live their own lives, they feel helpless more than ever. Although their children became a success, they feel mutual distance between their children and themselves.
This is a story of a typical Korean family in America. Although living in the same house, they seem to have some differences that cause disagreements. Let's take a look into these families and see what we are missing for them.

 

The history of immigration

Koreans had moved over to America from the very beginning of the 20th century. At that time, Korea was under the Japanese rule. Therefore, Koreans, usually males, had to immigrate to America to work for Japanese farms. Coming to the 1950s, when the Korean War occurred, more Koreans went over to America. These immigrants were usually Korean women who married American soldiers or orphans from the war.
When the war was over, which was about the same time the World WarⅡ was over, America legislated a law concerning immigrants. According to the law, only the relatives of those who were already in the States were allowed to go to America. This limitation on immigrants in the law completely disappeared in the 1960s, and this encouraged many Koreans to flood to America. At first, wealthy people who could afford to study in the States were the mainstream. However, as time went by, those who dreamt the "American dream" could also go. As Korean immigrants settled in their new homes, they began to work hard for their new future, the second generation.

The Korean family

The Koreans who went over to America under Japanese rule were primarily called the first

   
generation. However, it is common to say that people who immigrated to America in the 1970s or 80s are the first generation. The second generation are the children of this first generation. They are people who were born in the States and have American citizenship.
Although having different citizenships, the first and second generations have a lot in common since they are families. From the moment the second generation members are born, they encounter the culture of their parents. As a child, they accept the basic spirit of Korea and various Korean cultures such as food and family culture. They eat rice and kimchi just like their parents and learn how to behave in a Korean way. Usually, these childhood experiences form the roots of the second generation. These roots never go away, although they might be invisible sometimes.

Going different directions

As the second generation gets old enough to attend school without their parents and have more contact with the outside world, they become more and more different from their parents. "Frankly, I barely remember my childhood days before I went to school. I am sure there would be a lot of memories with my parents, but what I remember the most is going to school to meet my friends and playing with them." says Lydia Kim (an alias).
Although parents and the child had spent a lot of time together before the child went to school, the memories that take charge of the child's mind are events that occurred while he/she was at school. "While the second generation is busy going out with their friends and doing various social activities such as rendering public services, the first generation is busy working all weekday long." says Prof.

   
Sussette Min, UC (University of California) Davis. Even on weekends the teenage second generation members seldom stay at home with their parents. Thus, the only thing that the first and second generation do together is going to church or sometimes vacationing, which is not that often.
As the life patterns of these two generations vary, the values of each generation also disagree. The most important and common value disagreement is work ethic value. Most of the parents hope that their daughters and sons will have jobs that could be recognized by the society as well as earn a lot of money such as lawyers or doctors. As they could not be recognized by the American society, they want their children to be fully recognized instead of them. With this dream, they work hard to earn money to sent their children to Harvard, Yale or other universities that have a good reputation. However, the second generation disagrees with this idea. They are more aware that there are plenty of other ways to succeed in the country in which they are living. For them, the interests of individuals come first. That is why there are more and more Koreans working everyday in various fields.
The main example of a second generation member who has an exceptional job would be Margaret Cho, a popular comedian in the States. She tells us how it was hard for an Asian to become a comedian not only because of the racial discrimination, but also due to the opposition of her parents. She says she had a very hard time both mentally and physically to go against her parents' wishes.
There are also many Koreans that has various jobs besides Michael Cho. Although they are not that successful or famous, they struggle hard to make their dreams come true. These days, some first generation Koreans try to understand their children and support them, but still the majority of second generation members have difficulty dealing with the first generation.

Troubles on the way

It is inevitable that the first and second generations have certain differences thus, difficulties.

   
However, why do these problems only become bigger instead of getting smaller like other normal problems? Prof. Kim Chang-ho, Pusan Univ. of Foreign Studies has the answer. "About ten years ago, when I was living in California, I visited a Korean friend of mine living nearby. However, I was so surprised at the way he and his children talked to each other. When the children could not understand what my friend was talking to them in Korean, he just gave up and said 'Ahhh... Never mind!' Also, when he and his wife could not understand what the children were speaking in English, the children merely waved their heads and said 'Never mind' just like their father!" As can be seen in the example, the different thoughts between the first and second generations are not what causes the problem to intensify. Lack of communication is the main reason. As the second generations become more comfortable with English, it is harder for them to communicate with their parents.
"When they were very young, it was easier to speak to them since the only conversation he had were basic things like 'Eat your onions', 'Brush your teeth', or 'Clean your room'. However, as our children became teenagers, they began to have a lot of things to think about, usually mental issues such as love and life. Sometimes, they needed our help to deal with those matters, but we were not able to answer those kind of deep questions in English." says a parent of two daughters. The situation of the first generation is very understandable. However, have they done anything to reduce the conflict? To this question, none of the parents said confidently that they did. Concerning this problem, Grace Kim, a former president of the Korean society in the U.S., speaks up. "I have seen many Korean families fall apart due to their different language abilities. It is very hard to solve this problem since it is not anybody's fault. However, I think the parents are more responsible for it. Instead of watching soap operas or shopping around they could have studied English to communicate with their children."
As Grace Kim said, although the second generation would also have to try to learn more about their parents' language, the main responsibility is left to the parents. This is because it is too much pressure for the second generation to learn both languages at one time and most of all it is the parents who could guide their children's life.

Finding the right identity

   
Parents not only effect their children's lives, but also their identities. Although it is definite that the first generation think of themselves as Koreans, it is very confusing for the second generation. The second generation members choose their identities according to what their parents teach them. Unfortunately, there are many cases that did not work out the right way. Some parents tell their children that they are Korean and force them to speak only the Korean language. This can make the child proud of his/her culture, however, at the same time very offensive and closed minded towards other cultures.
On the other hand, some parents force their children just to be like Americans and forget about their culture. An old story of a Korean doctor who made his child speak only English and never taught her Korean could be a good example of this case. There will be more to think about when hearing this interview from Ms. Lee, who was born in the States and is now looking for a job. "My parents did not teach me much about Korea and I also have never been interested in it. Thus, I still do not know how to speak Korean and do not know many Korean cultural aspects. However, I realized that I had made a huge mistake when I failed to get in the company that I wanted. They told me that they could not adopt a person who does not even know his/her roots."
Then, what is the correct identity for the second generation? Are they Korean or American? Grace Kim says that they are Korean-American. "As long as they were born in America and have lived here, the second generation members are definitely American citizens. However, they must always remember their roots to be complete. With these two cultural backgrounds, they would be able to accomplish more then anyone." Even today, many Koreans see the second generation as Koreans that are a little different from them. However, this misconception has to be corrected. The second generation should be recognized as neither Korean nor American, but a whole new generation that are totally different from both nations.

Trying to compromise

As was stated before, it is natural that the first and second generations have various disagreements. It might also be uncomfortable to think that their nationalities are different. However, the conflicts

   
that occur between them can be solved by understanding and accepting each other. Especially the first generation have to work harder to become closer to their children and try to give a free environment so that the second generation can experience both American and Korean culture in harmony. As Prof. Kim said "Make your children the proudest Americans who know their roots and try to succeed throughout their lives," though it is not important wether the second generation members are Korean or not. What is important is that they should become a successful Korean-American along with the understanding of their parents.

 

<Reporter's Note>

Frankly, when I first came to the United States, I did not know what to write about in my article. I felt pressure to write something special, since that is what this article was all about, so I chose many subjects about which to write. However, none of them seemed right for the article. After struggling over what I should write about for a few weeks, I finally decided to write about the first and second generations.
This idea came to me when I was at a Korean church. Spending time with them, I could feel that there was an invisible line between these two generations. This subject attracted my interest immediately and I was quite sure that it was not a common thing to write about. The story of the second generations have been explored many times in the major media sources, however, issues concerning relationships with their parents has not come into the spotlight. That is why I wrote this article from the prospective of both parents and their children. I wish that you will have a good time reading this article and think about our second generation friends out there.  <K.H.W.>

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