AMERICA. IT seems to inspire a certain reaction in Koreans. I have been a member of the Yonsei exchange student since I came to Korea. I was born in Korea, my parents and I moved to New York when I was five years old, and I have lived there for most of my adult life. "In America, people must wave hello to you on the street!" America is not like that.
At first glance, these kinds of questions appear relatively harmless. After all, the grass is always greener on the other side. However, the Korean image of "America" has far deeper roots, much of it coming from the American influence during and after the Korean War. Many people are not aware of the present-day societal issues that make America a difficult place to live for its citizens. It is dangerous to view America through the lens of Korean-American relations during the Cold War, and we must not separate the country from its current social and political context.
America has historically been romanticized as a place of economic and social mobility. The American narrative is one of a nation of immigrants; people arrive with little to nothing, but they integrate into the folds of the American dream, they too, become educated, successful and worldly. America is the first country that most Koreans think of when they think of "abroad," most likely due to the history of Korean-American politics. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, there were about one million Korean immigrants living in America in 2015, 2.4% of the total immigrant population of 43.3 million.
Most of the Korean population in America today arrived after the Korean War. In its immediate aftermath, South Korea laid in a state of utter ruin and lacked political and economic security. Many South Koreans sought to escape their trauma abroad, and America was the natural choice. In recent years, however, the number of Koreans immigrating to America has remained relatively stagnant due to improving political and economic conditions in Korea. Furthermore, there is the phenomenon of Korean-American “returnees,” individuals who choose to return to Korea despite language and cultural barriers. Although many Korean youths today may be disillusioned by their country’s social, economic and political atmosphere—a mindset reflected by the term “Hell Joseon,” the fact of the matter is that many Koreans and Korean-Americans are in just as big a rush to leave America.
As a Korean-American who grew up in the states, I want to shed light on the reality of being ethnically Korean in America, a reality that is vastly different from the idealized image of white America perpetuated by the Western media. First of all, America, despite its claims to diversity, is sharply delineated along racial lines. Living in America comes with a heightened awareness of race and how it defines your identity and the way you are perceived by others. Immigrants are frequently treated as either the invisibles, the alienated “others,” or as dangerous entities that threaten American values. One might think that racial boundaries only exist for Asian immigrants, not Asian Americans who are legally “American” and have been born there. However, I do not differentiate between these categories, because they are merely superficial. Despite their legal status or their life-long commitment to living in America, Asian-Americans are still treated socially and politically as immigrants, a term that is referred to as “perpetual foreigner.” The xenophobic and racial divisions of America and its violent anti-immigrant sentiments revealed themselves most clearly during the 2016 election. Therefore, a huge advantage of being in Korea is the freedom to forgo racial boundaries.
Secondly, there is the issue of employment and wage distribution. Immigrants work extremely long hours for low pay, while the wealthiest members of society grow exponentially richer. Many children of immigrants do not complete a high school education. Despite the stereotype of Asian Americans as high achieving “model minorities,” the data used to support these claims ignores many factors. As shown in an article from *The Washington Post*, Asian immigrants historically move to higher cost cities such as San Francisco and New York, which demand higher incomes for the same standard of living as other, majority-white areas. Additionally, Asian Americans earn less compared to white Americans with the same level of education.
Ultimately, every country has its own host of societal problems. The purpose of this article is not to trivialize the problems that Korean citizens see with their society. Of course, individuals must critically engage with their society and its governing bodies, and help shape dominant values. However, to do so by romanticizing another country is problematic. It is dangerous to portray any country through the lens of a historic past, devoid of the problems that American citizens are currently facing. The phenomenon of Korean-American returnees reflects some of the reality of being Korean in America and its implications. Each country has its struggles, and it is important to be aware of them so that people can make better-informed decisions about their future.