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Korean Immigrants and Assimilation, Research Paper Example

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Words: 3025

Research Paper

Every immigrant experience is unique, and is defined by the special circumstances that the immigrant is faced with. Some immigrants may find assimilation easier to the extent that they possess the same color as the majority – in the case of the United States, this would mean that white immigrants from Europe are more likely to assimilate. However, considering that America is an ever-increasing melting plot, most emphatically demonstrated with the election of President Barrack Obama, can such a viewpoint on the concept of assimilation still be used? When considering the case of Korean immigrations and assimilation, we can understand how such immigrants may assimilate into the present day melting pot of America, and how they historically assimilated. The fact that there are strong Korean communities throughout the United States suggests that the United States has been a welcoming home to these immigrants – in this sense, they have been allowed to participate in the economic and social structure of America on multiple different levels. But is this what assimilation really means? And how do Koreans themselves experience this immigration process? In the following essay, we shall attempt to understand the Korean assimilation in America from a largely Korean perspective, thus trying to contemplate some of the successes and failures of their own unique immigrant experience and how this relates to a concept of assimilation.

Accordingly, an analysis of the study of the assimilation of Korean immigrants in the United States firstly requires an understanding of what the concept of the assimilation of immigrants means. However, as Robert A. Levine notes, such a consensus understanding remains unrealized in both the academic literature and popular discourse: “misunderstanding of goals and possibilities has stemmed in part from the lack of any agreed definition for assimilation.” (2) This lack of agreed definition stems from, according to Levine, a primary difference between strong and weak definitions of assimilation: “the strongest version has newcomers becoming almost indistinguishable from natives – the true melting pot. The weakest definition requires little more than sufficient similarity and overlap between new and old to keep the pace.” (2) Hence, following a strong version of assimilation, this would mean that the Korean immigrants to the United States would become unrecognizable from naturalized Americans. Accordingly, native Korean social, ethnic, religious, and cultural norms would seem, in this case, to be sacrificed to greater norms. For example, Korean language and religion would gradually dissipate. The weak definition of assimilation suggests that Koreans maintain their own unique normativities, and merely interact and co-exist with the already present native populace. However, in the case of America, this distinction can be complicated, to the extent that America is a combination of many different ethnic groups – America consists of distinct religious, cultural, and ethnic groups. What therefore does assimilation imply in the American context? As Levine notes, American immigration has traditionally accepted a viewpoint that emphasizes this multifaceted composition of American life: “American reality, however, beginning more than a century and a half ago, found a middle version – less like the melting pot than a soup with many ingredients, enriching the basic stock and replete with delectable solid tidbits, old and new.” (2) Thus, according to Levine’s definition, assimilation in the American context implies that immigrant groups are active in American culture, interrelating with the native populace, while at the same time offering their own unique culture, ethnicity and history to American life. Hence, Korean assimilation would not be defined by how Koreans resemble typical Americans, such as the White Anglo Saxon Protestant, but rather how Koreans can participate in American life on various different levels, such as the cultural, economic, religious, and social. Furthermore, an important issue, in this regard, is if Koreans are able to participate in American life. In this sense, assimilation would have a basically positive definition, to the extent that it would mean that easy access to opportunities and the free expression of culture in American society are possible. Alongside this positive definition, we could therefore add a simultaneous negative definition of assimilation, in which the immigrant experience in America is defined according to how Korean immigrants lose their own unique identity in America. In such a case, assimilation primarily means that Koreans become Americans, however inconsistent the definition of Americans may be – the crucial point in this regard is that an initial identity becomes modified through the immigrant experience.

When considering the Korean experience from these different definitions of assimilation, two main themes appear. Firstly, it is important to look at empirical and social data that discusses how successfully Koreans have been allowed to integrate into American society, which means to participate in this society. Secondly, it is important to consider at what cost does this participation in American society in terms of the potential loss of their original culture and social norms.

Okyun Kwon defines the Korean immigration strategy as follows: “Unlike their earlier European counterparts, the majority of whom were assimilated into American institutes, cliques, and clubs, Korean immigrants organize their own ethnic institutions, cliques, and clubs, and utilize them as stepping stones for their structural assimilation.” (170) Hence, in Kwon’s analysis, the Korean immigrant experience is primarily defined according to the manifestation of their autonomy. Koreans autonomously organize their unique structural groupings, such as churches, temples, and social clubs. According to Kwon, “for many Korean immigrants, thus, participation in congregational activities becomes a major source for their sense of institutional belonging after immigration.” (170) The importance of groups such as congregations lies in their creation of a sense of belonging within America for Korean immigrants. In such group formations, immigrants are able to re-assert their own cultural traditions, such as language, history, and religion.

At the same time, such an analysis implies that Korean immigrants need to take such an autonomous approach, precisely because American culture does not allow them to assimilate. The need for such groups, as Kwon notes, follows from the difference of Koreans as Asian immigrants – European and white immigrants do not find such similar difficulties in their ethnic assimilation. However, the question arises, as Europe is also consisting of many different languages, cultures, religions, and histories: does this mean that skin color, race and ethnicity are the defining factors in the possible assimilation of immigrants?

Before investigation this question further, it is important to note that such a concentration of autonomous organizations has led Koreans to become economically successful in the American context. Hirschman notes that Korean immigrants have “exceptionally high self-employment.” (160) The same author writes that, “Korean immigrants have achieved significant economic gains through ethnic enterprise” (160), and, citing other studies, suggests that “Korean immigrants have concentrated in small businesses as a strategy of accommodation.” Accordingly, Koreans have been successful within the context of the American economy, by emphasizing their own small business approaches, based on a concentration of ethnic based businesses. Therefore, new Korean immigrants, through family and ethnic ties, may assimilate into the American context, to the extent that they join these already existing Korean economic and social structures. From the perspective that assimilation in contemporary America means economic success and the ability to participate in American social life, the Koreans have thus successfully assimilated into American life.

Nevertheless, it is important to consider once again the reasons for why Koreans have taken this particular ethnic and economic small business approach to immigration. As Hirschman further notes, citing various debates in the academic literature, some have suggested that this approach is the result of “South Korea’s export-driven economy, which provides entrepreneurial opportunities for Korean immigrants.” (160) Accordingly, close ties between immigrants and the homeland, a homeland which has a very strong export based economy, leads Koreans to their economic successes in America, on the level of small, family and ethnic based businesses. In other words, the Korean culture is adept to the current globalization of economy, and thus they are adept to assimilate into America, insofar as America and Korea are both important parts of this global economy.

On the other hand, as Hirschman, also notes, citing various other examples from the academic literature, Korean autonomy may be a result of the failure to assimilate in America, what is termed a “disadvantage hypothesis.” (160) As Hirschman writes, from this perspective, “Korean immigrant entrepreneurship is viewed as a rational response of predominantly college-educated, urban, middle-class immigrants who lack English language skills to limited opportunities in the mainstream economy.” (160) Accordingly, the success of Korean immigrant entrepeneurship has ironically been the result of their failure or inability to assimilate into a dominant American culture that possesses different cultural and ethnic normativities. This lack of assimilation has forced Koreans to self-organize in order to make their immigration experience in America a successful experience. This can be interpreted as follows: the Koreans on a social level have failed to assimilate in America, but on an economic level, their assimilation has been successful. This is because the before mentioned restrictions prevent Koreans from fully integrating with a foreign society; this can be the result of racism, or simply too large of a culture shock for immigrants to succeed, such as not mastering the dominant language of English, which thus limits the possibility of social advancements. Because of such limits, Koreans have consolidated their immigrant experience in order to assimilate into the American economy: they provide a niche based service to the economy, one that is successful, through the small business model, in catering to members of the Korean community. At the same time, the fact that most Korean business success remains on the small business level, as Hirschman writes, this means that Koreans have also not been encouraged to assimilate into the greater American economy; instead they are using the basic free market system to carve out a successful, although modest, business existence. In any case, this attests to the strength of the Korean community in its self-organization skills, as they are able to run successful businesses in a foreign country. At the same time, one could argue that the structure of the American economy itself allows for these successes, insofar as these immigrant communities consist of hard working, well organized and committed individuals and ethnic groups.

However, this small business economic assimilation into the American economy must also be approached from the perspective of the assimilation of Korean immigrants within the social sphere. According to Won Moo Hurh, “other crucial factors impacting on assimilation patterns are generational differences (Korean-born adult immigrants versus their American-born children) and age at immigration.” (70) In this case, it is clear that the crucial barrier of linguistic difference and a lack of familiarity with American culture will gradually diminish when considering the youth of the immigrant or if the subject was in America to immigrant parents. The Korean children of immigrants shall attend American schools and learn English – if not English is not their home language, it is nevertheless a native language, as they are exposed to neighbors and the culture around them, for example, television. In this case, language and culture plays a crucial part in assimilation, as although connections to the Korean community remain strong, the English language and American culture are no longer alien or foreign to the immigrant – they have grown up in this environment and thus are familiar with it – their socialization shall be normalized. This obviously aids in the assimilation process.

At the same time, as Hurh also notes, citing the case of Korean doctors, this normalization according to language and culture may not necessarily mean assimilation: “for instance, Korean immigrant physicians may become highly acculturated into the American way of life by virtue of their good command of English, conversion to Protestantism, and high professional status; but they may not be socially assimilated into the mainstream of the American social structure due to their immutable racial status.” (70) This suggests that a crucial part of the overall assimilation process is racial. The fact that Koreans are Asians within a dominant Caucasian American society will always fundamentally limit their attempts to assimilate into society: no matter how they may master the English language, or have a similar religion to the majority of Americans, or familiarize themselves with American culture, or have a successful job such as a physician, the underlying barrier to assimilation shall remain race. The mainstream social structure of America, following Hurh, treats the Koreans according to their race. This is a barrier of assimilation that may not be overcome, simply according to the basic demographic facts of American life.

Accordingly, when examining the issue of Korean assimilation in America, the above paper has shown that assimilation can be thought about in many different senses. Primarily, there are social, economic, racial, and cultural dimensions of such assimilation. The successes of Korean immigrants in organizing their own small businesses suggests a certain success in assimilating into the economic aspect of American life: these business are successful precisely because of the hard work of the Koreans and the opportunities afforded by the economic structure that awards such hard work. At the same time, that such businesses remain merely small businesses, based in local ethnic communities, suggests that this economy is not at the same time fundamentally open. Furthermore, as mentioned above, there remains a debate within the academic literature as to why Koreans have taken the small business entrepreneurial approach to immigration: on the one hand, perhaps this is because they want to preserve their own cultures and identities; on the other hand, they may not be offered any other choice.

Whereas cultural and linguistic barriers can erode over time for the Korean immigrant, thus aiding their social assimilation and even religious assimilation, there at the same time remains a difficult racial impasse that prevents further assimilation. In this case, this indicates a fundamental racist or ethnic component to current American society. Assimilation, in this regard, can never fully be realized, even if desired, because of the fact that Koreans are Asians and the majority populace is Caucasian. This means that groups such as Koreans must become autonomous and create their own economic and social spaces within America. Accordingly,

the Korean immigrant experience demonstrates these various boundaries, but also the possibilities for minor successes and examples of flourishing independence: if such independence is a certain criteria for assimilation in present-day America, then Koreans can be considered as realizing such assimilation.

Annotated Bibliography

Alba, Richard and Ne, Victor. Rethinking Assimilation Theory for a New Era of Immigration. In: C. Hirschman, P. Kasinitz, J. DeWind, (eds.) The Handbook of  International Immigration: The American Experience. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999. Pp. 137-160.

In this article, the authors provide some reflections on the need to re-think the assimilation theory of immigrants. They primarily concentrate on the already existing academic literature in terms of trying to understand if the concept of assimilation is still relevant to understanding the American experience of immigration, irrespective of particular immigrant groups. The article was particularly relevant for the essay because of its clear synopsis of some of the concerns of the question of Korean immigration in relation to American assimilation. It was furthermore relevant because it provided some theories as to why the Korean immigration experience exists as has. While the theories presented are primarily for specialists in assimilation theory, the aforementioned clear summaries of the Korean experience proved invaluable.

Hurh, Won Moo. The Korean Americans. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998.

Won Moo Hurh provides a comprehensive overview of the Korean American communities. Of particular importance is the diversity of cultural, social and ethnic histories of the Korean people, as the reader learns how Korean Americans have contributed to American culture. The author also addresses some of the problems Koreans have faced in adapting, and some of the unique solutions the Korean immigrant community has put forward in response to these challenges. Primarily, it provides a valuable history of the struggles and social importance of the Korean people and culture. The book is primarily relevant because it underscores the importance of Koreans to contemporary America. The book is a very accessible history to all students.

Kwon, Okyun. Buddhist and Protestant Korean Immigrants: Religious Beliefs and Socioeconomic Aspects of Life. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2003.

Okyun Kwon offers an analysis of the overall Korean immigrant experience in America. Particularly of interest are his various examples of how Korean immigrants organize themselves in their particular communities, and furthermore, the reasons for such organization. At the same time, he gives attention to the particular concerns and limitations that Koreans feel in assimilating within America, particularly in terms of different social, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. Kwon provides a sensitive history of the Korean people in America, which is suitable for most readers.

Levine, Robert A. Assimilating Immigrants: Why America Can and France Cannot. Pittsburgh, PA: RAND Corporation, 2004.

Levine helps the reader understand some of the key concepts related to what assimilation means. It provides a clear overview of the controversy surrounding the definition of assimilation, and lets the reader be wary of an oversimplification of what it means to assimilate. As an example, for Levine, assimilation in the America context is different from assimilation in the French context, primarily because of America’s historical reliance on what he terms a “soft” approach to assimilation theory, combined with America’s lack of a dominant historical culture or ancient history. The article is particularly useful to understanding what assimilation means, a definition that can afterwards be applied in order to understand the experiences of particular ethnic groups such as the Koreans within particular countries such as America. It furthermore emphasizes that the country to which one immigrates is crucial to the chances of success and assimilation. At the same time, Levine’s text reflects a certain jingoism in favor of American interests.

Works Cited

Alba, Richard and Ne, Victor. Rethinking Assimilation Theory for a New Era of Immigration. In: C. Hirschman, P. Kasinitz, J. DeWind, (eds.) The Handbook of  International Immigration: The American Experience. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999. Pp. 137-160.

Hurh, Won Moo. The Korean Americans. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998.

Kwon, Okyun. Buddhist and Protestant Korean Immigrants: Religious Beliefs and Socioeconomic Aspects of Life. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2003.

Levine, Robert A. Assimilating Immigrants: Why America Can and France Cannot. Pittsburgh, PA: RAND Corporation, 2004.

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