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The history of Korean immigration to the US has distinct features that differentiate it from the experiences of other nations. Racial attitudes, gender, and class played an important role in shaping the culture of these people. Movies, journal articles, and books that portray their lives help understand the issues of contemporary Korean Americans. This paper aims to examine the various aspects that affected the Korean assimilation into the US society.
Pre-1945 Korean Immigration
In his movie Arirang: The Korean American Journey, the director Tom Coffman portrays the unique journey of Korean people traveling to the US to find better opportunities for their future life. While this element fits into the overall pattern of immigration that was present in the pre-1945 times, the specific social, political, and historical conditions that the Koreans experienced made their story distinct. Firstly, the documentary by Coffman displays the urge of the Korean people to avoid the Japanese imperialism that was developing on the Korean territory at that time.
This movie represents the socio-economic conditions that facilitated the large-scale immigration for both Koreans and other nations due to the demand for cheap labor. This makes the Korean American history like others and like no other. This factor enabled people from all over the world to come to the US, work in the state, and arrange their life. Many Koreans were recruited and transported by the Hawaii Sugar Plantation Association (Chang 6). Thus, the need for a workforce that allowed Koreans assimilate in America is the factor that helped other immigrants as well, which provides an understanding of the similarities.
Secondly, Coffman’s movie portrays how the Koreans in America were able to preserve their culture, while in their home country they experienced oppression from the government. This made the Korean immigration to the US unique because unlike other nations; these people were able to create communities that valued the language and culture of their home state. At the same time, people in Korea were not allowed to speak their mother tongue.
Thirdly, before large-scale immigration, the Korean-American relationship was developing through diplomatic connections and educational opportunities such as aviation school development. Additionally, according to Chang, many Koreans arrived in America as political exiles due to their views on the political state of things in their country (6). In addition, Chang states that natural disasters had an essential impact on the second wave of immigration to the US (6).
The famine and flood that affected Korea in the pre-1945 years had a significant impact on the decision-making process of people. Next, Chang argues that those who later came to Hawaii used churches as centers for discussing the independence of Korea (5). This presents the unique conditions choices made by Koreans in the US. While they were working and living similarly to immigrants from China or the Fillipines, the majority were concerned with the events that impacted their home state. This provides an understanding of the fact that immigration was more of a necessity for Koreans.
Due to the fact that the majority of the immigrants came to the US to work in plantations were male, the practice of marrying a Korean woman after exchanging photograph was common. Thus, another factor that differs from the experience of the Koreans in the US is the practice of “picture wives” (Chang 6). In addition, the laws at that time forbade non-white individuals from marrying white people, which also had an impact on this tradition. Thus, on the one hand, the political and socio-economic conditions in Korea pressured people to escape from the Japanese oppression and move from the peninsula. On the other hand, the Koreans in the US were concerned mainly with the events in their home country and culture, which helped them preserve their unique traditions.
Race, Class, and Gender
The experience of the Korean immigrants in America was primarily impacted by the racial attitudes in the country, the gender of people, and their class. The article Redefining the Boundaries of Traditional Gender Roles by Lili Kim discusses the practice of marrying Korean women that were widely accepted in the immigrant community (107). The Korean men in the US and women who resided in Korea exchanged pictures, and then the females traveled to the US to get married.
Thus, the article provides an understanding of how gender affected the experiences of Koreans in America. The primary difference is that women were often marrying men much older than them. However, it was their only option to escape the political and social instability in their home country. Kim argues this factor shaped the development of the Korean community and the future Korean-American generations (107).
It is because Koreans, unlike Chinese people, were allowed to establish families in the US. Additionally, Kim states that this factor impacted the Korean independence movement (107). The picture brides lived under the political ruling of Japan and had a first-hand experience of the oppression and difficulties that the citizens of their country experienced. This component largely contributed to the attitudes of Korean people in America.
Quiet Odyssey by Mary Paik Lee describes the experience of Korean women in America. The story presented in the book depicts how race and gender affected the unique experience of Korean immigrants in the US. Lee’s family, similarly to many others decided to leave Korea because of the impact of the Japanese (7). Due to their race, Lee’s family members were subjected to discrimination and had to work on a plantation despite their previous credentials.
For instance, Lee describes how her father had been a laborer although in Korea he used to be a teacher (11). This requirement of having to be a part of the cheap workforce for the planters shaped the experience of early Korean immigrants. In addition, Lee states that while living in Hawaii she did not see any white people (12). This also had a significant effect on the development of the Korean culture in the US, because most of the workers were from Asia. Lee provides an extensive description of the hardships her family, and she had to go through. For instance, due to race discrimination, they had to move from Hawaii to California (Lee 12). In this case, class played a major role in shaping the experience as well because Lee’s parents were not wealthy.
Another work that depicts the history of Korean immigrants in the US is Woo Sung Han’s Unsung Hero. In it, the author tells a life story of the colonel Kim, which reflects the overall role of Asian soldiers in World War II. Han states that “white student bullies often picked on Asian or Jewish students … because Asian and Jews were deemed physically weak” (22). This presents an understanding of the fact that although the US consists of immigrants from different nations, the experience of minorities such as Koreans differs due to racial discrimination.
Five Factors Influencing Post-1945 Immigration
The emigrants from Korea had a unique experience that shaped their presence in the US and continues to affect the modern generations. Park argues that the Korean immigrants after 1945 were impacted by five primary elements and according to the author, these important domains are “family/kinship, gender, ethnicity, politics, and religion” (2). Firstly, the author mentions the tensions between the black and Korean people, which were especially evident in New York, and that affected the perception of two communities (Park 3). It can be argued that the concepts of ethnicity have an essential meaning for the understanding of Korean history because the attitudes of both white and black people towards Asian individuals affected the perception of the group.
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Secondly, culture and traditions affected the views of Koreans on family and business. The urge to develop a small family business was prevalent in the Korean community (Park 4). According to the author, this component is part of the Korean vision of the American dream. It is because these attitudes correlate with the concept of anjŏng, which refers to the establishment of security. Through these businesses, Koreans were able to achieve the desired stability, which for these people was the crucial component of life. Park states that this factor impacted the relationships within Korean families. Thirdly, religion had an essential role in the Korean community in the US.
The immigrants were able to combine their cultural beliefs, Christianity, and new ideological approaches into a distinct concept (Park 3). Finally, the gender roles of the Korean people differ from those of other nations. Park argues that in the Korean communities the role of women is especially crucial (3). Thus, the Korean people in America were affected by some factors that shaped the development of this community.
Based on the analysis of the course material that describes experiences that shaped the Korean immigrants in the US it can be argued that one factor that impacts the contemporary Koreans is the concept anjŏng. Park refers to this when describing the American Dream that many Korean immigrants aimed to fulfill and focuses more on the small business component of this idea (3). Thus, many contemporary Korean-Americans were raised in the environment of these enterprises, helping their parents do the work, which undoubtedly affected their views.
Similarly to Park, Yuh describes this concept through the lens of women who aimed to escape discrimination in their home state by marrying a US citizen (“Imagined Community” 221). This was both due to the political attitudes in the country and because of the culture and perception of family relations that were prevalent in Korea at that time. Additionally, Yuh states that another representation of the American Dream was an ability to find a peaceful environment (“Moved by War: Migration, Diaspora, and the Korean War” 281).
This was especially important after the Korean War that brought a lot of suffering and trauma for people living in the peninsula. Thus, Koreans were choosing to come to the US for different reasons, either to escape war and instability or to live in an environment that does not have gender discrimination.
Overall, it is evident that the experience of Korean immigration to the US is unique, although it shares some similarities with other nation’s relocation process. As can be seen through the examples of picture brides and discrimination due to race and class Koreans in the US experienced a lot of difficulties. However, these events shaped the community and had an impact on the preservation of the Korean culture within immigrants. The idea of achieving the American Dream is the central theme that is crucial for the contemporary Korean community because it affected the post-war immigration process.
Chang, Edward. Introduction. The Unsung Hero: The Col. Young O. Kim Story, by Han, Woo Sang. University of California Riverside, 2011, pp. 3-19.
Coffman, Tom, director. Arirang: The Korean American Journey. Arirang Education, 2003.
Han, Woo Sung. The Unsung Hero: The Col. Young O. Kim Story. University of California Riverside, 2011.
Kim, Lili. “Redefining the Boundaries of the Traditional Gender Roles.” Asian/Pacific Islander American Women, edited by Shirley Hune and Gail Nomura, New York University Press, 2003, pp. 106-119.
Lee, Mary Paik. Quiet Odyssey. University of Washington Press, 1990.
Park, Kyeyoung. The Korean American Dream. Cornell University Press, 1997.
Yuh, Ji-Yeon. “Imagined Community.” Asian/Pacific Islander American Women edited by Shirley Hune and Gail Nomura. New York University Press, 2003.
–. “Moved by War: Migration, Diaspora, and the Korean War.” Journal of Asian American Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 277-291.