Last updated: February 22, 2019
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Korean Migration to the United States

Korean Americans are technically defined as “residents of the United States who trace their ancestry to Korea” (http://encarta.msn.com, n. pag.). Although Korean migration to the US began as early as the late 19th century, the term “Korean Americans” is usually associated with Koreans who migrated to the US from 1965 onwards and their descendants (http://encarta.msn.com, n. pag.). Korean Americans are the fifth largest Asian group in the  US, after Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Indian Americans and Vietnamese Americans (http://encarta.msn.com, n. pag.). The larget Korean communities in the US are located in California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas (http://encarta.msn.com, n. pag.).

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Korean immigration to the US began as early as 1882, when the first immigration treaty between the US and Korea was signed on the same year (Noland, 62). A few years after this alliance was signed, small numbers of merchants, students and political dissidents began settling in America. However, it was not until 1893 that significant numbers of Koreans began arriving to the US (Noland, 62).

This was so because it was also during this time when the Chinese Exclusion Law banned the immigration of Chinese laborers into the US (Noland, 62). Hence, when the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association needed strikebreakers to disperse strikes by Japanese planters, they turned to Korean immigrants (Noland, 62). An estimated 100 Korean migrants came to Honolulu on January 13, 1903, a year after King Kojong of Hawaii approved the first organized migration to the US (Noland, 62). The aforementioned migrants arrived on a steamer named the Gaelic, earning them the title “The Irish of Asia” (Noland, 62).

More than 7,000 Koreans landed in Hawaii in the next two years, majority of them working as strikebreakers for sugar plantations (Noland, 62). About 2,000 of them eventually moved to the West Coast (Noland, 63). Several hundreds, meanwhile, started prosperous agricultural enterprises in central California (Noland, 63). These agricultural businesses also served as “important sources of finance for Korean nationalists in exile” (Noland, 63) and produced Korean nationalist leaders such as An Ch’ang-ho, Pak Yong-man and Syngman Rhee (the first President of the Republic of Korea) (Noland, 63).

The second wave of Korean migration to the US took place in the decade after the Korean War (Noland, 63). The McCarran-Walker Act (1952) withdrew the barring of Asian immigration while maintaining the specified quota for each nationality (the quota for Koreans was 100 per year) (http://www.historylink.org, n. pag.). But more than 28,000 Koreans managed to migrate to the US from 1951 to 1964 (http://www.historylink.org, n. pag.).

Korean migrants at this period were generally classified into three groups. The first group was made up of war brides or Korean women who were married to American soldiers (http://www.duke.edu, n. pag.). Despite being able to move to a prosperous country through marriage, these women experienced difficulty in assimilating into American society due to their lack of education and other skills that are required for gainful employment (http://www.duke.edu, n. pag.). The second group was composed of Korean War orphans who were adopted into American families (http://www.duke.edu, n. pag.). In Washington, D.C. alone, about 3,000 Korean children were adopted by American families (n.d.) (http://www.historylink.org, n. pag.).

The third group was constituted of students who took undergraduate and or postgraduate studies in different American colleges and universities (http://www.duke.edu, n. pag.). Most of these students, after completing their education, went back to Korea, where they later on played important roles in developing the Korean economy and government in the 1960’s (Noland, 63). Examples of these students were Nam Duck-Woo, Kim Manh-Jeh, Lee Seung-Yoon and Chung So-Young (Noland, 63). Those who opted to remain the US became highly-established professionals and productive members of American society (http://www.duke.edu, n. pag.).

The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 paved the way for the third wave of Korean migration to the US (Noland, 63). This law “greatly liberalized the National Origin Quota System and opened the door for greatly expanded immigration from non-European countries, including South Korea” (Noland, 63). Taking advantage of laxer immigration regulations, larger numbers of Koreans migrated to the US with their families in tow and lived in “Koreatowns” – Korean neighborhoods found in the blighted areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. (http://www.duke.edu, n. pag.).

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Although majority of third-wave Korean migrants were well-educated and held white-collar jobs back in their home country, their lack of proficiency in English hindered them from fully capitalizing on their qualifications to make it to the top of the American economy (Noland, 64). Hence, most of them had to begin at “the bottom stratum of American society” by taking on blue-collar jobs (http://www.duke.edu, n. pag.). Some opened small enterprises such as green groceries and laundry shops in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington (Noland, 64).

What third-wave Korean migrants lacked in English skills, they compensated with commitment to education, resourcefulness and diligence (Noland, 64; http://www.duke.edu, n. pag.). Their children became accomplished and effectual American citizens, assuming white-collar jobs such as doctors, lawyers, businessmen, etc. (Noland, 64) Korean Americans at present interact with and draw support from one another through churches, restaurants, newspapers and radio stations (Noland, 64).

It was inevitable that immigration and acculturation affected the cultural values and upbringing of Korean Americans. At home, they practice the traditional Korean morals that were imparted to them by their elders. Once they step outside, they have to adapt the more liberal ideals of American society. According to the psychologist Geert Hofstede, a culture uses the following dimensions to express its principles: individualism or collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity or femininity, and long-term or short-term orientation (Moon, 3).

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First, Hofstede argued that Korean Americans have a greater level of individualism compared to Koreans residing in Korea (Moon, 3). And for a good reason – Korean Americans were exposed to a culture than prioritized self-actualization and individual decisions over group consensus (Moon, 3). Hence, just like their white fellow Americans, Korean Americans valued personal time, freedom and challenge more than Koreans living in Korea (Moon, 3). In sharp contrast, Koreans staying in Korea valued collective goals, needs and views more than individual preferences (Moon, 3).

Second, Korean culture is more hierarchical than American culture (Moon, 3). The group-centeredness of Korean culture stressed reverence of and strict obedience to authority figures. Unlike in American society where people are allowed to express their own social identity, it is the status quo that dictates a Korean’s place in Korean society (Moon, 3). Therefore, it would be fair to assume that Korean Americans have a higher level of social mobility than Koreans in Korea (Moon, 3).

Third, “Korean culture tends to have higher uncertainty avoidance than American culture, meaning Koreans in Korea feel more uncomfortable with future uncertainty and

ambiguity, which leads them to believe promises of certainty and favor institutions

promoting conformity” (Moon, 3). Despite the current industrialized state of Korea, its culture, like all other Asian cultures, is still a remnant of an agricultural society, where there is a faithful adherence to convention and events are predicted through cycles. Korean Americans, on the other hand, were raised in a capitalist society, where innovation is the surest way for advancement. As a result, Korean Americans are more open to change and value social institutions less than Koreans living in Korea (Moon, 3).

Fourth, “America has a higher score than Korea on the masculinity dimension, the

degree to which a culture emphasizes gender differences” (Moon, 3). The concept of the

masculinity dimension “can be dichotomized as masculinity and femininity, based on the

degree to which gender differences are emphasized” (Moon, 4). Hence, if its masculinity

context is used, masculinity dimension puts a premium on performance and achievement (Moon, 4). Having been oriented to a culture that has a strong masculine inclination, it can be said that Korean Americans are more go-getting than Koreans in Korea (Moon, 4).

Lastly, “Korea has a higher score on the dimension of long-term orientation than America” (Moon, 4). This translates to Koreans having “more persistence and thrift and a greater sense of shame than Americans” (Moon, 4). Therefore, Koreans residing in Korea have more pragmatism than Korean Americans (Moon, 4).

Korean Americans, just like all other migrant groups in America, left their home country in pursuit of the “American Dream” – the belief that an immigrant can attain

freedom and prosperity through determination, perseverance and hard work. Despite having to start at the bottom and work their way to the top, they easily assimilated themselves into Korean society and became productive American citizens. Korean Americans are proof that  initiative and assiduity are still the surest tickets to success.

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Works Cited

Moon, Seung-jun. The Effects of Immigration and Acculturation on Cultural Values:

A Comparative Study of Korean Immigrants in America and Mainland Koreans in           Korea. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2003.

Noland, Marcus. The Impact of Korean Immigration on the US Economy. n.p.: n. pag.

“Annotated Chronology of the Korean Immigration to the United States: 1882 to 1952.” n.d.

Duke University. 20 February 2008 ;http://www.duke.edu/~myhan/kaf0501.html;.

“Korean Americans.” n.d. MSNEncarta. 20 February 2008

;http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761587496_2/Korean_Americans.html;.

“Korean-Americans in King County – A Snapshot History.” n.d. HistoryLink.org.

20 February 2008 ;http://www.historylink.org/essays/output.cfm?file_id=3251;.

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