Multiculturalism and Korean Immigration

Multiculturalism and Korean Immigration

This paper explores many issues of culture, race and the concept of multiculturalism within the context of the American melting pot. These issues of culture and especially multiculturalism warrant analysis as they define the American experience for immigrants. This paper will focus specifically on the Korean-American experience and what factors within that country led to many generations of families to leave for a better life in America. The paragraphs will first examine the concepts of culture and multiculturalism of today’s America and look at how the melting pot has changed. By defining these concepts one can better understand the state of multicultural relations today and how these relations influence the future of American urban life. Second, this paper will look at the circumstances surrounding Korean immigration between 1900 and 1960, specifically focusing on South Korea. These paragraphs will describe the major economic, social and political changes that occurred in the region over a period of time. This will include an analysis of the changes and how these changes influence ancestor decision to migrate to the United States. Also included in this paper are the methods and data sources used as literature to determine the reasons for immigration. Finally as a conclusion, this paper will discuss the not only limitations of the study also the future of culture in America and how multiculturalism defines this future.

Culture and Multiculturalism

M.F. Ashley Montagu defines culture “from the Latin cultura and cultus which means care, cultivation or allowing to grow something” (3). Originally the connation attributive to “agriculture or cultivation of the soil” (Montagu 3). Only later did the word describe attributes of man and elements of personality within a group of men. From the beginning, the concept of culture was difficult to disseminate. Even today in a world without borders or limits due to telecommunications technology, it is still difficult to grasp the notion of American culture. Due its melting pot, we are a culture defined equally by many cultures. Hence, the concept of multiculturalism was born to accept everyone’s culture. Lawrence Auster writes, “America is an assemblage of racially or ethnically defined subcultures, all of which have equal value and none of which can claim a privileged position” (1). This definition includes all aspects of culture including that of religion and creed, gender and sexuality. It really gives culture too many factors to be defined by accurately.

Still this definition fails to see that even though all cultures should be valued equally, there is still a hierarchy in existence that defines much of American society from the Western white point-of-view. Today, this frame of reference is fighting for a share as the original immigrants to this nation or white Europeans begin to become the minority. Still is surprising how whites still think of American culture based upon European ancestry. Ronald Takaki writes in his novel called a Different Mirror that “man had a narrow but widely shared sense of the past — a history that has viewed American as European in ancestry” (2) and that somewhere in history American culture was defined as white. He explains that since the birth of this nation, its population has been diverse (Takaki 2). This quickly becomes more and more evident as today close to one-third of America’s population can claim being of non-European origin. For instance the Asian-American influence has been evident for the last 150 years yet only recent has their voice been louder. Takaki elaborates, “Today, Asian-Americans represent the fastest growing ethnic group. They have also become the focus of much mass media attention as “the Model Minority” not only for blacks and Chicanos, but also for whites on welfare” (9). Takaki believes that through multiculturalism, we as Americans can begin to know each other. He surmises the importance to see the social constructs such as race that exist within American identity. He believes, “By looking at these groups from a multicultural perspective, we can comparatively analyze their experiences in order to develop an understanding of their differences and similarities” (11). This in turn offers us a baseline from which to define the new American experience not just as immigrants but as citizens of the greatest country in the world. It is multiculturalism that makes a melting pot possible and makes this country strong.

Korean Immigrations and Origins

For much of the 20th century Korea was a battlefield for Russia, China and Japan (Kim and Patterson par. 1). Because much of Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, “an estimated two hundred thousand Korean exiles lived in Manchuria and the Russian Far East” (Kang 35). Many of these exiles lived in the Maritime Province near Vladivostok where they were successful in assisting the Russian in the war against Japan. It was from these vast, hilly regions that many Korean exiles made their way to Hawaii and later California (Kang 36). In many ways, these exiles were far better off than their counterparts who stayed in Korea during the various conflicts as they never lost their spirit or industrious nature toward commerce. In these camps, many Korean prospered and this evident from the fact they were able to provide Korean-based schools for area children. These camps were also able to provide food to another exile camps. Kang writes that because of the settlements’ success “there was excitement in both Siberia and the Manchuria province” (36) and because of strong anti-Japanese sentiment, many freedom fighters were able to cross the Yalu River and fight on Korean soil.

Still it was during this time that much of southern Korea suffered because of Japanese colonization. Meyer Weinberg explains that this region was “developed by Japan economically to serve the needs of Japanese empire” (76) and Japan did this by locating heavy industry in the south pillaging the region’s labor and natural resources. During this colonization, much of the already established infrastructure including housing, schools and farms deteriorated because the Japanese has little interest in improving the living conditions. To make matters worse for the country, the western region was occupied by China which took advantage of the region’s tributary system, later introduced Communism to the area bringing able the Korean War and resulted in division between north and south (Matray 150). As a result a vast majority of Korean-Americans come from towns found in these regions as eventually the north would be cut off from any outside contact or immigration. As a result, many families are still separated and divided by the politics of the last hundred years.

Major Economic, Social and Political Changes

Many of the first immigrants from Korea in America were members of diplomatic missions who were sent as a means of fact finding everything about American culture (Melendy par. 2). As a result, many Koreans found themselves originating by way of Honolulu, Hawaii because Dole Growers and the Sugar Planters Association were recruiting. Because of the conflicts with Japan and China, much of the living conditions in Korea’s southern and western regions were stricken with poverty and famine. As a result much of the reason from migrating came from the need to have a better life. The politics of living under another country’s rule, left Koreans unable to express themselves or have freedom of religion. In many ways, the areas these immigrants came from were no longer Korean by Japanese or Chinese. There was no real incentive to stay.

The first wave of migration happened because of a combination of factors including economic, social and political. This first wave consisted of 7,500 Koreans, who were not only looking for work but religious freedom (Kim and Yu par. 2). Because the majority of these immigrants were recruited to work in the plantations of Hawaii, the majority of them were single and male. This resulted in a huge migration of women as picture brides. Also for Koreans, there was a strong anti-Japanese sentiment growing not only because of the oppression caused by Japanese colonization but also because of the lack of religious freedoms. For a period of twenty years, Koreans left because they wanted to be able to practice Christianity. “It was estimated that nearly 40% of them had become Christians in Korea” (Yoon 52). It is this strong religious connection and kinship with American Christian Missionaries that made Koreans comfortable with the notion of migrating to the United States. It is because of their religious connection that for earlier immigrant the church became the center of their social, cultural and political activities in America (Yoon 52).

This first wave also opened the door for the next two waves of Korean immigrants to the main land of the United States as jobs on the plantations became scarce. As much as Chinese and Japanese immigrants outnumber that of Koreans because the Korean migrations started later (Kim and Yu par. 5) many scholars cannot ignore the success of Korean-Americans once they started migrating eastward. In California, many Koreans left to start businesses in the Mid-West as California laws became stricter in allowing immigrant land ownership. Still those who stayed in the Los Angeles area formed in solidarity Koreatown even though many were brutalized as being seen connected to the Japanese (Kim and Yu par. 5).

During this time, settling in the United States meant many benefits to the Korean-American. It meant they no longer had to put up with Japanese imposed laws where traditional Korean language and culture was prohibited. In many cases, they could not even use their sur names. It meant they did not have to be made slaves in their own country. Literature suggests as Seong Woo Lee and et al. write that Korean-Americans benefited from migration more than their Asian counterparts because they saw opportunity (609). They saw opportunity in the forms of small business and education. With this in mind, this could be on reason why out of all the Asian immigrants, Koreans seem most prepared for American life (Lee et al. 609). They have already suffered the humiliation of Japanese colonization. in-Jin Yoon writes of the Korean migration “America is viewed as an open and fair place, whereas South Korea is viewed as a closed and unfair place for those who do not have social connections” (48). It can be hypothesized that many left because of economic opportunity for not only business opportunities but also educational opportunities. Both have a direct relationship on the success of the Korean-American experience. Because Japan was so oppressive in eradicating Korean culture by restructurizing Korean schools to imitate the Japanese educational system (Weinburg 76), the hardship to come to America did not seem so bad. They were also pushed by economic factors due to poverty and famine. The incentive to have warm food in the belly, probably motivated many Korean-Americans to succeed at their own business (Yoon 50).


According to Won Moo Hurh much of the Korean-American experience is defined by their ability to strike it out on their own. It is the impact of “small business activities that transforms the immigrant life” (228). At this time a great portion of the Korean-American population is engaged in entrepreneur activity or at least “30-40% of immigrant workers” (Hurh 228). Much of this can be attributed to their close relationships built on church but also their personal need to better their situation. This is done by being successful in business and education. Both means result in the Korean-American being able to provide for their families and that is something that could not be done in their homeland.

Korean immigrant views of America, shaped as they were by United States cultural influences and official anticommunist South Korean education, differed radically from that of many poor people in the communities they served: unaware of the shameful history of oppression of nonwhite immigrants and other people of color in the U.S., they regarded themselves as having arrived in a meritocratic “land of opportunity” where a person’s chances for success are limited only by individual lack of ability or diligence. Having left a homeland where they foresaw their talents and hard work going unrecognized and unrewarded, they were desperate to believe that the “American dream” of social and economic mobility through hard work was within their reach.

Most of the newcomers had underestimated the communication barriers they would face. Their toil amounted to only a pile of gestures and the English they tried to speak changed and turned against them as they spoke it. Working 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, they rarely came into sustained contact with English-speaking Americans and almost never had time to study English. Not feeling at ease with English, they did not engage in informal conversations easily with non-Koreans and were hated for being curt and rude. They did not attend churches or do business in banks or other enterprises where English was required. Typically, the immigrant small-business owners used unpaid family labor instead of hiring people from local communities. Thanks to Eurocentric American cultural practices, they knew little or nothing good about African-Americans or Latinos, who in turn and for similar reasons knew little or nothing good about them. At the same time, Korean shop owners in South Central and Koreatown were affluent compared with the impoverished residents, whom they often exploited as laborers or looked down upon as fools with an aversion to hard work. Most Korean immigrants did not even know that they were among the many direct beneficiaries of African-American — led Civil Rights Movement, which helped pave the way for the 1965 immigration reforms that made their immigration possible.

Unfortunately, data about the extent and role of immigrant entrepreneurship in the national economy are limited. Social scientists have spent considerable attention to studying the immigrant model, focusing on the group characteristics and opportunity structures that favor business creation, statistics that might provide an overview of the contributions made by immigrant small business owners are not available. Data is needed on the number of jobs that immigrant entrepreneurs create, on the economic value generated by their activities and the import and export they foster with their native regions. It is hopeful that such data will become available as improvements in technology has made global commerce possible for many of these firms. Still one can ignore the importance of the role immigrants have played in the resurgence of the nation’s small business sector. Literature suggests that immigration has stimulated the drive for small business within the total population and this in turn has contributed to the transformation. Still it is not only at a national level, immigrant small business ownership has impact but also at the urban community level. These businesses provide stimulus in urban areas like New York and Los Angeles and offer a new socio-economic bracket in which for new immigrants to enter into the melting pot. Established businesses offer a basis from which new businesses can be born as many of the new immigrants already are connected by family ties. This creates social cohesion making adaptation easier and faster for Korean-Americans.

This type of trend toward immigrant small business ownership created a model called the Enclave model (Immigrant Entrepreneurs 3) where immigrants are able to create business alternatives not able to the native born workers. This happens because of the models characteristics of the following: (1) geographical concentration, (2) interdependent networks of social and business relationships, (3) and relatively sophisticated division of labor. This Enclave model functions as a substitute environment for the immigrant as this provides both community and employment to them.

With respect to the model, Korean-Americans were not simply the passive beneficiaries of an unique set of opportunities. Korean-Americans were predisposed to create economic possibilities for themselves and able to draw upon a variety of well-developed ethnic and class resources. It is because of certain language and educational barriers, that Korean-Americans (especially from the first wave of migration) were determined to open a small business within the community. This allows them to not only make a living but to recapture their lost status.

Methods and Data Sources

As part of this study many different articles and novels were perused to get an understanding of the Korean-American experience and an idea behind the different factors and influences that contributed to immigration to America for a better life standard. For the purposes of this paper, I wish I could have utilized first hand accounts from various family members but their experiences were too difficult to discuss. Part of the American immigrant experience in general comes in fragments for the next the generation. It has been found that many who survived the journey do not want to discuss it in detail. This has been my experience in researching and discussing this topic with family members. Also many of them who could give an accurate account have passed on and I did not want to use “stories” or hearsay in this research. I also wish as part of this paper I could have used more ancestral findings from the Internet but also found this limiting due to the information I already had from family members. As a result, my experience into understanding the Korean-American immigration experience is limited to the literature and data reviewed via academic journals and books. This led me to focus more on the multicultural aspect of the experience and the future than the actual immigration experience.


The future of multiculturalism has yet to be written or predicted. It is easy to say that in order for the United States to continue to build strength and remain the best country in the world, we must embrace each other and our differences. In fact, differences should not be seen as negatives but opportunities for growth and understanding. It is in the possibility of forging an American culture that many immigrants from distant lands have been able to set a foundation for their new lives. This in turn as resulted in a need for multiculturalism in the first place. It is going to extremely difficult for American as a country to continue growing if we do not embrace the positives that each of us bring to the collective melting pot. We must forget about social constructs like race and ethnicity by seeing ourselves as Americans not as labels. This indeed is the greatest challenge as many cultures remain separate in order to succeed.

Works Cited

Auster, Lawrence. “How Multiculturalism Took Over America.” 9 July 2004: 1+. 28 June 2005

Hurh, Won Moo. The Korean-American Dream: Immigrant and Small Business in New. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Immigrant Entrepreneurs.” Research Perspectives on Migration 1.2 (1997): 10+.

Kang, Connie, K. Home Was the Land of Morning Calm: A Saga of a Korean-American Family. Reading, MA: Perseus Publishing, 1995.

Kim, Elaine, H. And Eui-Young Yu. East to America: Korean-American Life Stories. New York: The New Press, 1996.

Kim, Hyung-Chan and Wayne Patterson. The Koreans in America 1882-1974: A Chronology and Fact Book. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1973.

Lee, Seong Woo, et al. “Determinants and Consequences of Korean Immigration.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 64.2 (2005): 609-636.

Matray, James, I. “Korea in the Cross Currents: A Century of Struggle and the Crisis of Reunification.” Korean Studies 26.1 (2002): 150+.

Melendy, Brett, H. Asians in America: Filipinos, Koreans and East Indians. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

Montagu, M.F. Ashley, ed. Culture: Man’s Adaptive Dimension. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Patterson, Wayne. “Century of the Tiger: One Hundred Years of Korean Culture in America 1903-2003.” Korean Studies 26.2 (2002): 323+.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

Weinberg, Meyer. Asian-American Education: Historical Background and Current Realities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.

Yoon, in-Jin. On My Own: Korean Business and Race Relations in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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