Korean American Identity


In the history of mankind, massive migration of people have played and continue to play an important and multifaceted role. Immigration is one of the forms of adaptation of people to the changing conditions of life. The process of adaptation of numerous groups of immigrants, arriving from countries with very diverse socio-cultural and political value and traditions, is always difficult. As for the Korean society in the United States, it is a diverse and complex composition of the ethnic community. Korean community in the United States is the result of very recent emigration, which has not been completed yet. As American Koreans are more recent immigrants, it is very difficult for them to assimilate and find their identity. Some of them try not to lose their Korean identity, traditions, customs, and keep their culture. However, many of them, especially those, who were born in the USA, want to identify themselves as part of the American nation, trying to become full citizens of the United States and the so-called “native speakers”, not the “false speakers” of English. Unfortunately, some fail this attempt. In this paper, Chang-Rae Lee's novel Native Speaker is used to explore the problems with adaptation and the crisis of Korean American identity, as well as the effects of bilingualism and bicultural identity on the Korean immigrants in the USA.


The Crisis of Korean American Identity

Modern American researchers do not use the term "American nation", "nation of the United States", and talk about contemporary American society, which is characterized by ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity; they prefer to use the terms such as "assimilation", "integration", and "adaptation", stressing on the phased, multi-level, and multi-faceted nature of the formation of American identity. Every immigrant's adaptation process has several stages: excitement, frustration, cultural shock, optimism, and adaptation. The immigrants need to find their way of adaptation. First way can occur through assimilation, when people are completely immersed into a foreign environment, retreating from their own cultural, social, and linguistic roots. In this case, immigrants lose their original identity. Second way is separation, which can be seen on the example of diaspora or ethnic groups. Coming into the country, immigrant workers keep their traditions and national identity; they do not try to integrate into the culture that surrounds them. In addition to separation and assimilation, there is a third way of adaptation, called marginalization. This is both rejection of foreign and reluctance to keep native culture; it usually leads to the criminalization of community and the degradation of the individual. The fourth and the best way of adaptation is integration. It assumes that people, keeping their culture, try to integrate into the culture and language of the host country. The adaptation of migrants to new cultural environment though suggests changes in their values and norms do not require them to change of identity. They have adapted to the new environment and are involved in the life of the host country to the same extent as the majority of the local population. The only significant factor of the cultural properties in this regard is language skills. It is assumed that, as long as the individual has managed to successfully blend into the labor market, the person has the necessary language competence.

Ethnic identity is a part of the social identity of the individual; it is the psychological category, which refers to the awareness of belonging to a certain ethnic community. There is a group of Koreans that are a part of the Korean nation, but they have adapted economically, integrated socially, and largely assimilated culturally. Some of them were born and raised in Korea, have a Korean national identity, and are non-indigenous group, that is, the Korean minority in the US population. Many of them are US citizens, part of the community of American citizens. They identify themselves as Koreans, even though they were born or grew up in the United States and mostly culturally assimilated.

There is another group of Koreans, largely subjected to the processes of assimilation and therefore conscious of their isolation from the Korean nation; they were born and raised in the United States, economically, socially, and culturally integrated into the American society, but they understand and feel a sense of separation from the dominant groups of the majority of the American nation. Among the Koreans, who were born in the United States, there is a tendency to mixed marriages, including representatives of the white majority. However, they do not want to feel completely cut off the Korean nation. Their ethnic identity is manifested in identifying themselves as American Koreans. This is a fast-growing part of the Korean ethnic group, which is associated with the American nation. In addition, they have conceived a feeling of solidarity with other Asian minorities, especially the East Asian origin.

The crisis of identity dramatically reduces the possibility of the integration of immigrants into another culture. It is the reason why Henry Park, the main character of Chang-Rae Lee's novel Native Speaker, fails to integrate. He wants to immerse into the American culture, but is unsuccessful. He cannot confidently include himself neither to Americans nor to Koreans. He asks himself, what defines identification. If there is the place of birth, then Henry was born on board of an airplane. If upbringing affects identity, then Henry grew up in New York but was brought up in the Korean style and in accordance with Korean traditions. That is why, Henry suffers, experiencing the crises of identity. For the successful adaptation process, immigrants need to solve the problems of their cultural and ethnic identity.

Adaptation of Korean Immigrants in the USA

Insufficient knowledge of the language and local conditions prevented Korean immigrants from getting the specialty, so the shopkeeper with Korean university diploma in Los Angeles is not rare phenomenon. However, in any case, immigrant did not become farmers. The second generation of immigrants went to college in large numbers, so now Koreans compete with Chinese and Jews in the fight for the title of the most educated ethnic group in America. Medicine is very popular among young Koreans; this discipline is among the most prestigious and well-paid professions which in the US. However, the main occupation of the first generation of immigrants is a small business. Henry's father from the novel Native Speaker is the standard representative of this first generation. About forty per cent of Koreans have their own business. By American standards, it is a very high figure. Basically, Koreans have grocery and vegetable shops, dry cleaners, gas stations, car repair, and so on. Koreans often kept shops in the black areas, where only a few decided to sell due to chronically high levels of crime. It is clear that the blacks treat prosperous merchants not very well, and from time to time try to raid their shops. One of such notorious events ib the history of Koreans in the United States is known as «Sa-I-Gu», which is not just the tragedy of the American Koreans but a transnational manifestation of the crisis of modern society in general.

Koreatown in Los Angeles is known as the area of the former African-American neighborhoods. Korean immigrants gradually pushed African-Americans and bought their small business; they made money on the black customers. The language barrier, the difference in the manner of behavior and communication with people exacerbated the tense relations between Koreans and African-Americans. In addition, they had strong negative stereotypes with respect to each other. Koreans began to consider blacks as lazy, illiterate, and thieving, and African-Americans called Koreans greedy and rude. The shops of Korean immigrants almost daily were attacked by black street gangs and they repeatedly heard the deadly shots. Victims list was updated every year, so Koreans also began to arm themselves for the purpose of self-defense. Of course, there are the mistakes of the leaders of Korean-American communities, who were unable to adjust their immigrant compatriots in the wave of multiculturalism, inter-racial, and inter-ethnic dialogue. Even the Koreans contributed to the emergence of stereotype as a fast growing rich and prosperous immigrants who drive around in limousines, wear gold watches and diamonds, and send their children to study at Harvard. Many stereotypes prove to be false, but appeared once, they remain stable for a long time. In fact, statistics show that most American Koreans can hardly be attributed to the category of well-paid or high-income.

Now the stereotype of a model minority, which is often applied to the Koreans, begins to bother them, as well as other Asian-Americans. This image has been successfully used to soothe the problems, faced by this minority, or to criticize other minorities who are not so fortunate, and therefore more lazy. This position fuels passions. By the way, after «Sa-I-Gu», the University of Southern California and a number of other prestigious American universities have established "Asian quota", limiting the number of Asian-American students.

One of the characteristics of the Korean community of the United States is a huge part of the Protestant churches as the main organizer of the Korean diaspora. The American Koreans were immigrants from predominantly Christian country, and of course, the church became the center of organization of the new Korean community. Most Koreans are faithful supporters of Protestantism, common in the United States. However, despite this, Koreans rarely become members of the existing American parishes, but prefer to create their own, purely Korean. These churches are the main centers of communication and mutual support for them.

Assimilation is Pay for Success

To a greater extent than other ethnic groups, American Koreans orient their children to higher education and professional career. Therefore, young Koreans want to acquire not only specialized knowledge, without which they would not be accepted to the university, but also the English language and American culture, because without fluency in English and understanding of American society, it is very difficult to achieve success. Even Koreans, who have received the best education of their parents' language, would experience great difficulties at the university entrance exams and at the university.

Some parents, who try to keep their traditions and language, send their children to weekend courses of the Korean language, which exist in many parish. It is clear that, as the result, young people have neither time nor willingness to study the Korean language or to read Korean books. In addition, many of them do not see a specific need to learn the language, spoken by their ancestors, because it takes a long time, but makes no benefits. Only a small part of those Koreans, who were born in the United States, are able to read and write in Korean. As a result, the second generation of Koreans in the US are not very fluent in Korean, and their lifestyle and worldview is also the same as their American peers'.

Bilingualism and Bicultural Identity

In today's global cultural situation in connection with immigration, more and more people talking and thinking in two or more languages appear. The phenomenon of bilingualism emerged about a hundred years ago, but today it is reinterpreted and updated with new features. Many people and linguists under bilingualism mistakenly understand equal and free communication in two or more languages and simultaneous translation from one language to another without preparation. However, the reality is that bilingualism exists in all countries of the world, and communication in two or more languages does not mean fluency in both of them. Besides this, an accent is almost always present. Immigration is a global process, which significantly contributes to the appearance of bilingualism. The process of socialization is directly related to the psychological and linguistic adaptation. Immigrants usually speak their native language at home, but use the second language for communication at work. However, in many large American cities, there are areas where Koreans can live, not knowing English and safely dispensing one Korean. It is not coincidence that almost half of the Koreans, that are employed, are working in companies that belong to the Korean businessmen. In such firms, as a rule, all the staff is made up of Koreans, who have come recently and barely speak English.

The problem of language is one of the most important among the immigrants. It also appears in Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker. The language here is one of the main factors that determine the identity. Though claiming that he belongs to the American community, Henry Park remains undetermined; like many other Korean immigrants, he is in-between. He realizes that everything cannot fall into only one category, as well as his identity is in the middle and seems neither purely Korean nor to American. He has not denied his Korean identity, but has not accepted American; and his use of language played a great role in this uncertainty. His wife Lelia has even written the list of Henry's unwanted traits, in which she has indicated that he is a stranger, follower, a false speaker of English, but not a native speaker. The different ways of using language by Lelia, who is American, and Henry, played the critical role not only in their relations but also in his search for identity. His wife often imposed a synthetic identity to him, which he could not find in himself.

There is a great difference between bilingualism and biculturalism. It should be noted that the concept of bilingualism is widely discussed today from the standpoint of linguistics and sociolinguistics, and the notion of biculturalism is considered within multiculturalism, the phenomenon of the equality of all cultures. Culture defines all aspects of human activity: organization, norms, beliefs, values, and traditions. The culture of each individual consists of major aspects of culture, for example, national, linguistic, social, religious, and the secondary aspects, such as occupation, sports, hobbies, and so on. Bicultural identity is characterized by a selective combination of major and minor aspects of the two cultures. However, the synthesis of the two cultures, in particular, with antagonistic political environment, often creates problems. The essential difference between bilingualism and biculturalism is that bilingual person can speak any of two languages, depending on the situation, while bicultural identity is a phenomenon that does not depend on the language environment, but on language skills. Thus, the better people communicate in any language, the more cultural stereotypes they perceive; the weaker language skills are, the less people are subjected to cultural adaptation.

Bicultural identity is different from monocultural, as it lies in the fact that a person cannot be attributed only to the particular culture. As in case with Henry Park in Native Speaker, the personality feels mixing and blending of cultures; however, he cannot unambiguously classify thimself to one or another culture. Henry seems to be bilingual and bicultural person, which contributes to his search for true identity. He feels neither American nor Korean. This mixture of Americanness and Koreanness makes him feel as a stranger. In a person's life, as well as in the life of the whole community, there are situations, where the answer to a simple question: "Who am I?" becomes a significant issue. The growth of ethnic awareness of group differences is inevitably linked with the perception of a person's similarity to the members of the same ethnic group and the differences from the other groups. Many adult bilingual immigrants do not feel themselves as representatives of any culture; positioning themselves between cultures, they form a separate group of people with bicultural nature and bicultural identity. Bicultural behavior is a mixture of cultures. Having one dominant culture, bilingual person can either switch from one to another, in accordance with the situation, or borrow some impressed and convenient to him cultural norms and rules of conduct. However, there are still people, who, living in the USA, are monocultural, for example, a housemaid called Ahjumah, who raised little Henry. She keeps Korean traditions and is completely committed to Korea. However, complete assimilation can also lead to monoculturalism, when a person or the whole community immerse in the new culture in such a way that forget the homeland. History knows many examples of gradual linguistic, ethnic, and cultural dissolution of small ethno-cultural groups in the dominant cultural and linguistic environment. The ideology of "melting pot" of the American society suppressess ethnocentrism of American ethnic groups.


In general, Korean community in the USA is numerous and complex. American Koreans of the first generation of immigrants is mostly subjected to integration. They have a keen interest in all that is happening in their homeland and often visit it. They have adapted to the new environment for them, but they do not expect a renunciation of any manifestations of cultural identity of the country of their origin. That is why, as a rule, such American Koreans are bilingual but has monocultural, Korean identity. The example of Mr. Park in the novel Native Speaker clearly characterizes the first generation of Korean immigrants. The second generation is mostly affected by the processes of assimilation. Being born in Korea or even the USA, but growing up definitely in the United States, they have merged with American society; they are bicultural and bilingual. They consider themselves a part of the Korean ethnic group in America. As a result, the second generation of Koreans in the US are not very fluent in Korean and have American lifestyle. However, the identity crisis may happen as in case with Hanry Park. And in this case, language and the ways a person uses it plays a great role. The example of Henry shows that sometimes, when making attempts to become a native speaker, a person cannot find his true cultural, ethnic, and language identity, and stops in the middle, remaining a stranger to both cultures.

Jun 26, 2020 in Research
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