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Growing Up Asian In America - 2002-04-19


English Feature #7-34620 Broadcast March 19, 2001

The United States is no longer thought of as a "melting pot" of the different ethnic groups that have settled here, but rather as a "salad bowl", or "mosaic", or even a "rainbow". These current metaphors suggest that newer immigrant groups tend to retain their individuality while becoming part of the whole. Today on New American Voices two women who immigrated to the United States from South Korea as teenagers talk about the challenges of keeping a Korean identity while becoming American.

Kay Kim immigrated to the United States with her parents just before she turned thirteen. She found the new world surrounding her to be very different from the one she knew - and very white.

"When I came over here I was in seventh grade. At that time there weren't any Asians around, in my school anyway. You know, I think it was all Caucasian, actually. So whoever I saw every day would be, you know, what you would label "white people". And then I would go into the bathroom and see my reflection and I'd get a shock, I really did. I looked different, you know, and I'm thinking, 'My goodness, what's wrong with me?'"

Mrs. Kim adjusted to life in America. She went on to receive a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Maryland, and now is Director of the Office of Patent Quality Review in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Each Saturday she takes her twelve-year-old daughter to the United Korean School of Washington, where she also serves as the president of the Parent-Teacher Association. Dr. Kim says she doesn't agonize over whether her daughter thinks of herself as Korean or American.

"No, I don't. What I do worry is in any way that she would feel inferior because she looks different. Totally she's American. Totally. She was born here, raised here, she is fed American food, fed American culture, but she looks different. Other people view her differently, they expect something different from her, whereas she feels like every one of you all, with blue eyes, green eyes, blond hair, whatever. So I just want her to know that she has and she can be proud of the diverse cultural background that she brings with her."

Jason Park, a Korean-American writer, has taught culture and history to teenagers at the Korean school for a number of years, and is familiar with the problems they face.

"I think, as you know, the minority students, especially Koreans or Asian students, they have a difficult time identifying themselves with the mainstream. And I think most of them go through some sort of a psychological or emotional struggle. However, I think as they grow up they come to the realization that their root is unique, they have their own culture in the background, and therefore I think teaching them history and culture is very helpful."

With the help of institutions like the Korean Saturday or Sunday schools, and the numerous Korean churches in the Washington area, many young Korean-Americans retain their Korean identity. Angelina Shamway, a program coordinator for senior citizens' programs who immigrated to the United States at age 15, says she believes that it is possible to be both Korean and American.

"I'm living proof (laughs). The traditional side of me is Korean, and the cultural side of me is Korean. But then I'm married to an American man, and I have what I need in order for me to live as an American with my American husband, to have a harmonized family. That part is American."

On Saturdays Mrs. Shamway works as a teacher at the United Korean School of Washington, hoping to help her students achieve the harmony in their lives that she has managed to achieve in hers.

"I would say the problem they have is that they feel, as Korean-American children, they face the language barrier at home, and also cultural shock at home with their first-generation Korean parents. And I myself, as a Korean-American who grew up here, have a better understanding in both cultures. I have a pride in working as a Korean teacher, working as a bridge-type thing, you know, connecting both the first and second generation of Koreans."

The Korean community of Washington, numbering over 100,000 people, is one of the largest ethnic groups in the area. One of the smallest is the Lithuanian, with no more than 300 families living in Washington, D.C. and its suburbs. Next week on New American Voices you'll meet parents, teachers and students at the tiny Lithuanian Saturday school.

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