The ICAS Lectures

No. 2001-0818-SHH

Germinating and Taking Roots in America:
'Acculturation' as the 'Assimilation' of the 21st Century:
A Possible Shift In Focus for Post Immigrant Generation Korean Americans

Sahang-Hee Hahn

ICAS Spring Symposium
Korean Diaspora: Challenges facing the Korean-American Community (KAC) in the New Century

Jubilee Presbyterian Church
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August 18, 2001

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Biographic Sketch: Sahang-Hee Hahn

Germinating and Taking Roots in America: 'Acculturation' as the 'Assimilation' of the 21st Century:
A Possible Shift In Focus for Post Immigrant Generation Korean Americans

Sahang-Hee Hahn


In the United States of America, the topic of assimilation has remained a contemporary issue for several centuries, under continual study and discussion. Rightly labeled 'the nation of immigrants,' America still keeps its doors open to immigration, and since the late 1970s, allows the annual arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants into the country. Thus the 'assimilation issue' still plays an active role in the lives of today's U.S. inhabitants: of U.S. immigrants and post immigrant generations as they adapt to life in this country, and of longer-established Americans who must now deal with the arrival of newcomers to their country.

Koreans are among the Asian American immigrants that comprise the bulk of recent immigration to the U.S. Upon arrival, they have moved quickly to establish themselves economically in America, a priority that Professor John Bodnar describes as being a top if not the highest concern among incoming immigrants (278). Therefore it has become the task of the following Korean American generations, financially established and free of an cumbersome language barrier, to seek full integration into American society. Going beyond one's economic stability in America, the integration that Korean Americans desire is social; to become socially integrated to U.S. society, or to accept and to be accepted as belonging to America and its culture.

For the sake of clarification, certain sociological terms have been defined. The term used in this paper to describe a person's acceptance of and acceptance into a culture will be known as integration; its opposite will be known as marginalism, where one is not an active participant and does not feel as if he/she belongs to a society. A term often used interchangeably with integration is assimilation, where one becomes a part of a body by becoming uniform to its pre-established members. However, in this paper assimilation will instead represent Americanization, a method of achieving social acceptance through homogenizing one's self to mainstream American culture. Acculturation is often used as the replacement of one's inherited cultural values with those of another. However for the purposes of this discussion it too possesses a different definition: where one becomes a fully accepted member of a culture, not by becoming like the dominant culture, but through influencing that society by making its own unique cultural contribution.

Although the redefinitions of these terms may prove cumbersome, there is a good reason and need for their reclassification in this paper. For it is precisely the distinctions made between the different definitions of such terms as 'assimilation,' 'integration,' and 'acculturation,' that forms this paper's key argument.

Many Korean Americans, as well as many other post immigrant generations of the past have viewed assimilation as the best method of becoming integrated into society. Others more extreme in their views have seen assimilation as the only successful way of becoming accepted by mainstream society. UCLA historian Dr. Ichioka describes the pressure to assimilate post-immigrant generation Asian Americans experience with simple words: "There [is] . . . this kind of enforced Americanization . . . held up as an ideal . . . [where] you [are] supposed to get rid of your . . . old culture and traits, and make yourself in the image of [an] Anglo-Saxon . . . Americans" (Kang).

However, even the most sincere efforts to assimilate have not succeeded in fully integrating Asian Americans to American society. Journalist Connie Kang of The Los Angeles Times succinctly describes the marginalized feelings of today's Asian Americans in the Los Angeles area by saying that, "Asian Americans say that they do not feel fully vested in America's social, corporate and political life. They often are made to feel like foreigners, no matter how long their families have been here" There is a great need among post-immigrant generation Korean Americans as well as among all other such Asian Americans for extensive study, to examine the reasons why assimilation may not necessarily lead to social integration.

However, currently emerging trends indicate that assimilation may not be the chosen future method of social integration. Experts observing currently emerging trends in today's world, including its economy, societal view of certain issues, governmental policy, and population demographics all point to the same conclusion: that the America of tomorrow will become increasingly different from the America of the past. And because of these great changes, there promises to also be a great change in the way an immigrant and post immigrant people integrate into a society. Although many publications have outlined the future America from different perspectives, experts generally perceive it in the same light: diverse, and constantly changing, viewing the contribution of one's different strengths, talents, and characteristics, as the lifeblood of a culture. In a society where an individual establishes him/herself by his/her characteristic differences, the technique of homogenizing assimilation will quickly become obsolete. Furthermore, as population demographics indicate the probability of the future extinction of any ethnic group as a majority, assimilation becomes impossible; there is no mainstream culture to copy.

This paper begins with general information concerning the patterns of integration found in America's immigrant history. Afterwards, a small discussion outlines the reasons why assimilation, may not necessarily lead to social integration. Following this is a small analysis of the current marginalized state of today's Korean Americans as an issue largely unsolved by their efforts to assimilate. Then it describes the emerging trends that outline 21st century America as one receptive for Korean American acculturation to U.S. society. Lastly, this paper makes a proposal: for the Korean- and Asian-American community to shift their attention from the issue of Americanization to the issue of acculturation, the superior alternative form of social integration.

The Myth of Inevitable Assimilation:

Although the growing voices of certain immigrant communities currently call attention to their feelings of marginalism, another belief, staunchly rooted in the American mind, can drone out their words: the belief in the inevitability of assimilation.

Belief in 'inevitable assimilation' can be found as early as 1782, in J. Hector St. John de Crévecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer, where he states that in America "individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men" (27). During the 19th century in particular, this belief took on a more colorful description, and came to be known as the 'Melting Pot' idea, an image used to describe the liquidating aspect that assimilation was said to have upon an immigrant's native culture. Israel Zangwill well describes the unavoidable nature this idea in his play, The Melting Pot:
"Where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming,/ Here you stand, good folk/ in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories,/ and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries./ But you wont' be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you've come to/ . . . Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians-God is making the American!" (46)

The belief continues in contemporary literature, though the Melting Pot image has long since fallen out of favor. In the December of 2000 issue of The American Enterprise, journalist Mike Barone supports current U.S. immigration with the assurances that, "heavy immigration has been the rule in American history . . . and . . . America . . . [will always find] ways to productively absorb them all."

The Increasing Voice of Disbelief

However, with the advance of the 20th century, a growing number of accounts have begun to point out the impossibility of this liquidating assimilation, commonly known as 'Americanization.' By regarding his own definition for the term, as "[becoming] completely one" with American society, by "[losing] all trace or suggesting of his foreign origin," sociologist Henry P. Fairchild states that "it is doubtful whether . . . any adult immigrant to any country is every completely assimilated" (179). This viewpoint can be found with increasing frequency in today's literature, in newspapers, personal memoirs, and sociological reports. It is the examination of some of these accounts that provide a basis for which examine the terms 'assimilation' and 'integration;' namely, the reason why the former does not necessarily cause the latter.

Possible Explanations: Why Assimilation Does Not Necessarily Lead to Integration:

Point 1: Similarity Alienates

One reason that the attempted assimilation of an ethnic group to mainstream society may fail lies in the possibility that such actions may alienate the dominant culture. This psychological explanation for this societal behavior is not completely understood; yet history provides ample illustrations of this situation. One of the Hoover Institute's Senior Fellows at Stanford University, Thomas Sowell, states quite clearly that it is the similarities between two ethnic groups that may lead to intergroup hostility. He uses the late 19th to early 20th century behavior between African and Irish Americans as an example:
"The advancement of blacks has been bitterly fought at various stages of history by the Irish, whose incomes and occupations were long similar to those of blacks . . . yet despite these similarities-or because of them-blacks and the Irish have had the greatest hostility, violence, and bloodshed to exist between any two ethnic groups in ethnic history." (290)

Point 2: Assimilation may already be viewed as impossible

Experts have also voiced the belief, that it is also the dominant culture's view of the differences between itself and that of the ethnic that may always bar social acceptance. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans continually confronts the presence of Asian stereotypes in the entertainment business. One media image it strongly protests is the use of the 'alien Asian,' identified as outside mainstream American society. It's website states that "because they are racially and culturally distinctive from the American mainstream, Asian people have been widely seen as unable to be absorbed into American society. . . this is reflected in the media . . . [and] ultimately suggests that anything Asian must remain apart from American society." It is not surprising that if the media of a culture constantly emphasizes the differences between itself and what it perceives to be an 'alien' culture, that ethnic group will never be able to convince the members of either party that the two are indeed alike.

Point 3: active participation and success in the mainstream economy does not equal social integration

A February of 1998 edition of the Washington Post states that, "traditionally, immigration scholars have seen the phenomenon of assimilation [for many cases] as a relentless economic progression" (Booth 5). In the face of this opinion however, are other experts who would disagree to establishing such a broad connection between economic prosperity and integration. Thomas Sowell makes a distinction between two employment methods of recently immigrated ethnic groups: self-employment and small enterprise, versus non-immigrant employed labor. According to Sowell, both financial strategies yields a different measure of assimilation, according to the measure of social integration required in order to make each commercially profitable (286-287).

Many observers have noted upon the tendency of Asians to choose self-employment and small enterprise over employment by non-immigrant Americans, unlike many non-Asian immigrant groups who pursued the opposite course (Sowell 36). Sociologist Max Weber states that Asian immigrants have always understood the value of self-employment and small-scale enterprise for those who are denied participation to other aspects of society due to racial prejudice (Butler). Beginning with farming and garment making in the early 1900s, Asian immigrants eventually moved toward businesses either run by one's own family or by members of the same ethnic group. It is this dogged pursuit of small enterprise that has largely led to the prosperity of today's Asian American communities, which possess a higher median income than that belonging to Caucasian households (Butler). But as profitable as self-employment may be, Sowell argues that the resultant lack of exposure to American culture has taken its toll on the integrative efforts of Asian Americans.

Sociologist Thomas Sowell states that whereas immigrants with non-immigrant employees (largely the situation of most non-Asian immigrants) absorbed American culture and language in order to function smoothly in the work place, the self-employment tendency of Asian Americans to work under non-Asians resulted in less exposure to American culture (287). He observes that, in fact, "groups that have the skills and entrepreneurship to be self-employed, or to employ one another, have not even had to learn English to prosper" (286). Here one finds a partial explanation of the lower level of social integration found among Asian immigrants than non-Asian immigrants. While both Asian and non-Asian immigrants had shared the mutual goal of economic prosperity; they had become socially integrated at different levels because they had used different approaches toward their success. This directly contradicts the statement that any economic progression eventually leads to social integration; the method of one's economic success plays a crucial role.

Point 4: Economic establishment in a dominant culture may produce hostility from other ethnic groups

While the method of one's economic success can play a crucial role in one's social integration, the extent of one's success can play an equally important role towards how the dominant culture may react to a certain ethnic group. In the past, it has been the quick success of an ethnic group into American society's economic ranks that have caused hostility from the mainstream inhabitants. Although there are many available examples to illustrate this concept, the one introduced in this paper will be the L.A. riots of 1992, also known to Korean Americans as sa-i-gu, a 3-day period where 4,500 stores were burned to the ground, totaling a financial loss of over 1 billion dollars, over 50% of which was suffered by Korean Americans.

Journalist John Butler attributes the L.A. riots of 1992 directly to the hostility . . . generated toward [any] successful group because of its economic accomplishments" (4). However, author Helen Zia of the memoir, Asian-American Dreams: The Emergence of An American People goes further, likening the significance of the L.A. riots to the Korean American experience to the impact that the World War II Internment had upon Japanese Americans. She describes it as an historical event that forced the Korean American community to re-evaluate the reality of their American Dream, the real level of their integration to society (172).

Assimilation Has Not Led To the Social Integration of Korean Americans

In the midst of the social and economic aspects of immigrant integration, there lies the personal or psychological aspect. In the post-immigrant generation Korean American psyche, marginalism, the feeling of not belonging, or not being accepted as a core element of American society, has remained to trouble our sense of ethnic identity and self. Helen Zia describes one of her personal experiences, during the Vietnam War, when voiced anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. aggravated her own ethnic identity conflict:
"I had become the personification of a war nearly ten thousand miles away. Since I looked like the enemy, I must be the enemy. At the same time, there was no place for me in the debates over national issues like the war or racial equality. People like me were absent from everything that was considered to be 'American'-from TV, movies, newspapers, history, and everyday discussions that took place in the schoolyard. It was hard to feel American when I wasn't treated like one. Yet I didn't feel Asian, either: I couldn't speak Chinese and I hardly knew Chinatown, let alone China. The void left me with many questions." (14)

An online survey taken by many Asian Americans in 2001 reveal results also reflecting feelings of marginalism. Of those who prefer to make Asian friends, 52% linked their preference to not having to wonder 'about social prejudices.'

Of all annoying circumstances that can be found living as an Asian American, there was a tie at 28% between offensive media portrayals of Asians, and being asked one's place of origin from other non-Asians. 63% of those who took the survey claim that Asian stereotypes have not improved over the past three years. Although 77% of the Asian Americans who have taken the survey believe in the possibility of leading a bi-cultural life, 58% also say that the fear of appearing to Asian and the concern for peer acceptance discourages their efforts.

While understanding the obvious limitations and general inaccuracy of this online poll, one may still draw certain conclusions. To the Asian Americans who took the survey, it is very likely that they have all, at least at one time in their lives, experienced feelings of marginalism. The majority of those to take the survey expressed an awareness of existing social prejudice and a stereotypical image of Asian Americans. They also expressed a desire for, therefore indicating a lack of, social and peer acceptance. It is these issues that the Korean American has not yet answered. The need for social integration remains in today's non-immigrant Asian Americans. If the process of assimilation has not yet fully integrated Korean Americans as well as other Asian Americans into American culture, there is a pressing need for an integrative process that will.

The Unique Demands of the 21st Century: Out with Homogeneity, In with Multiculturalism

The call for change could not come at a better time. Although sa-i-gu may have called the attention of the entire Korean American community to the fulfillment of its American Dream, there are other factors deserving of notice. The growing numbers of reports and other literary pieces by contemporary sociologists, economists, and other experts all herald tidings of great change in virtually all aspects of society: in population demographics, international business and marketing, as well as the domestic job market and American social environment. This introduces the final outlook of this paper at the discrepancy between integration and assimilation: Does integration to tomorrow's society truly require assimilated individuals? Does the stability of 21st century America call for homogeneity in all its members?

Current trends answer in the negative. In The Color of Our Future, author Farai Chideya dispels the illusion of the existence of a dominant culture in the 21st century within the first chapter of her book. According to Chideya, studies predict that by year 2050, the Caucasian non-Hispanic majority of today will become the minority group of tomorrow. Chideya correctly describes today's situation as "uncharted territory for this country." She also attacks the key issue in the midst of changes in population demographics: "in our minds . . . with the fixed idea of what and who America is, and race relations in this nation . . . are rapidly becoming obsolete" (5). Far from alone in redefining their role in American society, Korean Americans now stand to participate in a movement sweeping across all American ethnic groups.

There is no doubt that as ethnic groups continue to grow, so will the importance of bilingualism in future employees. Journalist Michael Quintanilla of the Los Angeles Times observes firsthand the growing need for bilingualism that almost exceeds the supply of bilingual L.A. residents. He notes that "a growing number of local employers are placing a premium on bilingual employees, many offering promotions or bonuses . . . in their eagerness to fulfill such needs" (Quintanilla). According to Quintanilla, the deputy district director of the Department of Public Services has also found a need for bilingual employees in every department.

According to today's leading economists, the need for bilingual and bicultural professionals will extend far beyond the domestic market (Naisbitt 240). In Megatrends Asia, economist John Naisbitt predicts the formation of international networks between the eastern and western hemispheres to increase exponentially in the future, leading to changes in the global and domestic economy posing tremendous implications for the future role of Asian Americans in the 21st century. He goes so far as to name Asian Americans as "the pivotal players in the new global configuration of East and West" (239). According to Naisbitt, Kiuchi Aoyama, a partner of Heidrick & Struggles, the world's oldest executive search firm, that currently "there is a tremendous demand for executive managers with a bicultural background" (240).

The U.S. government has also begun giving its input on what seems to be the global trend towards multiculturalism. In the presentation of Congressman Doug Bereuter's paper at the Heritage Foundation on March 6, 2001, he announced that the U.S. government viewed "most of Asia [as having recovered] from the 1997 financial crisis" (3). Thus undeterred by the economic meltdown that occurred across the Asian Continent less than 5 years ago, Bereuter states that now the U.S. "stands ready to engage [Asia] economically . . . by applying public and private resources to our financial and commercial relationships with Asia to expand our trade and marketing capital" (3).

And one must not ignore what effect broadened mutli-ethnic relations may have on life in America. Recent polls taken amongst teenagers and post immigrant generation Asian Americans have revealed a social mindset more open to cultural differences than ever before. According to a 1997 USA Today/Gallup Poll, 57% of American teens have dated outside their ethnic group (Marks). However, 87% of American teens claimed to see nothing wrong with interethnic dating (Marks). Intermarriage levels are low in comparison; they comprise 4% of yearly marriages (Marks). However, even this figure is a tenfold increase from the level of intermarriage in 1960. Therefore one may say that the mindset of America's young people continues to make progress in embracing cultural and racial differences of its peers.

Conclusion: The Logical Shift in Focus From 'Assimilation' to 'Acculturation'

The focus of this paper is not to address the best means by which Korean Americans may pursue acculturation or to 'acculturate' themselves to the America of tomorrow. Rather its purpose lies in calling attention to today's Korean Americans to shift their focus; from the issue of Americanization and its study, to the study and confrontation of acculturation, and discovering whatever effects it may have upon their lives.

The Korean Americans' struggle to establish their own niche in society as fully integrated members of American culture continues to this day. In the past, Korean Americans, along with most other Asian Americans, preoccupied themselves with the idea of Americanization when it comes to fitting one's self into today's culture. Up until very recently, social integration has been viewed as a matter of Americanization, making one's acceptance into a society a compromise between obtaining ethnic identity, in exchange for relinquishing ethnic heritage.

Fortunately, currently emerging trends indicate a change in opportunities for Asian Americans to integrate to American society. From obsolete to nearly impossible in the 21st century, assimilation may become the integrative dinosaur of acculturation, the future success strategy of Korean Americans to root themselves in U.S. culture. Based upon the mutli-cultural, diversity and open-mindedness that promise to characterize our future, it contains the possibility of full social incorporation without any unnecessary loss of ethnic heritage, and more importantly, one's own identity.


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ICAS Fellow