The ICAS Lectures

No. 2000-0818-SHH

Identity and Growth

Sahang Hee Hahn

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

Yuong Sang Presbyterian Church Mission Center
706 Witmer Road, Horsham, PA 19044
May 1, 2000

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
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Biographic Sketch: Sahang Hee Hahn

A Pressing Concern: The Presence of Second-Generation Marginalism in Korean-American Adolescents

Sahang-Hee Hahn


From the first step every Korean immigrant placed upon arrival in the United States of America, he/she began the process of adjusting to new faces, a new land, and a new culture. And it seems that the same struggle has shadowed every step that they have taken since then. They arrived as a foreign people, or more specifically, a marginal people, a condition the dictionary describes as being "situated on the border or edge . . . marked by contact with disparate cultures, and acquiring some but not all of the traits or values common to any one of them." For the purposes of this paper, however, marginalism can best be described as the state of existing on the outskirts of a culture, without particularly belonging to, identifying with, or influencing that culture. Thus the ever-present marginality attached to immigrant status has resulted in the ever-present search for the ideal form of assimilation to American culture, more commonly known as "Americanization."

Unsurprisingly, the search for this ideal form of assimilation, or "Americanization," has crossed generations to become a hot topic of concern and discussion between second generation Korean-Americans. Common questions between and concerning second generation Korean- Americans are, "How 'Korean' are you? How 'American' are you? Do you consider yourself Korean-American or American-Korean?" Common questions between 1st generation Korean Americans concerning the second generation are, "Are my children losing our Korean culture? Are they becoming completely American? Do they know that they are different from Americans, that they are Koreans?" Indeed it seems reasonable to place the loss of Korean culture as the top concern when considering the second generation. After all, having been born into or having moved to this country at a very young age, they have picked up the English language, and have absorbed enough of the behavior, culture, and attitudes of American society to make it seem as though they feel no difference between themselves and their American, non-Korean neighbors.

This is a common misconception shared by 1st as well as 2nd generation Korean-Americans. Marginalism has not died with the language, cultural, and racial barrier of the immigrant parents that lost applicability to their children. The second generation has inherited the marginalism of their parents in a subtler form that runs deeper in the minds of the 2nd generation Korean-Americans more than it ever did in those of their immigrant parents. It is harder to detect, because the signs of their marginalized state are harder to distinguish in comparison to the obvious tell-tale 'red-flags' of 1st generation marginalism, such as language barrier, cultural barrier, etc. But regardless to whether or not it is acknowledged in the Korean- American community, it forms the backbone of the second-generation Korean-American psyche, and is often the root cause of the trends of certain behaviors peculiar to 2nd generation Korean- or Asian-Americans, ranging from the unhealthful to self-destructive.

The purpose of this paper is to identify behavior that results from second-generation marginalism, and to prove that it is a serious concern. As it is most easily identified among Korean-American adolescents than in any other age group, the purpose of this paper is also to expose the feelings of alienization resultant of marginalism that are also the root cause of many unbeneficial behaviors observable in Korean-American youths today. After identifying the feelings of alienizatin that the 2nd generation feels as an inherited form of the marginalism found in their parents, it establishes a responsibility on the first generation to help deal with this problem. With the added obligation of being a parent combined with that of being the preceeding generation, the first generation must also help shoulder the burden of establishing 2nd generation marginalism as a serious concern in need of a solution, to ensure the well-being of individual fellow Korean-Americans as well as to ensure the future well-being of the Korean-American community.

2.0 Generation Marginalism originates from Korean-Immigrant Marginalism, an alienated existence that is much easier to explain as well as to identify. Large numbers of Korean Immigrants came to the country in the 1970's, first to Hawaii and then to the lower parts of the U.S., urban areas in particular. Although they came to the country expecting economic prosperity in what they envisioned to be a land of opportunity, they quickly found out that due to the language and cultural barrier, it was very difficult to adjust to this society, especially on a professional working level. Instead many created businesses such as stores, dry cleaners, etc. Being unable to interact socially or linguistically with the American people around them, Korean immigrants became a marginal people, where they seek comfort from their alienated existence by having created a Korean subculture in the United States. Isolation during working hours and an almost exclusive association with other Korean-Americans in the off hours have prevented mass acculturation and have prevented the typical cultural stripping of immigrants as the 1st generation Koreans live in this country. It has been well established in literature that this Korean subculture is the most obvious in the larger cities, such as Los Angeles, New York City, and Philadelphia, where one can find large Korean-American communities as well as networks of Korean businesses and churches throughout that area. According to In Kee Kim in his paper, "A Dilemma Facing The Immigrant Church: A Case of Korean-Canadian Experience," (1) "the marginalized lose interest in a larger society beyond their personal realm. A wall of separation is created between the public and the private, the political and the personal." Kim goes further to describe a picture, of a house and three different groups of people, that he has observed in the Princeton Theological Seminary, which uses the third group of people to metaphorically describe the marginalized state of Korean immigrants in America:

"There is a two-story house. Upstairs, the people who govern the house live and downstairs lives another group of people who may not govern the house but enjoy the privilege freedom and life of the house. But there is another group of people outside the house, walking around the house, not knowing exactly what is going on inside and, every once in a while, they peep through a little opening to see what is going on in the house."
In Kim's opinion, the two major negative effects of marginalism are a lack of empowerment and ownership of the dominant culture, in this case, the American culture. Because of the barriers that language and culture present to 1.0 Generation Korean-Americans, they are cut-off from the dominant American society in which they live.

"Neither-One-Nor-The-Other" Marginalism

Although Immigrant marginalism is an oftenly discussed issue in the Korean-American community, less people recognize 2.0 generation marginalism as an equal if not greater problem. The truth is that marginalism continues in a different form, in the second generation Koreans that live in this country. Although outwardly they are more assimilated than their parental forbears, their inner marginalism is worse. While Korean immigrants have the firmly established identity of being a Korean people living in a foreign land, their children do not. In their own eyes as well as those of others, their inability to speak fluent Korean prevents them from being fully "Korean," and the racial and cultural differences between themselves and most of the people around them prevent them from being fully "American." They oftentimes feel cut off from both cultures, and absorb varying levels of American culture and Korean culture, depending on such factors such as location (proximity to other Korean-Americans), assimilation of parents to American society, and exposure to Korean-American peers. This "neither-one-nor-the-other" marginalism often proves the conscious or subconscious root of many unhealthful behaviors that have proven, are proving, and will prove detrimental to either particular individuals or to the future existence of the Korean-American community. In a September of 1998 issue of Newsweek, author Caroline Hwang in her article, "The Good Daughter," expresses her own feelings regarding 2.0 generation marginalism:(2)

"[people] do not see that I straddle two cultures, nor that I feel displaced in the only country I know. I identify with Americans, but Americans do not identify with me. I've never known what it's like to belong to a community- neither one at large, nor of an extended family."
Although marginalism applies to all Korean-Americans, resultant behavior varies, as it depends upon both the amount of assimilation to American society that they have undergone, as well as how much they struggle with their ethnic identity. In some cases, a success-oriented personality, an extremely Americanized attitude and behavior, or an exclusive social group comprised solely of other Korean Americans may be all that manifests from a Korean-American teen's identity crisis. But more dangerous than these could be destructive behavior to be 'cool', not participating in non-academic school functions, avoiding relationships with non-Korean peers, juvenile delinquency, violence, or joining a gang. Again, marginalism isn't always the culprit, but many of these behaviors can be traced back to desires, to belong, to receive respect from non-Koreans, to establish one's unique identity, free of Korean stereotypes and tradition, or just to be as 'cool' as one can be, to compensate for the feelings of alienization, inferiority, and loneliness that arise from marginalism.

The Belief that Cultural Stripping is the Key to Ideal Assimilation: Duplicate the 'system'

When projected into the future, even the most harmless of the behaviors mentioned above can prove harmful to either the future of individual Korean-Americans or the future of the Korean-American community. One issue of controversy and discussion in the Korean-American community is how 'Americanized,' Korean-Americans should become. This is in response to the fact that many 2.0 gen. individuals, who believe that the key to ideal assimilation is to completely "Americanize" themselves, try to negate their feelings of marginalism by embracing indiscriminately all aspects of the culture surrounding them. They learn the American language as they copy the customs, behavior, opinions , and clothing styles of American society as they duplicate American culture in themselves, while oftentimes neglecting their ethnic heritage. Although adaptation to one's surrounding is necessary for advancement in any society, in the process these Korean-Americans risk losing what writer Joseph McBride (3)calls, "an essential part of [ourselves], the part that [stems] from being part of a minority" . This is a common occurrence in suburban, Caucasian-dominated areas where Korean-Americans "[become] increasingly Americanized as they [drift] from their cultural identity and [become], in large part, a generation of outwardly assimilated but inwardly alienated suburb dwellers." Today, the difference between the levels of "Americanization" between typiefied cliques of Korean-American youths is a major source of the tension and lack of unity amongst young Korean-Americans. The projected outcome after several generations of increasingly Americanized Korean-Americans is that of 'cultural stripping', where the Korean-American community will will lose the Korean elements of its culture to become just another added element to the 'Melting-Pot' diversity of the United States. Not only will overcoming their feelings of marginality by absorbing as much of their surrounding culture as possible fail to work, this behavior will end any hopes of creating a unique Korean-American culture or of securing a united Korean-American community in the future. In his book, McBride quotes an individual expressing the nostalgia he feels for the ethnic-heritage that he has buried over the years in his efforts to assimilate to American society by saying "when I began to look at myself and think about my mom, my dad, what it was like growing up, what my childhood was like . . . I tried to go back, seeing what I had missed, and I realized that I had missed everything."

The Belief That Success is The Key to Ideal Assimilation: Beat the 'System'

Secondly, another manifestation of marginalism amongst second generation Korean-Americans, that also happens to pertain to Korean-Immigrants, is the belief that success, or economic prosperity, is the key to ideal assimilation. Most 2.0 generation Korean-Americans have been raised with the burning need to beat the system into which they were born as outsiders, by becoming successful and wealthy. Economic prosperity is a desirable element of assimilation and should be encouraged by all means, but with a healthy and ethnically aware perspective, if the Korean-American community is to remain united (4). A desire to succeed solely for one's own individual benefit will be beneficial for that particular person, yet prove ineffectual or even damaging to the Korean-American community as a whole. When "[one's] main concern is to adjust to the econo-technological society for their individual benefit . . . it is very difficult to form a meaningful community if not impossible. . . they become materialistic, competitive, and individualistic-traits that conflict with [the] ideal of true Americanization" Furthermore, Mcbride restates that fame and/or success will not obliterate unresolved conflicts with one's own ethnic identity; that requires confrontation of the issue, instead of using one's success to forget about it (3). The projected outcome after several generations of success-oriented, individualistic, materialistic, and competitive Korean-American individuals, is that unity within the Korean-American community will be lost. The feelings of obligation, unity, responsibility to, and concern for the Korean-American community and others of like ethnic heritage will fade with time, as the "every man or woman for his or herself," mentality becomes institutionalized in the minds of future Korean-American generations. As their individualism will mentally isolate them from the obligations and unity of the Korean-American community, successful or success-aspiring Korean-American individuals will pepper America at the price of losing their ethnic community.

The Belief that Ideal Assimilation Does Not Exist: Succumbing to the 'System' and Falling Into a Personally Established Comfort Zone

Rather than another behavior originating from feelings of marginalism, falling into a personally established comfort zone, rephrased as "Comfort-Zone-Mentality" more accurately describes a mindset pertaining to all 2nd generation Korean-Americans in varying degrees, as a result to their feelings of marginalism. Opposed to their Korean-Immigrant parents who are secure in their ethnic identity, the next generation have had their feelings of marginalism since birth. They respond to their "neither-one-nor-the-other" marginalism with a mixture of resignation and resentment, in varying degrees that depend on the individual. Their resultant behavior depends upon certain factors such as to what extent they accept their marginalism and to what extent they move outside their comfort zones in an attempt to assimilate to their environment. Again, other factors such as location, (whether they live in an urban or suburban area), their proximity to their Korean-American peers, their involvement, and also their degree of involvement, in a Korean church, play a role in manifesting resultant behaviors. One such behavior can be when KA's tend to avoid non-Korean-American friendships and only associate on an intimate level with other Korean-Americans, with whom they feel that they can relate. In youths it can be detected by the formation of Korean-American or Asian-American cliques and the homogeneity of clothes, speech patterns, and personal interests within a particular clique. Particularly in high schools where Asian-Americans are a minority, Korean-Americans that have firmly established themselves in their marginalized comfort zones often do not participate, or are hesitant to participate, in extra-curricular activities and school-sponsored events, such as proms, sports games, etc. This is due to their reluctance to expose themselves to circumstances that reminds them of their estrangement from the mainstream culture, more commonly described amongst Korean-American teens as, "not belonging," or, "not fitting in." The reason that many resultant behaviors of "Comfort-Zone Mentality" are similar versions of typical adolescent behaviors is because, from its range of varied effects on people, marginalism almost always compounds the natural feelings of insecurity and a lack of belonging that surface during puberty; thus Korean-American teens shoulder the burden of growing up with the need to establish their personal identity and to be socially accepted, as a young adult as well as a marginal teen.

This intensified need to establish personal identity can often manifest in unbeneficial, unhealthful, or self-destructive behavior in varying degrees, depending upon the individual. Most teens rebel against Korean-American stereotypes and traditional values to some degree, to establish a personal identity uninfluenced by their ethnic heritage. Mostly unaware of their marginalized feelings, they are proud to call themselves Korean, yet they copy or create many behaviors that do not originate from either the Korean-American 1st or 2nd generation cultures. Oftentimes members of gangs join out of severe feelings of marginalism. This 'gang mentality' can extend to those who join the Korean-American gangs that have become increasingly popular with time, although these are more like cliques of Korean-Americans that party excessively and squabble amongst themselves (themselves, meaning other self-proclaimed 'gangs'). However whether it be a 'kid' gang of 2.0 gen. teens, or an Asian-American gang involved in criminal activity, the common themes, or reasons for which 2.0 gen. Asian-Americans and Korean-Americans join a gang seem to be out an "inability to successfully assimilate . . . [a need for] self-definition . . . [a need for] a bond with a social unit," as well as respect from non-Koreans (5).

Those that do not join gangs may still reject many Korean values and stereotypes in an effort to establish their personal identity. There are many times when Korean-American teens are faced with the stereotype of a Korean-American teenager; the generally accepted image of the Asian-American teen involves being very intelligent, musically talented, studious, hard-working, yet timid, shy, and oftentimes oddly dressed, unathletic, and submissive to one's peers. This image does not naturally inspire the camaraderie, admiration, or respect they desire from their non-Asian schoolmates. Oftentimes the teenagers will depart from the "unpopular" aspects of their Korean-American image in an effort to create a persona more attractive and more suitable to their taste as well as to those of their peers. Whether or not they are trying to form non-Asian friendships is inconsequential; oftentimes the burden to find one's personal self is equal to or greater than the need to present one's identity to other people. The number and choice of aspects of the Korean-American image that they choose to depart from, and the degree of severity to which they depart from that image varies with each individual. Certain Korean-American adolescents choose to reject the "nerdy" or studious part of the Korean-American image by underachieving academically, although the degree of underachievement varies with each individual. Others, girls in particular, are particularly sensitive to their Asian physical features and lack of Western-style beauty; thus they take special pains with their dress and personal appearance to overcome their feelings of insecurity. The price that they pay for their overweening concern for their physical appearance can be a lack of personal depth, a misplacement of values, or the inhibition of mental and spiritual growth in a person that makes life truly meaningful. Others, particularly boys, will focus intensely on athletics in order to overcome the image of the typically unathletic Asian-American. They may also purposely avoid certain sports, such as tennis and volleyball, that are the most popular sports among Asian-Americans. Attending high-schools where particular importance and respect are attached to wealth, physical attractiveness, an extroverted nature, and athletic ability, the possession of these characteristics can be a key source of self-esteem or the lack thereof in the Korean-American adolescent psyche. Others reject the image aspect of the 'stolidly moral Asian-American' for that of the 'bad party animal,' which involves socializing excessively and doing what is considered "cool" to conquer the intensified insecurity inherited from their feelings of marginalism. As these "cool" things can involve drugs, neglect of schoolwork, alcohol, sexual promiscuity, and other harmful behaviors, as well as the cultivation of negative traits, such as loudness of speech, rowdy behavior, lack of respect for authority, and disrespect to one's parents, this reaction to marginalism can also prove harmful to Korean-American teens. The general result is an increased vulnerability to react and be affected by normal adolescent struggles and temptations, results of which can prove from only slightly unhealthful to disastrous. It is the intensifying agent within marginalism that can make puberty so difficult for 2nd generation Korean-Americans. The added stress of the compounded feelings of inferiority, of insecurity, of lacking identity, and of acceptance are added burdens that can have destructive results on Korean-American teenagers.


The issue of 2nd generation marginalism has not been identified as a serious worry of the Korean-American community. For many years there has been a growing concern over the "Americanization," or loss of Korean culture in the second generation, but their feelings of marginalism have gone largely unrecognized. However the disconcerting truth is that second generation Korean-Americans have received their own burden of marginalism. The fact that marginalism has changed its form between generations to become more subtle makes it even more dangerous, because it is harder to identify than 1st generation marginalism. Where first generation marginalsim is identified by the mini-communities of Korean-Americans resultant of a natural language, cultural, and racial barrier, second generation marginalism can only be identified by expressed emotions and resultant behavior. Many 2nd generation KA's are not aware of how this "neither-one-nor-the-other" marginalism influences their mindset or behavior. Although many 2nd generation Korean-Americans fit under mixed, overlapping, or alternating descriptions of the marginalistic behaviors mentioned in this paper, they are unaware of why they act the way they do. Therefore, because of the negative impact that 2nd generation marginalism has already had on individual Korean-Americans, as well as the threat that it poses to the future of the Korean-American community, the Korean-American community must acknowledge it as a high-priority concern needing immediate attention.

It must be noted that many descriptions of marginalistic behavior in this paper are extreme cases; there do exist second-generation Korean-Americans who have confronted their feelings of marginalism to become upstanding leaders of American society as well as the Korean-American community. However even they will attest to once having had feelings of marginalism, traces of which may still remain with them. Furthermore, those who have completely obliterated their feelings of marginalism are overwhelmed by the numbers of those who continue to feel marginalized through either having ignored, failed to address sufficiently, or addressed incorrectly their feelings of alienization. If negative effects do not surface in the next 5 years, 10 years, this generation, or the next, it will inevitably manifest in the disintegration of the Korean-American community or Korean culture in it.

2nd generation marginalism is not merely a philosophical battle fought within the psychological realm. Identifying the problem as well as forming a concrete solution to the problem of 2nd generation marginalism is beyond the scope of this paper. But until an individual or group of individuals arrive at a solution to this dilemma, there are practical applications of this paper that parents, whether they be 1st or 2nd generation Korean-Americans, can utilize in the development of their children. Allowing one's 2nd generation children to discover their own feelings of marginalism through discussion will release an unvoiced tension that exists within them. It has been established in literature of the psychiatric world that the first step of addressing a problem of a mental nature is to properly identify it; therefore this is a necessary step to successfully dealing with 2nd generation marginalism. By encouraging reading material related to ethnic identity, participating in ethnic-awareness programs and events, as well as discussing one's feeling of estrangement with one's peers will also help shoulder the burden of alienated existence by the feeling that one is not dealing with it alone. In fact, the sharing of marginalistic feelings, and the resultant unity and camaraderie that results from it may well be what glues the future Korean-American community together, after language or cultural barriers disappear. A marginalistic barrier may be its own solution when put into the proper perspective.

But until that perspective materializes, the Korean-American community must exert all its energy into finding the solution. For one must always remember that the future of the Korean-American community only lies with the current generation indirectly; it truly lies with the next generation, the young people of today. That alone, without concern for the mental well-being of these same young people, makes them the most important and influential part of the Korean-American community. Trying to raise young Korean-Americans with a healthy outlook on ethnic identity should be a top priority, for a Korean-American people who are secure in who they are will ensure the empowerment, ownership, and advancement of Korean-American individuals, as well as the future existence of their community, more than any other factor. The fact that marginalism has bled over from one generation to the next places much of the responsibility upon the older generation to help address the feelings of alienated existence that have taken root in the next. Instead of just ingraining a good work ethic, diligent nature, respect for one's parents, and a loyalty to one's native culture into the future members of the Korean-American community, being able to confer the gift of a well-assimilated mind as well as the attached treasure of healthful behavior uninfluenced by confused identity is the greatest legacy one can leave to one's children.

Works Cited

1.Kim, I.K., A Dilemma Facing The Immigrant Church: A Case of Korean-Canadian Experience. Institute for Corean-American Studies. July 22, 2000. <>
2.Hwang, C. "The Good Daughter." Newsweek. 21 Sept. 1998: 16.
3.Mcbride, J. Steven Spielberg: A Biography. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997.
4.Crossroads And Possibilites: Korean-Americans On The Eve of the 21st Century. Institute for Corean-American Studies. August 08, 2000. <>.
5.Life in a Vietnamese Gang. 1995. Nick Rothenberg and the Center for Visual Anthropology. 15 August 2000. <>

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