ICAS Summer Symposium

No. 2002-0810-DHL

The Future of the Korean-American Community:
Challenges and Prospects

Don H. Liu

Summer 2002 ICAS Symposium

August 10, 2002 11:00 - 6:00 PM
Calvary Vision Community Center, 550 Township Line Road, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3289
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch & Links: Don H. Liu

The Future of the Korean-American Community:
Challenges and Prospects

Don H. Liu, Esq.


- Thank ICAS and Dr. Kim
- Also thank Calvery Vision Community for their hospitality
- Opening Story: When I was practicing as an attorney in New York City early in my career, one of my colleagues came into my office one day and said "Don, you are very lucky. You are an Asian, and all Asians are smart." He truly meant it as a compliment. When I probed the comment a bit, what he really meant was that Asians receive the benefit of a positive stereotype of being smart. After reacting well initially to his comment, which was nothing more than an expression of envy, I thought more about it and later determined that the comment was actually very harmful to myself and my nationality. Today, I want to explain to you why I was ultimately offended by his comment and convince you that we all need to work very hard to get rid this apparently positive stereotype.
  1. The Korean-American Community: A Model Minority
    1. Often described as a "successful" immigrant story or the "American Dream" story - - meant as a compliment
    2. Generally a reference to the affluent status that some Koreans have achieved (meaning, a nice house at a nice neighborhood, nice cars, nice clothes, etc., and all other efforts at expressing signs of financial status, e.g., designer labels)
    3. Comparison to the Jewish community as a "model minority" group - - also meant as a compliment
    4. Reference (particularly the comparison) to the "model minority" is meantto go beyond just wealth accumulation, but also to other so-called indicia of success within an immigrant group (and the K-A Community has plenty of them):
      1. Business: Ownership of many apparently profitable and growing small businesses (i.e., good merchants)
      2. Education: Many kids have entered and graduated at the top of their class at Ivy League schools
      3. Professionals: Many kids (especially the 2nd generation and, in some cases, 1.5 generation) have already broken through key professions that have taken other ethnic groups generations to break through, such as:
        1. Medicine
        2. Law
        3. Banking
    5. Focus on these factors as a measure of "success" is fostered by the media; media has frankly praised the K-A Community on these achievements as a measure of success and as indicia of a model minority group
    6. The K-A Community certainly has a lot to be proud of in producing many so-called "American Dream" stories in basically one generation
    7. So, what is the problem?
  2. Re-Examination of the Model Minority Status
    1. First, let’s re-examine whether we really want or deserve this "model minority" status.
    2. I frankly find the concept a bit degrading and offensive.
    3. Professor Frank Wu, in his recent book "Yellow - Race in America Beyond Black and White", makes this point a lot better than I can. So, I will paraphrase his points here.
      1. The concept of "model minority" grossly generalizes a large group of people who are much more complex than the stereotype and distorts the reality about us.
      2. The phrase "model minority" is condescending in general to all racial minorities. If a race is a "model minority", what is it a model to, and for whom is it a model? Does it mean that we have overachieved for a minority, meaning minorities are not expected to or capable of doing well in anything? Is it a surprise that a minority is able to perform well in any particular area? Or, does it mean that we are more like a non-minority even though we are a racial minority? Is the assumption that a minority can only become a model if it becomes more like a non-minority? Under either interpretation, the concept bears awful prejudices against all racial minorities.
      3. It is also racially divisive. It implies that the race that make up the model minority is superior to other races. Does it mean that the other races just don’t cut it?
      4. The term "model minority" tends to disguise and deny the group of any possible discrimination it faces. Thus, the question that often comes up, "Asians are not really a minority, are they?"
      5. Finally, it is a phrase that sounds very competitive and threatening to non-minorities as well as other minorities. It is as if the "model minority" is about to take over the world.
    4. In my own personal view, the term "model minority" glamorizes the current status of our K-A Community. It makes it seem like we have already arrived at the end state or our desired goal. It deludes us to think that we have finished our development process. It almost wants us to gloat about our success.
  3. Are We Really A Success Story?
    1. This issue reminds me of a story that my pastor at Emmannuel Church told us last month about the lessons he learned in growing peppers in his backyard:
      1. Fast growing pepper plant produced small peppers
      2. Slow growing pepper plant produced larger peppers
    2. Moral of the story
      1. To produce large peppers, plants with deep roots, large stems and large leaves are required
      2. It takes time and effort to grow such plants
      3. Maturation process takes patience and hard-work
      4. But, such process is essential
    3. So, it is the case with a group of people: Koreans are very impatient and short-tempered people
      1. We are more like the fast growing pepper plants
      2. We like growth when it occurs fast and do not like it when it takes a long time
      3. We like visible physical growth, as opposed to a maturation process that is not as visible
    4. Examination of the statistics in the practice of law
      1. Statistics only available for Asian Americans in general, as opposed to Korean-Americans specifically; but, my point can be made about both groups alike
        - - USE THE SLIDES
      2. General lack of success at the top tier level jobs
      3. Not just an issue of "time", as the number of partners at large law firm have actually decreased over the past couple of years
      4. Fewer Asian American success stories at top tier legal positions than the African American and the Latin American groups
    5. Causes for the lack of top tier success in the practice of law
      1. A bit of stereotype: "nerdy" and "bookish" lawyer (not viewed as a leader with bold and creative attributes)
      2. Let’s go back to the story my colleague’s comment that I described at my introduction:
        1. When he said "Asians are lucky to have a stereotype of being smart", it was a lot more offensive comment than he intended
        2. What he really meant was that I fit the stereotype of being a good student, smart, hard-working, focused, detail-oriented, meek, and all of the other characteristics of a "nerd" or "geek", all of which meant that I would make a great follower, but not a leader
        3. Although he did not realize it at the time, what he also meant was that I did not have any of the following characteristics: bold, creative, assertive, aggressive, risk-taking, charismatic and other features of a good leader.
        4. Therefore, this apparently innocuous perception made me at best a very good associate at the law firm, but not a partner or important leader of the firm.
        5. In other words, I have a stereotype that will make it very difficult for me to transition from a lower level employee to a senior level manager of the firm.
      3. Now, the statistics I showed earlier start making sense. And, in my view, the so-called "model minority" status prevents us from progressing and succeeding even in the office.
      4. Unfortunately, many still view the "model minority" only as successful grocery store owners
      5. We even promote such stereotypes - - e.g., Margaret Cho, first generation parents
        1. When I was growing up, my Confucian-teaching influenced parents often told me that if I just study hard and not get distracted by others, I will be successful.
        2. They were wrong.
        3. The traditional Confucian teachings, which most first generation parents were taught, do not necessarily make you succeed in the U.S.
        4. What are those teachings? Be respectful and deferential to others, particularly the elderly. Be courteous. Be cooperative. Respect order and harmony - "Yeui".
        5. They all add up to a classic "nerd". They do not add up to leadership qualities I described earlier.
      6. We often accept and conform to the stereotype; to that extent, we are at fault for our current juxtaposition
      7. Moreover, we have not helped ourselves. For, example, lack of political influence (often, Asian American are not even viewed as a minority) - therefore, not part of the diversity goal
        1. Efforts to diversify an organization rarely include Asians
        2. No social pressure to include Asians in various positions or activities
        3. Bill Lann Lee - - did not even get to the Senate floor for confirmation on his position for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights; could you imagine if he had been an African American?
        4. No real political consequence when a wrongdoing is committed on Asian American
    6. Other indicia of success that we lack
      1. No real political success (compared to Henry Kissinger and many others for the Jewish community; Al Gonzalez, Chief White House counsel, and many others for the Latin American community)
      2. Although the Bush administration has provided some recognition for the Asian American community, no-one on the K-A community side
      3. No real success on the K-A community social or cultural agenda: No widespread recognition of the Korean customs, practices or views that have been integrated into the American community (Can you name one holiday or practice that is regularly accepted on the American calendar?)
      4. No real acceptance or recognition of our art or music
      5. Committee of 100 Study (a group of Chinese leaders; frankly, it wouldn’t hurt to have a comparable group for Koreans) found that Asian Americans have the lowest ethnic esteem in the U.S. -
    7. So, where is the success of the K-A community?
      1. In the dictionary, "success" is defined as "the achievement of something desired, planned or attempted"
      2. Is the image of an angry grocery-store or cheap laundry-shop owner the "achievement of something desired"?
      3. Is making money the only "planned achievement" that we will be satisfied with?
      4. Do we want our kids to "attempt to achieve" in obtaining only the material symbols of the middle-class, i.e., the house, the car and the clothes? Is that it?
      5. Why should we and our kids aspire for such mediocrity?
    8. Let's take myself as an example:
      1. As embarrassing as it is sometimes, my parents often brag about me to their friends. They are extremely proud of the fact that I went to an excellent liberal arts school, Haverford College, and law school at Columbia and graduated with various types of honors. I was one of the first Asians hired at a large, reputable Wall Street law firm and went on to have a boastful legal career that has led to my current position of being the only Korean and one of only two Asians who are the general counsel of a Fortune 500 company. (Explain what the general counsel is.) Frankly, the media has committed the same crime that my parents have when they have done stories about me. They even publish how much money I make on the newspapers as if it is worthy news of some type.
      2. Have to admit that it is good for my ego.
      3. But, have I truly "succeeded"?
      4. I went to law school to save the world, after majoring in theology undergrad. I wanted to help everyone - - my parents who were struggling in their immigrant life without proficiency in English, other Koreans who were often looked down upon and discriminated against, other Asians who have similar problems and even the hungry and the downtrodden in Africa.
      5. Against the definition of "success" in the dictionary, "achievement of something desired, planned or attempted", frankly, I have down right failed. I have not only failed to save the world, but have not even managed to help my parents a whole lot. I know how to do large corporate mergers & acquisitions, but do not know a lot about wills and estate law - - something my parents may actually need help with. In short, I have sold out, as my college friends may say.
    9. So, as I personally struggle to define myself and my career, I often wonder what I should do to correct the situation. What is our duty under these circumstances?
  4. Where Do We Go From Here?
    1. Stories of two Korean students I have mentored:
      1. Korean student at Haverford: parents were both doctors; wanted him to go law school because doctors work too hard and do not make enough money, and lawyers presumably do not work too hard and make a lot of money; at the end of the day, he just wanted to make a lot of money; advised him against going to law school; eventually went to business school and now working as a banker in NYC
      2. Korean student at an Ivy League law school: parents pushed him to go to law school; finished his first year but hated it and did lousy in school; really had his interest in teaching and helping people; referred him to Peace Corps; currently considering taking time off to go join Peace Corps and later decide what he want to do
    2. Moral of these two stories:
      1. First generation Korean parents have to stop imposing their own lost dreams and wishes upon their kids; their Korean-born notion of the lawyer (who is esteemed by everyone in the society) in not only inaccurate but also simply misfocused; Allow the kids to develop their interest and pursue their dreams (not just money and perceived power); Let them truly "succeed"
      2. Pushing the Korean kids into something that they do not "desire or plan" is not only unhealthy, but even if they achieve that something, it cannot be called "success"
    3. I often hear that the first generation simply does not know enough to be able help their kids. So, what should the first generation do?
      1. I met the Korean student at law school because his parents sought me out for help. What they really wanted me to do was convince him to stay in law school and pursue the legal career. But, after hearing him, I was convinced that he needed a break to pursue his own interest for a while. I did not do what they hoped for. However, I think the law student will get to do what he wants.
      2. Find a mentor for their kids. So many kids need them. Yet, they have a hard time finding one. As parents, you do not need to deliver everything your kids need. But, you can find sources where your kids can get help.
      3. Support your kids in their dream. If you want them to succeed, help them identify what they "desire or plan" to do.
    4. The key to the future of the K-A Community is, however, with the 1.5 generation - - which includes me.
      1. What value do we want to instill in our kids and other kids?
      2. We are in a position to appreciate the good intentions of the first generation and the dangers of the second generation if they walk the wrong path.
      3. Many of us are in a position appreciate the difference between the shallow concept of the "model minority" and the true definition of "success"
      4. Most importantly, we should become the very mentors that so many Korean kids so desperately need, even though some of them don't even know they need mentors
    5. When you do become mentors, whether you are 1.0 or 1.5 generation, hopefully, you will advise them as follows.
      1. Seek not "success", but "significance" in your life. The point is that the term "success", as discussed earlier, has a bad connotation with money, power, fame, etc. It is the wrong focus. Very few people understand the term in its true meaning, i.e., the definition in the dictionary.
      2. So, you should try to find "significance" in life, i.e., meaning in your life.
      3. Whose "significance"? It should be significance to your life, not significance to others - - the former is called "meaning" and the latter is called fame. There is big difference.
      4. When you have found significance in your life, you probably achieved true "success" because you probably achieved what you desired or planned for your life.
  5. Prospects:
    1. I am very optimistic about the future of the K-A Community
    2. Contrary to the "model minority" stereotype, Korean are very creative and have great adaptability (i.e., being quick on our feet). Add perseverance (i.e., hard-working and tenacious) and ambition to those qualities. And, we have all the qualities to "succeed" in its true definition.
    3. Most of you know this story well, but it really exemplifies the ingenuity of Koreans. So, I will repeat it here, using the description that I got from Professor Bruce Cumings‘ history book, Korea‘s Place in the Sun.* In 1592, Japan invaded Korea, landing over 150,000 Japanese soldiers in Pusan, with the ultimate goal of taking over China. At the time, Korea virtually had no real defensive measures again the Japanese invasion. Under this odd-defying scenario, along came the now well-known general by the name of Yi Sun Shin, who created the famous "Turtle Ship". By any standard, this warship was a remarkably creative invention and a giant step forward in the world’s naval history. It was sixty-five feet long, first armor-clad warship in the world had iron-plates on top, with iron spikes on its shell back, eight foot high sides covered with thick wooden boards, dozen sailors pulling oars from within, cannons shooting gunpowder bombs out the side, and a dragon head to scare the hell out of everyone. In 1597, General Yi Sun Shin and a relatively small army of Koreans and Chinese defeated a much larger Japanese army. With mere dozen Turtle Ships and a lot of wit, General Yi-led army wrecked over 300 Japanese ships and won the war against Japan, which in turn led to 250 years of peace from Japanese attacks for Korea.
    4. My point here is not that Korea managed to win a war against Japan nor that Korean are particular good at wars, which history has shown is not necessarily the case, but that Koreans have shown tremendous spurts of intellectual and creative growth under extremely strenuous circumstances. There are many other examples in the areas of arts, language (e.g., the Korean alphabet) and economy (during the ’60s and ’70s). And, I am very hopeful that we will see these talents at use here in the United States of America.
    5. The same qualities that our K-A Community makes be very optimistic about the future. Key is the 1.5 generation (the K-A community that are becoming parents right now).
    6. But, the first generation still has a lot of work left to with their kids; they are still in a position to help their 1.5 and 2nd generation children. They need to stop succumbing and conforming to the "model minority" syndrome - - a view supported by their previous Confucian teaching.

* Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A modern history (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), pp. 76-77.

Copyright © 2002 by Don Liu. All rights reserved

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