With this dramatic increase in population and the racial unrest that resulted in the destruction of Korean businesses during the Los Angeles civil unrest, Korean-Americans have emerged as one of the visible ethnic groups in the country. However, aside from the Los Angeles riots, most Americans continue to define people of Korean ethnicity with a bevy of stereotypes - kimchee, churches and grocery stores.
For many Korean-Americans, however, being "Korean," "Korean-American" or "Asian-American" remains a fluid category, with constantly shifting meanings. Some locate the definitions in the places where they were born or where they grew up. Others define the categories by the way they look.
Still others, like the Park family, define being Korean through language.
This paper uses a series of interviews to evaluate the Park family's perceptions of their ethnicity. It compares and contrasts how Father Park and Mother Park's definitions differ from the experiences of their daughter Sunny. It gives particular focus on how the members of the two generations accord a different importance to learning the Korean language.
In the conclusion, the paper evaluates how the Park family uses language to shore up their definitions of ethnicity. By looking at the role language plays in the Park's definitions of being "Korean" or being "American," this paper contributes to the larger literature on the different methods people employ to construct their ethnic identities.
Interview with Parents
In the book Rethinking Ethnicity, Richard Jenkins notes that it is possible for people to have more than one ethnic identity. He puts forward the concept of a "social identity," a product of social interaction, as well as the dialectical processes of internal and external definition. Jenkins notes that in the United States, the notion of cultural pluralism is an aspect of the national ideology. As a result, everyday life is "fundamentally ideological" (Jenkins 1997: 160).
This ideology in everyday life also plays a fundamental role in how the members of the Park family construct and re-define both their Korean-ness and American-ness. For mother and father, Korean ethnicity is a matter of blood. They are Korean because they were born in Korea to Korean parents. In Mrs. Park's words, "the blood that runs through me is Korean."
In his study of the relationship between ethnic identity and language, Hye-Young Jo notes that immigrant parents like Mr. And Mrs. Park often remained in a marginal status due to language and cultural barriers (Jo). Though they could speak English fluently (?), the accent revealed their status as immigrants.
In the Park's experience, their limited English defined them as non-American. The flip side of the equation is that their ability to speak Korean identified them strongly as members of a distinct ethnicity. Hence, the ability to speak Korean was a strong indicator of their Korean-ness. They spoke to each other almost always in Korean and indicate that they are more comfortable using the Korean language.
The Park parents recognize that most of their experiences do not apply to their daughter Sunny. After all, she was born and raised in the United States. She therefore cannot help but reflect the environment where she grew up. Therefore, like many second-generation Korean-Americans, Sunny speaks fluent English and only a marginal Korean.
However, the Parks also believe that their own cultural beliefs have rubbed off on their daughter, through a Korean upbringing. They think that their daughter has picked up subtle aspects of Korean culture while growing up. Mr. And Mrs. Park are very proud of this fact, since they consider being Korean a great treasure.
The Parks would like Sunny to "remember where she came from," and for them, remembering is strongly connected with language and with an acceptance of Korean-ness. While they recognize that Sunny was born and raised in the United States and cannot help but be a product of this social and cultural environment, they also express doubts on whether Sunny can truly classify herself as "American" or be accepted by others as an American.
Part of the Parks' stand is understandable, since they are naturally projecting their experiences of marginalization onto their daughter. Since language was an important foundation in the construction of social identity in their host country, they assume this will be the same for Sunny.
However, what they do not take into account are key differences in Sunny's own definition of her ethnicity. Sunny's identity as Korean-American has been and continues to be formed in an American context. This identity is "a product of a socialized consciousness and a social situation" (Jenkins 1994: 219) that is very different from that of her parents. The inability to speak English therefore did not play a significant role in how Sunny constructed her social identity in differentiation from her other American peers.
Interview with Sunny
In fact, for Sunny, language was a way of constructing an identity that is separate from that of her parents. Unlike her mother and father, Sunny, a product of the American educational system, would be considered a "successful" assimilator. She is a "native" speaker of English, which, as her parents have realized before her, is considered a marker of American-ness and national identity.
The Hye-Young Jo study found that second-generation Korean-Americans whose first language is English, do not consider themselves as assimilated Americans. Instead, the construction of their identity is much more fluid than that of their parents. It is an identity that is continually defined, in relation to their parents, their peers and through their own personal experiences (Jo).
This constant struggle for identification is evident in Sunny's interview. She speaks fluent English and identifies more with American culture than she does with Korean culture. However, like other second-generation Korean-Americans, she is also very aware that other people do not consider her as "100% American."
Sunny's sentiments are bolstered by studies showing how Korean-Americans continue to be categorized according to their physical appearance, no matter how much they are Americanized. In a study of "majority Americans'" perceptions of Korean-American people, Won Moo Hurh reveals that the ethnic stereotypes of Koreans as Orientals continues to persist, even though they are now more changeable, depending on external conditions (Hurh 16). As a result, many Korean-Americans constantly feel the need to prove their American-ness.
Unlike second-generation European immigrants, children like Sunny continue to be identified as different because of their physical appearance. Sunny knows that people still look at her by her race and categorize her by her skin color, rather than by her nationality.
Sunny knows that like many Korean parents, Mr. And Mrs. Park would like her to learn the Korean language, something that she strongly feels is not necessary to her own ethnic identity. This view is common to many second-generation Korean-Americans, whose symbolic identity is not dependent on language. After all, if speaking perfect English does not identify her as "100% American," why would the ability to speak the Korean language add to her Korean-ness?
Sunny stance is born out by research like that of Hye-Young Jo, which found that second-generation Koreans come to terms with their identity through a diverse number of ways. For many of them, becoming an English speaker does not automatically translate into the loss of their Korean-ness. On the other side, learning to speak Korean, a "heritage" language, does not lead to the formation of a homogenous Korean America identity either (Jo).
In fact, other studies have shown that the present American climate which encourages pride in one's ethnicity are a greater source of ethnic identity for many second-generation Americans. The universities have played a major role towards this new climate, as evident in the establishment of courses in ethnic studies, as well organizations for minority groups.
The results of such an emphasis in the school system are evident. In an empirical study of generation differences between Korean groups, Tong-He Koh found that while Korean immigrants show "little" pride in being members of the Korean group, the 1.5 and second generation express "moderate" to "extreme" pride in their Korean identity (Koh).
These findings may come as a surprise to Sunny's parents, who continue to locate Korean-ness in an ability and a willingness to speak the Korean language. The Korean-Americans of Sunny's generation, however, locate their ethnic identity outside of language. Just as they do not define their American-ness through an ability to speak English, they also do not define Korean-American-ness through their limited ability to speak Korean.
This ambiguity stems from the current expectation in American society that encourages everyone to have an ethnic identity and, at the same time, an American identity. This duality is the heart of Jenkin's definition of a "social identity." It is within this very American context that Sunny can define how she is both Korean and American. In fact, given the current climate that encourages pride in one's ethnicity and ancestry, it is precisely in being both Korean and American that Sunny can assert her American-ness "100%."
Thus, while Sunny recognizes that the ability to speak Korean as a good thing, she does…