Korean immigrants have played a big part in the shaping of US culture and history over the last hundred years or so. From a rich history of serving in the armed forces or representing the US in various sporting disciplines, they have become a part of American society even though it has not been a smooth transition. The current generation is still facing the same challenges as their grandfathers and great grandfathers with isolated cases of discrimination and a battle to find their own identity in the American society. Currently, there are millions of Korean immigrants in the US and also in other Asian countries like China and Japan (Hurh & Kim 13).
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In this essay we will be looking at the migration of Korean citizens to the US from the early years of the 20th century and the challenges they have faced.
The earliest Korean immigrants are recorded to have arrived in the US specifically Hawaii on 13th January, 1903. They were mostly young men who had come to provide labor at the booming sugarcane plantations at that time and also start a new life in this country. Their numbers kept on increasing and hit a record 7000 in Hawaii 2 years later. Working in the sugar plantations was hard labor and the pay was little. However, these families in the plantations saved their meager pays with the hope of bringing the rest of their families that were still in Korea or maybe one day, the immigrants will return back to their homeland.
After the initial influx of plantation farmers, the next group of immigrants who arrived around the period of 1905-1924 was mostly made up of Koreans who were running away from their government and students studying in the US. This seemed like a good venture since exposing the younger generation to western ways will in a way modernize Korean society which was still quite behind the industrial changes that were taking place in the western world. Another group of these later immigrants were Korean picture brides. The Gentleman’s Agreement allowed Korean and Japanese wives to join their husbands who were working in the US.
For the young men and women who were not married, they would send their photos back to their homeland in the hope of finding a woman who would agree to marry him. Unfortunately, most men would mail a false picture of themselves and when the prospective bride arrived in the US she would have no choice to marry the man; or risk going back to Korea. Over a thousand picture brides arrived in the US around this time with 800 going to Hawaii and the rest to the mainland (Hurh & Kim 11).
The outbreak of the Korean War witnessed another large group of immigrants arriving in the US from 1950-1965.Some of them were fleeing the horrors of the conflict and had lost close friends and family members. However, majority of them were Korean women who had gotten married to American servicemen during their duty in Korea. The number of Korean wives to American soldiers coming to the US by 1980 was 50000.
The passing of the Immigration Act of 1965 lifted the quotas on immigration that were imposed on countries like Korea and subsequently generated the biggest wave of immigration to the US. From 1976-1990, around 30000-50000 immigrants were arriving in the US every year. These figures have drastically reduced over the years with the booming Asian economies offering a new alternative for the immigrants (Hurh 36).
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While the earlier immigrants of the 20th century consisted mostly of uneducated farmers and peasants, the ones that arrived from the outbreak of the Korean War and onwards had some basic education and other skills. There were those with university degrees like architects and doctors but they could not find work in the US due to their inability to speak fluent English. They were one of the most highly educated groups of immigrants in the US. Most of them withdrew to their communities and looked for alternative ways to feed their families. This led to the opening up of grocery stores, restaurants and dry cleaners by Korean businessmen. These businesses thrived with the owners working long hours and saving every penny which in turn helped shape the image of a Korean businessman as a hardworking citizen.(Won 35)
In their quest to become part of the American society, the Korean immigrants did face a variety of problems ranging from mild discrimination to outright destruction of their property. In 1911, the local American workers were angry that the influx of immigrants from Korea were taking their jobs and they could not find employment. This resulted in the Korean workers being driven off the farms. During the 2nd World War, Korean Americans faced open discrimination from the local population that mistook them for Japanese. Lastly, there was the infamous revolt of April 29, 1992 by African American customers towards Korean American merchants. The three day riot resulted in the destruction of property worth $850 million, with most of the damage being on property owned by Korean Americans (Hurh 42).
Like many immigrant communities around the world, integration into the local communities is a thorny issue with racial tensions simmering below the surface. We therefore end up with a situation of the immigrants secluding themselves in their communities so as to feel safer. The various societal changes bypass them. Integration into the local community and practices like speaking the local language is necessary. Otherwise, discrimination will continue to be justified with one side saying “those” people do not want to associate with us. (Hurh & Kim 15)
Hurh, Won Moo. & Kim, Kwang Chung: Korean immigrants in America: a structural analysis of ethnic confinement and adhesive adaptation: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984, pp 12-15.
Won Moo Hurh, The Korean Americans, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998, pp 33-59.