Korean Immigrants


After the Second World War, Korea was a land with no clear future. The victors of the global war were the United States, and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Matthews 60). It was supposed to be a time of peace, but a few years after the guns were silenced in Europe and the Pacific, a new theatre of war opened up unexpectedly in the Korean Peninsula. The decades of conflict have taken its toll, and many Koreans longed for a way out. One of the best moves was to migrate to the United States in order to pursue their own version of the American dream. One of those, who decided to escape the uncertainty and chaos, was a man named Chang Ho Kim. With his wife and son he migrated to the United States, and his story became a part of the notable US migration story.

The essay studies the historical situation of Korea after the Second World War, and the social and political background of the beginning of the Korean migration. A story of one particular family, that was a witness of the migration, is presented. The conclusion about the challenges Korean people face in the USA is given in the end of the paper.


The Second World War officially ended in the year 1945. It was a devastating war. Many people were optimistic that it was the war that should end all wars. It is of a grave importance to give mankind rest from warfare. It was a high time to give soldiers and generals the breathing space that they badly needed. It was time for peace, and a time for healing. But once again the dogs of war had been unleashed. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, together with their allies of China, and North Korea decided that the balance of power was not in their favor. They needed to control the whole Korean archipelago.

Thus, a mere five years after the end of the Second World War, armies were once again mobilized for deadly carnage. In the Korean War, the whole world witnessed how superpowers used little countries as their pawns in the global battle for supremacy (Vorontsov 10). Brothers fought against brothers, as Koreans from North and South tried to eliminate each other. According to historians, “It was the only occasion in the Cold War when the military forces of the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and the USA met in combat … the Korean War was not merely a war fought between proxies of the major powers, like the latter conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan, but a much more significant conflagration” (Malkasian 7).

The Korean War was a terrible blow to the morale of the Koreans. In fact, it is also known as the “Forgotten War.” It was a stalemate. There was no significant difference, and the only evidences are the casualties, as well as the collective mental, and emotional agony that inevitably accompanies the aftermath of war. The Korean War was a terrible reminder that wars are a waste of time, money, efforts, and lives of men. The Korean War was no exception. Considering the impact of the cost of war:

The North Korean armed forces lost approximately 600,000 men in the fighting, in addition to two million civilian casualties. The Chinese, an estimated 1 million casualties. Losses to the ROK are estimated at 70,000 killed, 150,000 wounded and 80,000 captured. One million South Korean civilians were killed or injured. The USA lost 33,600 men killed and 103,200 wounded (Malkasian 88).

Millions of civilians were killed. It was not a simple military operation. It was not a mere insurgency problem. It was not a simple military confrontation. It was a full-blown war with a high-rate of casualties (Brzezinski 1). The death of tens of thousands of soldiers means that many Koreans grew up as orphans. This number also point out to the bitter truth that families were weakened, and hopes were shattered. Korea became the battleground, and the people were like chess pieces moved by an invisible hand.

After the turmoil, devastation, and heartaches the Koreans experienced something unexpected. They understood why the United States of America is considered as a military and economic superpower. For many Koreans, one look at their devastated homeland convinced many of them that it would be better to leave, and migrate to America. One of them was a desperate family of the man named Chang Ho Kim.

Although many Koreans left after the end of the Korean War, those who followed after them in the decade of the 60’s through the 90’s were forced to leave because of fear. They were afraid of the increasingly unstable North Korea. After World War II, the United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics subdivided the Korean Peninsula. The dividing mark is now known as the 38th parallel. There is a noman’s land that divides both countries, a few hundred meters that tries to separate two conflicting powers. But the buffer zone is enough to assure the residents that they will be safe from a surprise attack.

After the end of the Korean War, there was an uneasy peace that existed between two countries. But the residents of South Korea could never trust the leaders of North Korea. These are paranoid leaders that are bent on conquering the whole region in the name of a perverted ideology. Peace must not only exist in the physical realm, it must also exist in the mind. South Koreans desperately wanted to experience peace in all aspects of life.

Another problematic feature of South Korean life in the aftermath of the “Forgotten War” is the forced conscription of citizens into the army. They have to serve as soldiers even if they are not willing to give a part of their lives in military service. The average South Korean must render two years of military service to the country, and this must be done when they are in the prime of their youth. Thus, while American teenagers and young adults are happy, exploring the beauty of life; South Korean citizens are dreaded the prospect of going to the boot camps. They dread the idea of drill sergeant transforming them into a lean and mean fighting machine.

There is uneasiness at home, because of the desperate need to protect their borders from future attacks from the enemy across the 38th parallel. However, after the Korean War, the communist leaders in North Korea were also desperate in bolstering their armed forces even in the midst of a flagging economy. Since there is a central control, North Korea is unable to have access to steady stream of income. Foreign investors are not willing to invest, and local businessmen have very little incentive to take risks (Landes 25). Thus, North Korean leaders have to find ways to bolster their income.

Man investigators are attesting to the fact that North Korea engages in illegal export business (Powell 1). The illegal transactions that occurred under the radar are estimated to reach at least one billion dollars (Powell 1). It is easy to ignore the illegal activities sponsored by the state, because it is an internal matter. But the disturbing fact is that these funds are used to develop the capability to build nuclear weapons. According to one report, “With enough plutonium to make six or eight nuclear warheads, and a cache of medium-range missiles, Kim Jong Il is currently a menace to his Asian neighbors … with nukes and a fully functioning intercontinental missile, he can threaten the U.S. too” (Washington 1). It is now easy to understand why a lot of citizens of South Korea decided to migrate to other countries.


In the aftermath of the war, the Korean Peninsula can be seen as a battlefield with two opposing armies on both ends, ready to smash heads at the slightest provocation. Many Koreans, including Chang Ho Kim, were convinced that the future was bleak for them in their native land. Nevertheless, being a young man blessed with vigor and optimism, he tried to continue the struggle for survival, hoping that someday his efforts will be rewarded. Therefore, Kim went from an obscure village in South Korea to Seoul. He learned the basics of the English language and grammar in a school called Kuse Haktan. It was a school established by American missionaries. In this school, Kim was exposed to Western values, as well as the history of the Western civilization.

He was impressed with what he had learned about the United States, but he continued to express his patriotism by encouraging fellow Koreans to work towards nation building. He became a member of various clubs that seek to intensify national fervor, but he felt that the government was not very supportive with the ideals of the young people. He married soon afterwards, and decided that he can increase his personal value if he can leave South Korea, and study in the United States.

Together with his wife Ha-Youn and son Jaepil, he migrated to the United States in 1965. He was 35 years old when he left South Korea. His first port of call was Honolulu, Hawaii, and he was mesmerized by what he saw in this tropical paradise. The family continued with their journey, and they ended up in Seattle, Washington. But he only spent a few weeks there, because he realized that the family had a better prospect if they settled in San Francisco. A few days after his arrival, he had self-doubts, and he was not very optimistic that he would succeed.

The first job that he took was the work of a houseboy, while he went to school at night. At a steady pace he learned the intricacies of the English language. However, being a houseboy was not only a monotonous, and unsatisfying job, it also impeded his self-progress in learning about the English language, and the American culture. He made a drastic decision to move his family to the towns, where there were fruit orchards, and he became a fruit-picker. He continued his education in a local college. He worked tirelessly to deal with the Korean accent. He persevered knowing that he can become a teacher someday.

Chang Ho Kim has never realized his dream to become a teacher in the United States. But he succeeded in his primary goal to learn how to speak fluently in the English language. After graduation from college, he went to work in different US companies, located in various parts of California. He was quickly promoted from the lowliest position to that of a manager. His superiors were greatly impressed by his work ethic. But he downplayed their gracious words, and he explained that he worked hard, because every time he felt discouraged, he simply remembered war-worn Korea, and he realized that he and his family were in a better place. The following are some of his thoughts.

Chang said that his first goal was to graduate, and obtain a diploma that would prove that he at least possessed a High School level proficiency. It was one of his top priorities after he landed in the US mainland. But his ultimate goal is to earn a college degree. He said that he desperately tried to master the English language by watching English movies. He remembered saving a few pennies from his job as a houseboy, and every weekend he would bring his wife and son to different theaters. The movies have been helping him in learning the English language at a faster pace, but the films also have another impact on his life. He said that the films gave him a romantic idea about America, which he soon discovered was not true.

He learned quickly that everything was make-believe, and that nothing was real. Chang said that he thought that he was ready to face the challenges that would come his way. But it did not take long for him to realize that he was not mentally and emotionally prepared to handle the radical changes, which he has to go through if wanted to survive and thrive in America. The first thing that he realized was that he was not culturally literate. He found it extremely difficult to deal with the culture shock, especially, when it comes to interacting with people. The Western mindset is vastly different from the Oriental perspective about family, respect, honor etc.

He also pointed out that he came from a conservative society, where his elders taught him to conform to norms and traditions. Therefore, his first few years were spent in trying to bridge the cultural divide. He said that it was a rude awakening for him to understand that Korea is just a small part of the world, and that there are those who do not respect other people’s beliefs.

He also understood that the Korean culture is typical one among the cultures that can be found in Asia. In other words, it is a culture that can be characterized as one having a high reliance on personal relationships and personal trust. The culture is built upon face-to-face interactions, and many decisions are based on a personal level, and not just on the objective assessment of facts. It is important to study the subtle signs, like non-verbal expressions of appreciation or disgust.

The Korean culture that he came from relied so much on personal interactions, and informal communication. But when it comes to Western culture, the contrast is as significant as night and day. In the case of the United States, interactions between Americans are based on the explicit meaning of verbal communications. There are no hidden messages, and when an American says that this is what he/she needs, and wants, he/she says it directly without the need to determine if there is a secondary meaning to his/her words.

The Asia culture can also be compared to a rural way of life in the sense that things are not taken too seriously. For example, time is not valued in the same way as it is valued by the people in the West. Koreans believe in the value of hard work. But in the old world setting, where Mr. Kim came from, people were not afraid to take their time. There is no need to rush. But with Americans, time is considered as important as money. They are so obsessed with time, and so it was important to behave in the same way.

He also said that Western culture is more feminine, as compared to the more masculine culture of Asia. He expounded this statement by saying that in a feminine type of culture people stress the importance of cooperation. This can be contrasted greatly with Asian culture were men dominate society. Everything is controlled by men. The family members base their decision on the needs and wants of the head of the household. 

He also pointed out that Americans value individualism. On the other hand, Koreans value the close connections that can be found in community. In the Old world, the decisions made are based on the welfare of the family, and the community, and not just the merit of the individual. The identity of a person is not only based on achievements, and status, but also on the collective status of the members of the community.

The cultural differences significantly affected him, and it made him insecure. His insecurity stems from his inability to anticipate the expectations of his employers. However, he realized that there is no turning back, because he could not return to Korea. He made the decision that he will succeed by carefully applying himself to diligent study. He appreciated the fact that he was able to leave South Korea to pursue a better life in the United States. But he confessed that he is still in love with Korea, and that someday his greatest dream is to go home.

Mr. Kim's parting words were all about his realizations regarding the importance of understanding people's worldview. He also said that culture and values are built into the mental framework of the person, and that it is very difficult to change their mindset. He said that it is crucially important to respect other people's culture. He also advised those who would like to migrate to the United States to prepare by reading books, and not rely on Hollywood movies only. There was not enough time to ask him about the significant economic improvement in South Korea.

It would have been interesting to ask him if he would still consider migration, if he was able to predict that South Korea will someday become an important producer of goods. It would have been interesting to know his reaction and his insights considering the fact that when he came to the United States his first job was to be a houseboy. He was not considered to be a significant contributor to economic development of this country.

Even if Mr. Kim could not provide any more information regarding the plight of South Koreans, it is important to point out that what they were able to accomplish in the United States is a remarkable feat. Consider for instance the language barrier. He also did not mention the other serious problems that affected many young Koreans today. The one thing that Mr. Kim failed to highlight is the bullying, and the ridicule received by Korean students in America.

There can be two reasons. First, he was already 35 years old when he started his journey to the United States. Thus, he did not encounter the problems faced by children, and teenagers growing up as second-class citizens. The second reason is that his son did not talk about this subject matter at home. It can be argued that if his son experienced bullying, he may have felt that nothing can be done to change the situation.

There is, therefore, a need to dig deeper, and interview other immigrants. This is a subject matter that is interesting not only to South Koreans but other immigrants that came from different parts of the world. It is important to understand the struggle of immigrants in order to build a community that values diversity.


A Korean student can easily understand the plight of Mr. Kim when he migrated from South Korea to the United States. The cultural divide is sometimes impossible to bridge. It requires patience and perseverance. Just like in the situation of Mr. Kim, it is important to understand the end goal in order to survive temporary setbacks. Korean students face ridicule, especially when it comes to the language barrier. There are people who are not sensitive enough to realize that a person from another culture is no different from them.

It is important to teach tolerance in the schools. Universities and colleges must strengthen the policies, regarding bullying and discrimination. Americans must realize that this nation was founded by the labor, and sacrifice of immigrants. United States is a melting pot of cultures. Migration benefited this nation, and this country must continue to open its doors to foreign students, and immigrants who can contribute to the success and continuous development of this great nation.

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