Pathways to America

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Pathways to America

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Korean immigration to America. Since a passenger ship, the SS Gaelic, arrived in Hawaii on Jan. 13, 1903 with the first Korean immigrants to the United States, the Korean-American population has grown to number about 2 million.

In the early years, Korean immigrants labored on Hawaii's sugar plantations, while many came to Hawaii as mail-order brides. About 8,000 Korean women went to the United States in this manner between 1903 and 1924. In the 1950s, Koreans began to intermarry with American men. In the 1960s and 70s, many Koreans moved to the United States to study, and in the 1980s, many came for work or investment opportunities.

In 1950, the year the Korean War broke out, about 10,000 Koreans fled to America. From 1950 to 1964, about 15,000 went, including many children for adoption. The annual emigration numbers steadily climbed until 1987, when they peaked at 35,000. Since 1988, the figure has held at about 14,000.

Emigration to the United States fell off in the late 1980s partly because Korea had made significant strides economically and in the field of human rights. For Koreans, the "land of opportunity" was no longer far away but beneath their feet.

This is a compilation of a two-part article the JoongAng Ilbo is running to commemorate the centennial of Korean immigration to America. The past, present and future of Korean-Americans in Alaska and the LA district are described in this story.


They still need their education

In a wealthy, predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles is one of the best elementary schools in California. It's just a five-minute drive from the city's Koreatown, but children in Koreatown are outside of its zone.

Naturally, because of the high priority Koreans tend to put on education, Korean parents will do anything they can to send their children to the elementary school. This is borne out by the numbers. Among the 800 students attending the school, half are ethnically Korean while only 20 percent are Jewish. Many Korean children at the school don't live in the zone -- their parents illegally fudge their addresses to get their children enrolled.

The school has caught on to the illegal enrollment schemes. "Early last year, four or five Korean students with different surnames were listed as living at the same address," an official at the school says. "Personnel from the city education board went to take a look and found that only two families resided there legally. The rest had to be expelled."

An incident that occurred last autumn also showed that the students didn't live in the right zone. A Korean-American pupil fell deeply ill, and his teacher tried to notify his parents. But the youngster refused to give his home phone number, for the area code would have revealed that he wasn't supposed to be attending the school.

"For emergency numbers, some students are giving us mobile phone numbers these days, not home phones," the official says.

This kind of school-hopping by Koreans is not unique to Los Angeles. It happens in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- anywhere large numbers of Korean immigrants reside. The desire to live in districts with good schools causes real estate values to skyrocket. Real-estate agents in Los Angeles say a house in a neighborhood with top-flight schools is worth $200,000 more than other houses, all other things being equal.

Koreans have brought their hagwon, or after-school academic institutes, to the United States. In Los Angeles there are more than 150 hagwon, in New York and New Jersey, around 100. Other ethnic groups are beginning to take interest. A director of a hagwon in Los Angeles says "These days, many Latino-American families have called to ask about our twice-a-week English debate class."

Expensive private tutoring is not confined to the Korean Peninsula. Some Korean-American families spend more than $3,500 a month on it.

This educational fervor leaves many Americans baffled. The U.S. public TV station PBS reported on Koreans' study habits that "studying is supposed to be done during school. If they send kids to another one right after their daytime school has ended, this will entail a great amount of investment."

But this fervor for education has helped Korean-Americans succeed quickly in America. Yoo Eui-yeong, the head of the Korea-U.S. joint Demographic Census center, says, "If it weren't for the sacrificial investment in education that earlier Korean immigrants made, we would not be seeing Koreans settling in so well in American society." According to the center, Koreans make a higher jump in income between first-generation and second-generation immigrants than any other immigrant group.

Critics of Koreans' heavy study habits say there are harmful side effects. Korean students who do not adapt well to life in the United States can be very rebellious and violent, while others can be prone to depression.


The art of studying the group that’s crazy about studying

Wayne Patterson is an expert on Korean immigration to the United States. A professor at Saint Norbert College in Wisconsin, Mr. Patterson has written several books on the subject, including, "The Road to America -- A History of Korean Immigration to Hawaii," and "The Life of First-Generation Korean Immigrants in Hawaii." What impresses him most about the immigrants? No surprise: "I am most amazed by the determination of parents to get their children into college."

JAI: Why do think Koreans feel so strongly about education?

Korean parents are determined not to pass along their lack of college education to their children. Also, Korean parents with degrees from Korea are resolved to provide a good education for their children because they were unable to gain recognition and status in America despite their intellectual background. Unlike Americans, Koreans believe that expensive tuition is a burden that parents should bear willingly. This is the driving force behind the educational fervor.

JAI: Do you think that this fervor is just parents living vicariously through their children?

No. Koreans work full-time during the day and then clean hallways in the afternoon and at night to pay for their children's education. This sort of sacrificial attitude allowed Korean immigrants to settle quickly into American society."


North to Alaska, emigrants heard

Barrow is Alaska's northernmost port, lying in the Arctic Circle at an latitude of 71.5 degrees. For 51 days of the year the town experiences 24-hour darkness, while for 82 days there is ceaseless daylight. Go 50 meters from town, and you reach the ash-colored Arctic Ocean.

There is no other human settlement within a 200-mile radius (320 kilometer) of Barrow, and no roads connect it to other towns. Most transport with the outside world is done by airplane. There are no large hospitals, so women in labor fly to Anchorage to give birth.

In the coldest month, February, the temperature falls as low as minus 50 degrees celsius. Because of the freezing weather, asphalt roads cannot be laid -- they would buckle and crack. When a person dies, he is buried under the ice after a special "ice digging machine" is used to crush through the frozen earth. Only three such machines exist in the world.

Americans call this place "the first village under the sky," and Koreans have made their home here for more than two decades. Barrow's population of 4,300 includes 10 Korean families with 58 people, including 16 children. Having lived in Barrow the longest among the Koreans is Kim Hyeong-yong, 54, who owns a restaurant called "Sam and Lee" and also operates a taxi service.

In the late 70s, oil fields were found in nearby Prudhoe Bay, prompting an oil boom. Word that generous wages would be offered regardless of ethnicity enticed Korean immigrants to settle in the area.

"After a month in Hawaii, I took $2,000 with me when I came to Barrow in 1978," says Mr. Kim. "I started by washing dishes at restaurants."

Mr. Kim made a good wage, $1,700 a month, doing chores in restaurants, but that left little saved after subtracting rent, car payments, and insurance. For a side job, he started fishing for salmon in the early mornings. The wind from the frozen Arctic Ocean would pierce his body like a knife. But Mr. Kim would tell himself to tough it out.

In 1984, he visited Korea and married Kim Seung-ja, 43, and brought her back to Barrow. The couple proceeded to have three daughters and one son, and they worked long and hard. In 1992, with the money they saved, the Kims bought a restaurant. But just when things were beginning to take off, the restaurant burned down and the family lost several thousand dollars.

Mr. Kim did not despair but took to taxi driving. For four years he worked as a cab driver, sleeping just four hours at night and working on weekends. After that, the family was able to reopen a two-story restaurant.

"We work from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. the next day," he says. "Most of our customers are policemen and hospital workers so we have to adjust to their shifts."

Laughing, Mrs. Kim says, "Don't even get me started about all the hardships we had to endure." Most Korean immigrants in Barrow operate restaurants, and most have endured the same kinds of travails as the Kims.

The owners of the Osaka restaurant, Seong In-guk, 46, and Song Yeong-ok, 40, came to Barrow in 1998 with no money after their business in Hawaii went bankrupt. Mr. Seong became a taxi driver while Ms. Song worked as a cook in local restaurants for 14 hours a day.

The next year, they opened Osaka. Ms. Song cooked while her husband served, and they worked practically day and night. Now they have four employees under them, and business is good.

Because of the weakness locals have for alcohol, Barrow restricts its sale in the town. Residents can bring back two bottles of alcohol after visiting Anchorage or Fairbanks. The Koreans of Barrow shun alcohol and are tightly family-oriented.

Barrow's residents take pride in the fact that crime rate is extremely low. Mr. Kim says, "The reason is that if you commit a crime, there's no place to run; you'll freeze out on the outskirts."


‘You don’t have to fret about me, I’m on top of the world’

A chat with Kim Hyeong-yong, who's lived in Barrow, Alaska, longer than any other Korean-American

JAI: Why did you choose to live at the tip of the world?

I thought it would be difficult to get a job in L.A. or New York, where many Korean-Americans had already settled. All my relatives tried to stop me, saying that it was no place for humans to live. But now, I'm used to the cold weather.

What are your thoughts on the immigration centennial?

It's been more than 25 years since Koreans came to live in Barrow, and there are only 10 families; but compared to the early years, it really does feel like there is a Korean population living here. In the future, we will have a Koreatown-like atmosphere, but the main priority right now is to build education facilities to be able to better teach our children Korean language and culture.

JAI: You must feel homesick, though?

We're not so far from Seoul, much closer than New York is. There's no trouble accessing Korean culture. We get Korean papers, magazines and videos of TV shows from Anchorage.

JAI: How are relations between Koreans and the natives?

Very good. They commend us for our diligence and thrift. In the early years, the Eskimos used to bully us, but not anymore.

by Special Reporting Team
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)