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Golden Children
Korean-American Parents make great sacrifices to give their children the American Dream. As the kids grow up, they wonder if they'll ever live up to their parents' expectations. By Brooke Lea Foster
Comments () | Published June 1, 2000

RUSH is just about over in Annandale, but the shops that line Little River Turnpike are still busy. The Korean Bakery and Rice Cake is selling its last basket of ahng go pangs--red-bean pastries. The parking lots of restaurants advertising KOREAN BBQ are filling up.

On Evergreen Court, across from the Korean Presbyterian Church, every window in an office building is dark--except one, where 35-year-old attorney Steve Yun sits in his office, on the telephone.

"No, I understand," he says, annoyed, with a hint of a Korean accent. "I understand what you are saying. But you have to understand my client . . . ."

For the next 15 minutes, Yun talks his way politely through the argument until he receives the answer he's waiting for, the one his client wants. Satisfied, he removes his wire-framed glasses and stretches.

Raised on reruns of Perry Mason, Yun decided early that he wanted to be a lawyer. His parents ingrained in him that they came to this country to give him a better life. Becoming a lawyer or a doctor was not only something he could do; it was his duty. It would be proof that their choice to immigrate, and the struggles that came with it, were not in vain.

When Yun's family arrived in the United States, the precocious ten-year-old's future was wide open. The heavy book bag he dragged to school along the crowded streets of Seoul had been left in South Korea. His mother told him he wouldn't need such a large one in America.

"My mom didn't want me to grow up with the same pressures," says Yun. "But I still had them here."

Looking back, Yun sometimes wishes he had pursued a service career, perhaps working in a nursing home or orphanage. Instead, when he graduated from the University of Virginia, he went to George Washington University's School of Law.

"I remember my mom begging me. 'Please, please, just graduate in four years.' And then when I went to law school, 'Please, please, just graduate,' " he says.

Now the real-estate and commercial-transactions law practice he shares with his wife, Jina, is booming. Many of his clients are in "Koreatown," the stretch of Annandale between Route 236 and the Beltway.

 

Twenty minutes away, on a tree-lined street in Springfield, is the Colonial-style home Yun bought for his parents. The black Mercedes S320 he gave his mother is parked in the driveway. Yong Yun, Steve's mother, watches a Korean soap opera on Channel 46. His father, Jae, is at the family's restaurant in Annandale.

A quarter-century after their 24-hour flight from Korea, the Yun family has made it.

"Steve always knew he needed to do well," says Yong Yun, leaning forward in her chair. "He always knew he had to go to a good school. He would say, 'Mom, I don't want to be a nobody. I want to be a somebody.' "

Yong and Jae Yun worked hours that seem unfathomable to make that happen: to allow their only son to enter a white-collar profession.

In many ways, their story is the typical Korean-immigrant tale. Influenced by Confucian teachings, which emphasize hard work and discipline, the Korean community has attained the quick upward mobility once associated with Jews in America. In one generation, Koreans have gone from corner store to corner office.

"In Korea, they say you harvest children," says Steve's wife, Jina. "You sow the seeds and then harvest the crop. If your kids turn out good, you did well with your harvest."

When Jina stops speaking, five-foot-two Yong Yun looks down the tiled hallway to where her son sits at the dining table, his head resting in his hands. Yong can't help but smile. Her son, the lawyer, has been her most successful harvest yet.

 

The Yuns arrived in Washington nine years after the United States lifted quotas restricting the number of Asian immigrants. Prior to 1965, the law limited the number of Korean entrants to 100 people per year. Washington's Korean population was tiny, consisting mostly of people working with the Korean embassy.

Relaxed immigration laws, coupled with South Korean economic troubles in the 1960s and '70s, gave many an incentive to risk everything and start over.

"It was everyone's dream. We would go see a movie and see everyone wearing pretty dress, driving a nice car, like everyone was movie stars," says Yong Yun. "And we heard America was heaven for our children."

In Seoul, Steve Yun's father had a glass-manufacturing business. When the struggling economy brought hardship to his family, Steve's parents took all the money they could--the Korean government limited how much could be taken out of Korea to a few thousand dollars per person--and boarded a plane bound for National Airport.

It was 1975, and about 30,000 Koreans emmigrated to America that year. The number of Korean immigrants peaked in 1977 when 35,592 settled in the United States. Today, Korean community organizations estimate that there are about 150,000 Koreans in the Washington area. The Washington/ Baltimore-area Korean population is one of the largest in the country, falling behind those of New York and California.

Many Koreans in this area settled in Northern Virginia, but others set down roots in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. They found housing in apartments for low-income families. In the mid-1970s, two communities--Kent Village in Landover and Fairlington Village in Falls Church--were made up almost entirely of Koreans. But these low-income housing units were considered temporary. The Koreans were determined to make money so they could afford to live in areas with better schools.

The Yuns' life in America began at the Clarendon Motel in Arlington, a one-story brick motel on Wilson Boulevard. At the time, Steve Yun thought his mother could speak perfect English. He knows now she could say only two words: "you know."

Yong and her husband figured if they could meet another Korean person, they could get guidance about where they should live, where schools were good for their two children, and where there was a Korean church for support.

On their way to English as a Second Language classes, the Yuns would approach every Asian they saw. "You Korean?" they would ask. Jina remembers that when her family arrived, "My parents opened the phone book to the 'Kims' and called until we found a Korean family that would help us."

 

One month after they arrived, The Yuns still weren't working, still were living in a motel, and still hadn't made contact with any other Koreans.

"I was writing letter after letter home to Korea," says Yong. "But I don't know how to send it. I don't know how to get a Coke from the Coke machine. I don't know nothing."

Then they got lucky. Jae Yun ran into an old classmate who had immigrated several years before and formed a construction company. Jae was told not to worry, he had a job.

Their lives began to come together. Steve and his sister, 12-year-old He Jung, enrolled in school, each a year behind because they couldn't speak English. His father went to work in construction "from sunrise to sunset." And they moved into an apartment in Arlington for $269 a month.

Yong Yun enrolled in beauty school, against her husband's wishes. She knew she had to earn money for the family to get ahead. Cosmetology was something she could learn without having to speak much English. People could make hand gestures as to how short they wanted their hair cut and point to pictures to choose a style. After a year of studies, she began what would be 20 years of washing and trimming at the Hair Cuttery in Annandale. Yong laughs now about how scared she was to communicate with Americans. But at the time, she feared her broken English would make her sound stupid or, worse yet, uneducated.

"When they give me first customers, I could not look at my face in mirror. I don't want to see my face not understand," she says.

Today, with the development of Annandale's "Koreatown," it is a lot easier to live as a Korean immigrant in Washington. "In LA, they say you can survive without speaking a word of English," says Steve Yun, who goes to a Korean barber, eats in Korean restaurants, and rents movies from the Korean video stores that line Route 236. "I don't think you need to speak English to survive in Annandale. As long as you stay in that area, you'll survive."

 

At a small convenience store at 400 Virginia Avenue in Southwest DC, Happy Lee and her husband, Hoya, stand behind the counter, ringing up customers.

It can be backbreaking work. But it has become second nature to them; they've been doing it since they bought the store nearly 15 years ago. They get up at 5 AM, drive from their large contemporary home in McLean, and open the store by 6.

"My mom tells me every day, 'You must study hard or you'll be on your feet all day saying May I help you?' " says daughter Mishelle, a senior at Langley High School in McLean. Her older sister, Rebecca, just graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in information systems.

Korean-owned businesses like that of the Lees dot the streets of Washington. The Korean-American Chamber of Commerce says there are nearly 2,000 Korean-owned businesses in DC--most of them liquor stores, carryouts, grocers, and dry cleaners.

One reason Koreans have been so successful is the keh system. In a keh, a circle of a dozen or more people pay a preset amount each month into a common fund. They then take turns cashing in on the lump sum. This money is often used to start a business or purchase a home.

Another reason involves class background, says Pyong Gap Min, a sociologist at Queens College in New York. Unlike many immigrants from other countries who came after the 1965 immigration laws changed, many Koreans were well-educated, with experience in professional jobs.

Immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean have tended to come from poor backgrounds, and they often settled in low-income African-American communities. They were more likely to assimilate into the youth culture of those neighborhoods that, Min says sociologists theorize, "tends to be more oppositional" and can lead to feelings of powerlessness.

Most Korean-Americans grow up in largely white, middle-class areas, where they learn mainstream values--but at the end of the day, they go home to Korean-run households. At any given moment, they are leading one of two lives. 

This is especially true of the "1.5" generation, a term used to describe those who were born abroad, reared in the United States, but are stuck, identity-wise, somewhere in between. Most 1.5ers feel in limbo, raised with two value systems.

"There are expectations toward certain children to be a cultural broker, linking the family with the rest of the society," says Kyeyong Park, a professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies at UCLA. "That is who the 1.5 generation is."

Not only are the 1.5ers relied upon to connect their parents with the mainstream, but they also are expected to link the second generation--those born in the United States--with their first-generation parents. Unlike the 1.5ers, who tend to speak both languages, the second generation often speaks only English. If their parents speak mainly Korean, it can make communication between the two difficult.

 

Suki Han doesn't remember what life was like in Korea. She was two years old and her sister, Junnie, was 11 months when they left. But her parents, David and Christina Han, say they will never forget the morning of May 29, 1974, when they landed at Dulles airport.

"It was a spring day," says David, who changed his name from Kwang Soo five years after he arrived. "The road coming from the airport was so beautiful. When we look at the trees and smell the air, it was like paradise."

"The first thing I think is the land is so big," says Christina Han. "I want to just cut a piece off and give it to South Korea"--a nation smaller than the state of Georgia but with a population of more than 44 million.

The Hans' idealism subsided once they were here a few months. In Korea, Christina had worked as an engineer. David, who had graduated from Seoul National University, the most prestigious university in Korea, had been a pharmacist for Pfizer Corporation. When he arrived here, he sent more than 200 résumés to pharmaceutical companies across the country, including Pfizer offices. He got few interviews.

"I was successful in my career there. When I came here, no one recognized that," he says. "I knew I had to start from scratch." He took on two jobs, working as a house painter and with a typesetting company. Some weeks he worked 120 hours. He moved up quickly and ended up working on computers and becoming an engineer. Their daughter Suki is a consultant with Booz, Allen & Hamilton. Junnie works for the federal government. Christina is an information engineer.

But when Suki and Junnie were young, their mother didn't work outside the home. Christina was with the girls, making sure they did their homework and practiced the piano and violin. Junnie complains that her mother would never let her play sports for fear it would jeopardize her music recitals. "She didn't want me to injure my fingers," she says.

Suki considers herself lucky that her mother was home: She had a childhood. Many of her friends took on the roles of their parents, filling in when the language barrier prevented parents from handling adult responsibilities.

Melvin Kim, a junior at Langley High School, immigrated here in the third grade. He and his 12-year-old brother were put in intensive English as a Second Language classes and picked up English faster than his parents did. They were the ones who signed the letters teachers sent home or went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to translate when a parent needed a driver's license.

Another Korean-American, 25-year-old David Lee, who works with an Internet start-up in Vienna, says, "My sister pretty much took care of all the details. She changed my diapers. She talked with us about school. We would go into her room and watch her get ready if she was going to go out. She gave us advice."

Even in the Han family, Suki took on the role of the bridge builder. David and Christina Han didn't understand the concept of the American teenager. So they would often look to Suki to explain.

"It was my sister who decided whether or not I could go to the prom," says Junnie Han, who recently graduated from Boston University. "There was a point when I just started asking my sister. Every time I would ask my mother, she would turn to my sister and say, 'Suki, is this okay?' "

 

It's 10:30 on a sunny Saturday morning and three Korean-American preschoolers sit around a table learning to count. Jodi, a small child with short black pigtails, holds up three tiny fingers in response to her teacher's question. Then she lets out a long yawn.

Upstairs, about 20 kids learn to play the buk drum, an instrument often played during ceremonies in Korea. A few still wear white robes from the tae kwon do class a half-hour earlier.

The children are in Oakton at the Korean YMCA's Saturday school, one of about 50 Korean-culture-and-language schools in the Washington area. Each Saturday, thousands of Korean-American children file into public-school classrooms or church basements and spend about four hours learning Korean language and culture.

For those who don't go to Saturday school, their parents teach them at home. "In the summers, my dad would sit with us and make us read and write Korean so we wouldn't forget," says Melvin Kim, whose parents own a haircutting shop. "He wants us to be able to help recent immigrants. If someone comes over, he wants us to be the interpreters."

Melvin's father, like most Korean parents, wants his sons to pass down the culture to their children. This can be tricky when a young Korean-American relates more to his adopted culture than the one of his parent's homeland.

"Our generation is still in the process of figuring out how those pieces fit together," says John Cha, a pastor with the Korean Orthodox Presbyterian Church in McLean. "If you asked any of us what's our ethnic identity, none of us would say it's solely Korean or just American. There is a feeling of a dual identity."

Korean churches offer separate services for the second generation. On Sundays at Cha's church, the first generation meets in the church, while many of its adult and teenage children meet across the street in the auditorium of a public high school. The second-generation church even has a different name: Cornerstone Ministry, a name that purposely leaves out the word "Korean" to symbolize its desire to be more inclusive. And unlike the religious services of the first generation, the services at Cornerstone are led in English.

"It's a delicate line," says anthropology professor Kyeyoung Park. "First-generation parents want their children to link with the mainstream, but they want them to remain loyal to the Korean community. So it's a struggle for the Korean-American culture."

Many young Korean-Americans admit there were times they wished they were white--mostly during times that everything about them except their physical characteristics felt as though they were. Their friends were white, and they were often called names such as "whitewashed" or "twinkie" (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) by members of their Korean inner circles.

"It's not that they're ashamed" of being Korean, says sociologist Pyong Gap Min. "It's because of their social background that they want to be whiter."

"I don't like to be around crowds of Asians," says Junnie Han. "I can't associate with them, so I don't want an outsider associating me with them. If I walk into a Korean store, I feel like they have all these expectations of me I can't meet. There were times I just wanted to be treated like the all-American kid."

But no matter how Americanized young Korean-Americans may be, at home in front of elders they go back to playing their Korean roles.

"When my mother has people over, I have to act like the perfect daughter," says Mishelle Lee. "I do the dishes, I speak Korean, I bring them tea if they want it. She likes to show me off like a trophy. Afterward, she is glowing, and all of her friends are saying, 'You have such a nice Korean daughter.' "

Long before Mishelle Lee was born, her upbringing as a dutiful daughter was prescribed by the Chinese philosopher Confucius. In the sixth century BC, he wrote the Analects, a series of suggested social "laws" that govern everything from why you should learn to play music (music creates harmony and therefore moral order) to the emphasis on education (cultivate yourself).

Confucian influence can be seen throughout East Asian cultures. In Korea, there are few other organized value systems, making Confucianism even more pervasive.

Many young Korean-Americans complain how strict and un-American their parents are. But their parenting style is the Confucian way--in which parents are to cultivate their children--rather than the American style, which tends to give children more freedom to cultivate themselves.

This commitment to Confucian values can make assimilation into the American culture harder. For example, Korean children are raised with the idea that it is disrespectful to look an elder in the eye. But when the child goes to school, if he doesn't look adults in the eye, he's perceived as shy, weak, or disrespectful.

In the United States, children are raised to leave home and live an independent life. Thirtysomethings who live with their parents are looked down upon. But Confucius taught that it is a duty to care for one's parents. Korean sons even after they marry are to live with their parents, and Korean daughters should live with their parents until they are married, at which point they move in with their husband's parents. You would never put your parents in a nursing home.

Steve and Jina Yun lived with Steve's parents until last year. Then they decided they wanted to have their own home for a few years while his parents were still well enough to live on their own.

"First time I hear, I feel like I'm dying," says his mother, Yong. "But I know someday they'll come back." And they plan to. Steve is conscious of his duty to be a good son. But he, like many young Korean-Americans, has begun to choose what aspects of Korean culture to keep and what not to keep.

"Korean parents get frustrated because their kids go to law school, graduate, and then visit so little," says Pyong Gap Min. "It's not because of a language barrier, it's because of a cultural barrier. The children are so Americanized there is not much connection between them."

 

It was a few hours before Jina Yun was leaving for college, moving away from home for the first time, and she wanted to do something nice for her mother. Both her parents had to work--one at the dry-cleaning business, the other at the doughnut shop. So her mother's friend was helping Jina pack up the car.

Jina decided she would surprise her mother and clean the house. Then her mother would return home to gleaming countertops and spotless floors and think what a wonderful daughter she had. But her mom came home early.

"She started yelling at me for cleaning up the house," says Jina. "I was so hurt. Then my mom's friend was like, 'You know why she was yelling at you, right? It's awkward for her to give you a hug or say goodbye.' "

In the traditional Korean culture, one rarely shows affection or emotion. Nor do many Korean parents praise their children's achievements. Instead of by a hug, a Korean parent's love is expressed in sacrifices for the children. Pastor John Cha calls it a "sacrificial love": Words seem meaningless next to a 100-hour workweek.

This can confuse and hurt children of the generations that grew up watching The Cosby Show and Family Ties. It makes them wonder why their parents didn't kiss them goodnight or tell them "I love you" at bedtime.

David Han remembers a tale he used to hear growing up in Korea: "In the old times, there was a noble people, the common people, and the enslaved people. When the noble family goes outside and it's raining, they never run. They will get drenched before they show a reaction. But another class of people, they would run."

Often, after Korean parents sell businesses and retire, spending time at home for the first time in decades, they make an effort to reconnect with their kids. Many times it's too late.

"My dad tried to start talking to me when I was all grown up," explains Steve Yun. "He tried to discuss business, politics, specific family matters, but I couldn't talk to him. I was too uncomfortable."

Steve and Jina Yun want to have children in the next few years. Although Steve says he is determined to talk to his children more and hug them, he and his wife still follow the way they were raised.

"I used to say my dream was for him to call me up and right before we get off the phone, say 'I love you' like Americans do," says Jina. "There are no stronger words than 'I love you,' so we are saving that" for special occasions, Jina says.

 

Thirty-year-old Korean-American novelist Patti Kim has vivid memories of her early childhood in Pusan, Korea. She remembers crossing a crowded street and losing one of her shoes in the commotion. She remembers the back of the grocery store where her family lived. Most of all, she remembers leaving.

"I was prancing around singing, 'I'm going to America. I'm going to America,' " says Kim. The four-year-old loved bananas and was told they were cheap in America, so she couldn't wait to arrive.

Today, after publishing her first work of fiction, A Cab Called Reliable, which won acclaim from the New York Times, Patti Kim lives in Riverdale with her husband.

Kim's book explores life in Arlington through the eyes of a nine-year-old Korean immigrant, Ahn Joo. A year after the family arrives, her mother despises life in America and returns to Korea with Ahn Joo's little brother, Min Joo. Ahn Joo is left to take care of her alcoholic father, knowing she was left behind partly because she was a daughter and not a more-revered son.

Growing up in Riverdale and later Potomac, Patti Kim was always conscious of the fact that she wasn't a boy. "My mom had lots of pressure on her to deliver a boy," she says. To make up for her absence of the Y chromosome, Kim became more tomboyish. Instead of making rice after school like most Korean daughters, she would spend more time with her father.

Confucianism paved the way for this patriarchal aspect of Korean culture. Korean women are taught to be passive and that, regardless of their job status, raising a family is their higher calling. American culture tells Korean-American women to be more independent.

"As a result, there are more divorces because women's voices have become louder," says Jina Yun. Jina accepts the fact that once they have children she and her husband will play traditional roles: He's the breadwinner, she's the caretaker.

Queens College sociologist Pyong Gap Min says many of his female students say they will not marry a Korean husband. They watched their mothers work hard and then come home and serve their fathers. Many refuse to do the same.

This is a reason interracial marriage has become more common. But many Korean parents see intermarriage as unnatural.

Jae Woo, a hairdresser who grew up in Arlington, says her parents drop hints all the time that she should marry a Korean husband. "I tell them finding a good man is hard enough; finding a good Korean man is even harder," says Woo. "But my mom doesn't believe in true love. She says true love won't put food on the table, a roof over your head, or care for your children."

 

On an overcast Thursday morning last March, a group of students is gathered in the guidance office at Langley High School in McLean. Many are crying.

It's the day after their classmate Naeun Yoon, a Korean immigrant, was killed in a hit-and-run accident along Route 7 in Great Falls. She had been enrolled at Langley for three months and had lived in the United States for about a year. She and her brother got into an argument in the car, and her mother pulled over and told them to stop fighting. Her brother got out and started walking away. Naeun got out and started walking in the opposite direction. She was struck moments later.

For Korean-American students, who make up a large percentage of Langley's significant Asian population, Naeun Yoon's death hit hard.

For them, it illustrates that the American experience their Korean parents envision for them doesn't always come to fruition. Almost all Koreans come here to give their children better educational opportunities. Like Naeun Yoon's, their parents go through great lengths to enroll them in Langley, one of the area's top-ranked schools. They send them to tutoring at a hak won, a Korean-run tutoring and SAT-preparation service. And they wait patiently for college-acceptance letters.

The teenagers' tears fell partly for their own failures--for the fact that like Naeun, many will never be who their parents dreamed they would. Their life could be cut short at any moment. The tears came because suddenly the pressure to do well in school, to get into a good college and to be successful, seems all that heavier.

The pressure stems from life in Korea, where education admissions are so competitive that Korean children are practically brought up in school.

There's an old saying in Korea: Sleep five hours, and you'll fail. Sleep four, and you'll pass. Stories of 15-hour school days with library study well into the early morning are common.

For Koreans, where you go to school means everything--it determines how successful you'll be in life, how much money you'll make, and what social class you will enter. Korean parents can't relate to the idea that school is also a place to meet up with friends and make plans for after school. Often, they force their children to study as hard as they themselves did in Korea.

Growing up in Fairfax, Pastor John Cha says that starting from the age of six "the first thing I had to do was homework. The conversation at the dinner table always centered around studies. Saturdays were devoted to one or two hours of homework, then Korean studies, and then I practiced the violin."

With Koreans, as with any other Asian group, "education is the steppingstone," says Joanne Cabry, a guidance counselor at Langley High School. "It's not in and of itself the goal. It's where it gets them."

 

For many Korean-Americans, dreams begin and end with a degree from Harvard. They are in love with the Ivy League.

Ask Korean-Americans what a terrible grade point average is and many will say it's anything below 3.5. Take Melvin Kim, a junior at Langley. He often complains that his B average is awful. His GPA is a serious problem--because his parents want him to go to Princeton or Stanford.

His brother's first choice was Stanford, followed by Harvard. But the reality of getting in seemed slim, so he looked elsewhere. His brother decided to go to Ohio State University. "It's a good school," says Melvin. "But it's not my parents' school."

"In Korean families, the expectations of the parents cause a tremendous amount of stress," says Cabry. "There is a gap between what the child can realistically do and what the parents want the child to do."

When Jina Yun graduated from high school, she was valedictorian of her class. "I explained to my mother that this meant I was first in my class. But because I wasn't going to Harvard, it didn't mean anything," says Jina. "There is absolutely no end to a Korean parent's expectations."

"I would be perfect in my mother's eyes if I went to a really good school, got a really good job, and married the perfect Korean Christian guy," says senior Mishelle Lee. "My life will look more like me going to a mediocre school, graduating, and marrying my Chinese boyfriend."

The Korean-American Alliance's Educational Support Program was formed in 1992 to open the lines of communication between the first and second generation. Every month for four months, young Korean-American professionals meet with teens in one room and their parents in another, advising both on the college admissions process. Suki Han has been working with the group for two years.

"The parents will say, 'My son doesn't have very good grades, but he really needs to go to Harvard,' " says Han. "We try to break the news that there are other options. I'll give examples of friends who got into Harvard but went to smaller schools that fit them better."

 

When he was a child, Tom Coyle's mother used to make him a hot drink every night before bed. When he asked what the dark drink was, she said it was medicine. Twenty years later, his mother admitted that it had not been medicine at all. She had spent several thousand dollars buying imported crushed deer antlers and had mixed them into a concoction.

"It's supposed to make you smarter," says Coyle, laughing about it now.

Coyle grew up working weekends at his parents' corner store in Baltimore. His father is white and his mother is Korean. Today, he lives in Arlington and is a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.

The oldest in his extended Korean family on his mother's side, Coyle is seen as the chosen one. "I'm the first one to wear a suit in my family. And they expect me to wear it for a good while," he says.

Getting a professional job is the ultimate goal Korean parents have for their children. Mishelle Lee says her mother always tells her you have to get a good job so you don't have to shop at Kmart. Mishelle's mother, Happy, explains she just doesn't want her children to have to work on their feet all day like she does.

So first-generation Koreans give their children more than they themselves had, sometime more than they can afford. Melvin Kim drives a Mercedes to Langley every day while his parents, who own a hairdressing shop in McLean, share a minivan.

As Melvin sees it, his parents have given him so much that it's up to him to return the favor and be successful himself. At that point, he'll get the nod of approval from his parents--and the Korean community.

 

While there are thousands of Koreans in the Washington area, the number can feel smaller. Close-knit communities form around Korean churches. Everyone knows somebody who knows somebody--and everyone talks.

"It's a pretty gossipy community," says 25-year-old David Lee. "Moms are very competitive, like a cult. You'll hear things like so-and-so are dating, so-and-so's parents got a divorce, so-and-so had a kid out of wedlock. And then, like a forest fire, it spreads."

This makes living up to expectations even harder because you're living up to the expectations of an entire community. If you don't do well in college, you'll be talked about. If you step out of line, your name will enter the gossip circle. Children who are doing well still feel the pressure of having to do better.

"The adults live vicariously through their children, and it sucks," says one young Korean-American. "I know my mom will lie about how much I'm making just to impress her Korean friends. Nothing will ever be good enough, and I accept that now."

Pastor John Cha worries about his young congregants who are plagued by shame and guilt.

"We grew up in such an approval-seeking culture," he says. "Now you have a generation that is hypersensitive to doing well. It's not just about finding the right job but finding the right partner and having kids by a certain age."

Some who don't fit the mold of the golden child lose hope. They figure they'll never be who their parents want them to be, so they cut ties. Others stop trying to be anything at all.

"Among the men, one response is to try harder and become workaholics. But then we destroy ourselves," Cha says. "Another is to give up. There are a number of Korean-Americans who are despondent, drifting through life."

"Their parents judge them based on what grades they get," explains Pyong Gap Min. "That hurt a lot of really good students. They had talent in art, but their parents push them to be a doctor. I see many Koreans who didn't get into Princeton or Yale, so they give up."

When Patti Kim announced she wanted to be a writer, it was a major crisis in her family. Although her parents originally were not thrilled with the idea, Kim pushed them to accept her choice. Some of her friends find themselves nearing age 30 and feeling miserable.

"They followed a communal dream rather than their own individual dream," she says. "They followed something their parents prescribed to them."

John Cha says when he and his wife have children, they plan to raise them without the pressures they had growing up. "We have scars from what happens when you push too hard," he says. "We'll remember that when raising our children."

Steve Yun says he would never turn back the clock and change his future from the moment when he stepped off the plane from Seoul. His law business has been too good to him. And he can't deny the freedom his economic status has given him.

But ten years down the road, when he's 44 and his family's financial future is secure, Steve Yun plans to retire from law. He and Jina hope to open the orphanage or nursing home they often daydream about. It will be their turn. And at that point, in their own eyes, they will truly be the golden children. 

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 06/01/2000 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles