Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education

SPRING 2000     http://www.eastern.edu/publications/emme    Vol. 2, No. 1

Theme: Stereotype, Prejudice, and Discrimination

[This Issue] [Articles] [Instructional Ideas] [Open Forum] [Reviews] [Contributors]
[Fleck] [Gorski] [Swan and Weissbrot] [Tuleja] [Williams]

A Generation in Transition: 
A study of Korean-American youth

Charlie Swan and Jill Weissbrot
Eastern College

This qualitative study was conducted to echo the voices of Korean-American teenagers as they defined their ethnic identity. Utilizing qualitative interviews, focus group discussion, analysis, and interpretation, we identified various dimensions of their lives affected by the synthesis of Korean and American cultures. The youth revealed the union of Korean and American values within the areas of family relationships, Korean values, relationships with others, gender roles, and education. Our population found themselves living in a dualistic environment because neither culture embraces them fully. However, as they treasure aspects of both cultures, they are gradually transitioning into a unique, blended culture of their own.


Recommended Citation in the APA Style


As educators in a society composed of a mélange of ethnic minority groups, it is important to understand how these groups perceive their ethnicities in relation to their traditional culture and to that of American society. The purpose of this study is to illuminate Korean-American youths' view of their bicultural identity as they transition from the Korean culture that comprises their home life to the mainstream American culture in which they are schooled. In so doing, we analyzed their perceptions of family relationships, Korean values, relationships with others, gender roles, and education. The sum total of this analysis reveals how they perceive their own ethnic identity and where they position themselves in relation to American and Korean culture. [paragraph 1]

When ethnic minority groups such as Korean-Americans are raised with the influence of more than one culture, they undergo a process of change known as "acculturation" as a result of the "continuous contact between two distinct cultures" (Phinney & Chavira, 1992, p. 299). As they come in contact with other cultures, they "face the challenge of incorporating those diverse influences into their ethnic identity" (Tse, 1999, p. 133). "Ethnic Identity" is defined by Kwan & Sodowsky (1997) as "the sum total of group members’ feelings about those values, symbols, and common histories that identify them as a distinct group" (p. 51). [paragraph 2]

Numerous writers elucidate the issues facing ethnic minorities as they adapt to American culture. Ibrahim and Ohnishi (1997) relate how a person’s cultural identity is "anchored in a social-cultural context" (p.34). The issues that affect the development of this identity are "the larger culture, specific ethnic group of origin, community, religion, type of neighborhood, social class, educational level, gender…, and stage of development." These two writers also relate how understanding ethnic identity involves "consciousness and knowledge of the cultural characteristics of one’s own ethnic group" (Ibrahim and Ohnishi, 1997, p.34). Adopting that ethnic identity, however, is another matter. According to Ibrahim and Ohnishi some Asian Americans:

will strongly identify with many aspects of Asian American ethnicity, but some will only acknowledge that they belong to an Asian American ethnic group… they may deny that they have anything in common with members of their ethnic group. Some may identify with their ethnic group to the extent of knowing the history of the ethnic group and still see the ethnic group as irrelevant today, and some others may identify socially with the ethnic group but have no knowledge of its history. (p. 35) [paragraph 3]

Building upon Phinney and Chavira’s definition of acculturation, Kim, O'Neil, & Owen (1996) describe two distinct forms that acculturation may take: "High acculturation implies embracing the values and beliefs of the host culture and low acculturation implies retaining the cultural values and beliefs of another culture" (p. 96). In determining one’s level of acculturation, Phinney and Chavira (1992) identify two key issues: "(a) the extent to which individuals consider it of value to identify with and maintain the cultural characteristics of their own ethnic groups and (b) the importance one attributes to maintaining positive relationships with the larger society and other ethnic groups" (pp.299-300). [paragraph 4]

Phinney and Chavira (1992) also identify four possible degrees to which acculturation can take place in individuals. "Assimilation" occurs when ethnic minorities identify only with the dominant culture, cutting off all interaction with the ethnic culture of origin. The next level, "integration," occurs when individuals identify strongly with both the dominant and the traditional cultures and maintain intense involvement in both. "Separation" occurs when ethnic minorities focus exclusively on the values and practices of the culture of origin and distance themselves from the dominant society. The final level, "marginality," occurs when one cannot relate to either the culture of origin or the dominant culture. [paragraph 5]

Although Phinney and Chavira's four degrees of acculturation provide us with a useful framework, Tse (1999) reminds us that one's ethnic identification is not static.  He identifies four distinct stages through which ethnic minorities progress in developing identity within the dominant culture. Stage one occurs before they attend school, and is characterized by their unawareness of their minority status. Stage two occurs in childhood and adolescence, when ethnic minorities develop a sense of negativity towards their culture of origin. In this stage, they typically gravitate towards the values and practices of the dominant culture. Stage three, "ethnic emergence," takes place in adolescents and young adults when ethnic minorities arrive at the conclusion that they cannot be fully integrated into the dominant culture due to their minority status. At this point, ethnic minorities move to the fourth and final stage in which "they join the ethnic minority American group… and resolve many of their ethnic identity conflicts" (pp.121-122). [paragraph 6]


With the theoretical frameworks of Phinney and Chavira and Tse we employed the qualitative research paradigm to study the ethnic identity formation of Korean-American youth.  Our study took place at a Korean American Presbyterian Church located in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We chose a church setting because we understood Korean ethnic churches provided places for Korean-American youth to gather regularly.  This church held two services concurrently: one delivered in Korean for the older generation and the other held in English for the youth. The youth service is attended weekly by 20-25 teenagers from 6th grade through 12th grade. The youth group, lead by Korean-American seminarians, also had weekly fellowships on Fridays and other spiritual and social activities throughout the year. During the two-month fieldwork in 2000 we observed the youth services and participated in a few fellowships. We also joined a fellowship meeting at one of the members' houses. We interviewed individually and in a focus group seven (four males and three females) volunteer youth ranging in age from twelve to eighteen. Six of the seven youth were US-born Korean-Americans and one was born in Korea and moved to North America at around the age of six. The group as a whole came from middle-class suburban families and was fluent in English and semi-fluent in Korean. [paragraph 7]

After being introduced to the youth leader, we spent our first two sessions doing participant observation, establishing rapport with the youth and the leader, and identifying key informants.  Literature review and our initial participant observation provided the foundation for the questions that we asked during the subsequent individual interviews. The individual interviews were comprised of 53 questions that asked for information related to demographics, family life, education, friends/activities, gender, cultural identity, and spiritual life. After individual interviews were completed, we interviewed in a focus group the seven youth whom we had interviewed privately. The group discussion took approximately one hour. The questions centered around the following topics: attitudes of youth while visiting Korea, separate worship service, people they interacted with, education, family, traditional Korean values, gender, and general questions of interest. The group discussion was recorded by hand and by audio-tape.  The group interview data was later qualitatively analyzed through personal reflection and compared with individual interview and observation data. It was also subjected to the discussion and confirmation of the three researchers1 to allow the triangulation of the data. [paragraph 8]


Family Relationships

Family relationships were the most significant source of Korean values for these youth. Because their parents were raised in Korea, solely with Korean customs, they, for the most part, raised their youths with the traditions of their old country. The most significant traditional Korean values which families imparted to the youth included respect for elders, sacrifice for the sake of the family and the importance of education. These values were modeled in family relationships and transferred to the generation we studied, despite significant cultural conflicts occurring between the youth and their parents. [paragraph 9]

Parental sacrifice was key to the success of the family. According to Lee (1991), "most parents are ready to sacrifice academic or recreational comfort for the success of their children" (p. 148). The youth clearly realized that their parents’ sacrifice was for the betterment of their generation. It was for this reason that most of these families had moved to the U.S., sometimes leaving occupations of greater status in Korea for jobs in the U.S. that required long hours of physical labor. As one of our participants stated, "I want to take care of my parents because … they work hard and now at the point in time where I realize how much they do, how hard they work. It’s all … towards my sister, my brother, and I." [paragraph 10]

Because they so appreciated this sacrifice, they reciprocated this sense of obligation to the family by desiring to care for their parents when they reached retirement age. Through academic success and attaining a well-paying job, these youth hoped to be able to provide for their parents in the future. Many of the youth voiced this desire:  "it’s not that you have to, it’s that you want to. You want to take care of your family." This tendency was observed by Lee (1991), who wrote that "[t]he need for accomplishment in ... Korean ... people is expressed in the context of a strong sense of responsibility and obligation to one’s family" (p. 149). [paragraph 11]

The youth clearly respected the sacrifices that their parents made for them. As Lee (1991) wrote, "interpersonal harmony and the closeness of [Korean] family have been achieved by the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the family" (p. 148). The youth realized that this sacrifice was a demonstration of their parents’ love for them, and they reciprocated their love with gratefulness and respect. This respect was key to Korean family relationships and was demonstrated to parents by children’s obedience to them. Sandhu (1997) stated that "[t]here is a hierarchical order in Asian families’ relationships, and proper respect for this hierarchy is considered crucial" (p. 12). The youth related how they were expected not to talk back to their parents because this was considered disrespectful. [paragraph 12]

However, this did not prevent conflicts from occurring. Cultural and generational differences often constituted a communication gap between the youth and their parents. Because these youth were accustomed to American society, the American culture penetrated the parent-child relationship. Youth described how they found it difficult to relate to their parents because of their upbringing in different societies: "I feel a lot of things or problems I go through they can’t relate to. … I mean, they’ve been living here a long time, but they don’t know what goes around that much. They’re very clueless on that part.… A lot of the problems I have I really can’t tell my parents because I know they won’t understand." However, other participants related how they felt they were growing closer to their parents as they matured and reached young adulthood. The ease of communication with parents also increased with parents’ increased facility in English. When parents could more easily relate to non-Korean Americans and spoke more English at home with their children, the youth felt they could better relate to them. [paragraph 13]

Korean Values

Respect was one of the most important Korean Values passed on by the parents to their children. As one of our research participants said, "it’s all about respect." Tangible and intangible manifestations of respect surfaces within Korean traditions. Respect played an important role in family relationships and was a staple in the celebration of traditional Korean customs. As Feng (1994) related, "... many Asian American parents teach their children to value educational achievement, respect for authority, feel responsibility for relatives, and show self control." They were also taught to respect standards of morality and conduct. [paragraph 14]

Tangible examples of respect were found in the practice of bowing to one’s elders, which was especially important to do on New Year’s Day. It was even required to bow to someone who was only a year older according to some youth. They described how this tradition would continue throughout one’s life. However, adherence to strict Korean values was beginning to diminish within their lives. Due to their immersion in American society, they were beginning to judge these Korean customs by the standards of American culture. As one participant expressed, "It’s taken… too seriously… I don’t think one year or two years older should be [bowed to]." [paragraph 15]

Relationships with Others

Although they were beginning to synthesize both Korean and American values within their ethnic identities, the extent to which they identified with Korean values comprised a significant aspect of their relationships with others; strengthening their relationships with other Korean Americans and driving a wedge between their relationships with non-Korean Americans. They identified material and immaterial differences as barriers to communication with other races. The importance to these youths of the material differences between the cultures was demonstrated by the remarks of one of our participants:

And one thing that used to bother me was when I used to have friends over … I’d take off my shoes and they wouldn’t understand cause they’re not really used to it. But Koreans … know each other cause we’re all alike. For example, there’s Korean food… it smells and stuff… [but] Korean kids, like, they know, they’re like, "Yeah, I’ve got that at my house, that’s cool." [paragraph 16]

Material differences from the dominant society were significant to these students in that they were indicative of immaterial cultural differences between themselves and non-Korean Americans. These immaterial differences, particularly those between whites and Korean Americans, often inhibited the two groups from intimate communication. Tse (1999) indicated that Korean American adolescents often reached a point of awakening at which they realized that they were different from white Americans and that they had generally been uncomfortable with white Americans. One of our participants described this exact phenomenon: "When I was…in sixth grade, my class was…all white kids. I think I realized later…that I didn’t fit in. I knew there was something…some differences between us.… After meeting [Korean kids]…I was just so much more comfortable. I could just relate." [paragraph 17]

This principle can be observed in dating relationships as well. When we asked each participant if they would prefer to date a Korean-American or a non-Korean American, many of them stressed their affinity for dating Korean Americans. One respondent conveyed the reason for this, which others corroborated in the group discussion: "there’s just certain things that we don’t mix.… We have differences. We grew up in different ways and we have different parents and standards are different." [paragraph 18]

However, they could not relate fully with students who had recently emigrated from Korea, either. Some of the youth said that these students, termed "F.O.B’s" or "Fresh off the boat," segregated themselves from Korean- Americans. "They talk…within themselves and they speak Korean at school," one youth said. One student even termed their relationship to be like a "war zone." That student proceeded to explain: "If Korean kids hang out with white people, they call them ‘bananas,’ because they’re yellow outside but white inside." [paragraph 19]

As many of their responses indicated, these Korean-American youths clearly found cultural unity and affirmation of their state of being "between" American and Korean cultures within the company of other Korean American youth who had had experiences similar to their own. Indeed, most of the youth indicated that their closest friends were Korean Americans and that they spent most of their time with Korean Americans, due to the comfort level brought on by their similarity of culture and understanding of one another’s material and immaterial differences from the mainstream society. One might say that they, as a group, had the "same" differences from the mainstream society both in material cultural artifacts and immaterial standards and values and that, because of this, they are able to find the acceptance and affirmation from one another which provides them with support and identity. As per above, Tse (1999) described this phenomenon. In their fourth and final stage of ethnic identity formation, he wrote that ethnic minority youth and young adults would eventually come to seek identity with the ethnic minority group, thus solving many of the ethnic conflicts that emerged from clashes between the dominant and family cultures. [paragraph 20]

Gender Roles

Other influences of the synthesis of American and Korean values were perceived within the gender-role identity of the youth. Kim, O’Neil, & Owen (1996) described how "gender-role acculturation" occures when "the dominant cultures’ gender-role values affect or change the individual’s perception of masculinity and femininity" (p. 96). Korean and American perceptions of gender roles intersected and often clashed in the lives of these youth, as these writers described, because they were "affected by the gender-role norms of the dominant culture but might also retain the strongly socialized gender-role values of their families and former culture" (p.96). The youth in our study clearly demonstrated these characteristics. They related their understanding of Korean gender roles when describing how in Korean society females typically did the cooking and cleaning, and were expected to be submissive. They perceived males as stronger, more dependable and favored within the family. [paragraph 21]

Although the youth recognized and identified these traditional values, in some areas they were breaking away from them in their self-definition of gender roles. At one youth group gathering, we observed the mother cooking the meal and the female youth serving others the food and clearing away the dishes after dinner. The students related how this was typical of Korean society and the females said they had been introduced to this at an age as young as five years old. The males believed that there was more pressure placed on them in their families to show respect and be responsible, particularly in areas of education. As one male participant related, "in Korean tradition, the oldest [male] takes care of the younger kids… everything depends on me…like, if my brother gets bad grades, it counts on me for not helping him." [paragraph 22]

Though they described how education was traditionally not stressed as highly for the females, due to their ability to be supported by their well-educated husbands, the youth did not appear to personally endorse this view. Both males and females all expressed clear occupational and educational goals for themselves that included a study beyond the college level. One female participant hoped to attain "the highest possible" level of education. This was generally the response from all the female participants (as well as the males), revealing that they did not personally adhere to the idea that females should be less educated than their male counterparts. Nor did the females indicate that they, personally, would rely upon the educational achievement of their future spouses. [paragraph 23]


For both males and females, education had been stressed by parents from the time they were young. Their education was often supplemented with numerous enrichment programs, even at a young age, and parents continued to encourage them in good study habits throughout their schooling. Much pressure was placed on them to get into a reputable college, they told us. These youth have therefore internalized the value of education as well as the motivation and ability to perform well in school. As noted before, much of these students’ intrinsic motivation for their long-term career goals involved the obligation they felt to support their parents in their retirement. As Lee (1991) related, "academic achievement is not a personal matter for children but is related to the honor of the family." [paragraph 24]


All of these dimensions of culture constitute the realization of ethnic identity transition that was occurring in the lives of these young people. They were coming to synthesize American and Korean values to varying degrees within each of these areas in their lives and to define their ethnic identity based upon this unification. This is a complex process for these youths. When asked if they would define themselves as Americans or as Koreans, their answers reflected the complexity of ethnic self-identification: when surrounded by Americans, they felt more distinctly Korean, yet while in Korea or when in the company of their Korean families, they felt more distinctly American. [paragraph 25]

As Das & Kemp (1997) describe, "the longer one stays in North America ... the more one gets used to life here, and it becomes harder to face the prospect of returning to one's country of origin" (p. 25). When many participants returned to Korea, they discovered that this was true of their experience. Though it was a positive experience for most of them, they depicted various cultural boundaries that inhibited them from fully participating in the society. Cultural barriers included language, socio-economic differences, and differences in traditional values. The gap presented by these differences was described poignantly by one participant: "If I was in Korea and I had a friend, I couldn’t talk to him, because the only way I could talk to him was respectfully, the way you would speak to your parents. …I only really know how to speak that way. I can’t speak casual, so it doesn’t make any sense." [paragraph 26]

The need to adapt to the conflicting value structures of both Korean and American cultures in these different areas of their lives presented a challenge to these youth. One of the participants described the challenge as such: "what causes a lot of the problems because it’s the way you’re born with your family one way and then you live in a different culture so you have to learn to adapt to that way too. So, you have both cultures kind of mixing in and they don’t really mix that well." To accommodate these conflicts, the youth were clearly retaining some Korean values and customs that were significant in their lives, while adopting some American values that they had gained from the dominant culture. The same student described this transition to more "American" ways of thinking: "I learned to adapt to both cultures… I am adapting more to American culture now. … I see like in 20 years when… all my friends grow up and we become parents it’s going to be a lot different. … I think by then … we’ll all be living way more in American culture than Korean." [paragraph 27]

This transitional phase separated them from both the Korean values of their parents and from becoming a fully integrated part of American mainstream culture. As they were synthesizing both Korean and American values into their ethnic identity, they were not fully assimilating to American culture (Phinney & Chavira, 1992). Rather, they were discovering "what parts of themselves are Asian and what parts are American" ( Tse, 1999, p. 122). Because they were unable to relate fully to either culture, they found self-definition and support through their relationships with other Korean American youth, who were experiencing these same vital conflicts and changes. As Tse (1999) related, they were entering the fourth stage, "ethnic identity incorporation," in which they identified themselves more fully with the ethnic minority group. As these youth faced similar issues, they were, together, a generation in transition. [paragraph 28]


1.  The original study was conducted by two authors of this article and Amanda Newlin who was a graduate student of Multicultural Education at Eastern College at the time of this study.


Das, A. K. & Kemp, S. F. (1997). Between two worlds’: Counseling South Asian Americans. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 25 (1), 23-34.

Feng, J. (1994). Asian-American children: What teachers should know. ERIC Digest [Online]. 12 paragraphs. Available: http://www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed369577.html [2000, March 7].

Ibrahim, F. & Ohnishi, H. (1997). Asian American identity development: A culture specific model for South Asian Americans. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 25 (1), 34-51.

Kim, E., O’Neil, J. and Owen, S. (1996). Asian American men’s acculturation and gender role conflict. Psychological Reports, 79 (1), 94-104.

Kwan, K. & Sodowsky, G.R. (1997). Internal and external ethnic identity and their correlates: A study of Chinese American immigrants. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. 25, (1), 51-68.

Lee, Y. (1991). Koreans in Japan and in the United States. In M.A. Gibson and J. U. Ogbu (Eds.), Minority status and schooling: A comparative study of immigration and involuntary minorities (pp. 131-168). New York: Garland Publishing.

Phinney, J. S. & Chavira, V. (1992). Acculturation attitudes and Self esteem among high school and college students. Youth & Society, 23 (3), 299- 313.

Sandhu, D. S. (1997). Psychocultural profiles of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans: Implications for counseling and psychotherapy. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 25 (1), 7-23.

Tse, L. (1999). Finding a place to be: Ethnic identity exploration of Asian Americans. Adolescence, 34 (133), pp. 121-139.


 Charlie Swan , a graduate of Eastern College with a B. A. degree in History, recently received his master's degree in Multicultural Education at Eastern College.  He will be teaching social studies at an international school in Taejon, South Korea.

Jill Weissbrot is a graduate student in Multicultural Education at Eastern College. As a graduate assistant she has assisted in the development of a virtual research center, Global Center for Applied Research, at Eastern College. She has her Bachelor's degree in English from the University of Connecticut. She plans to teach English at the secondary level. 

Write to the Authors


Recommended Citation in the APA Style:

Swan, C. & Weissbrot, J. (2000). A Generation in Transition: A study of Korean American Youth. Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education [online], 2(1), 28  paragraphs. <Available: http://www.eastern.edu/publications/emme/2000spring/weisbrot_swan.html> [your access year, month date]


Editor: Heewon Chang, Ph. D.
Assistant Editor: Lhaki Yee Ching Tang, 

E-Mail: emme@eastern.edu

Eastern College
Education Department

1300 Eagle Rd.
St. Davids, PA, 19087-3696

Copyright © 2000 by EMME & Authors
All hyperlinks are provided for user convenience; EMME receives no monetary gain from these linked sites.