Korean American Families

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2001 25 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Women in Korea

3. Korean immigrant couples in America

4. Korean immigrant children in America

5. A Step from Heaven

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Your life can be different, Young Ju. Study and be strong. In America, women have choices.”[1]

Korean people tend to define women as wives, mothers, caregivers, or just simply as girls, always with regard to their sexual behavior rather to their individuality as a person. For over five hundred years Confucianism has been the mainstream of Korean culture and tradition, setting the social role of Korean women. Koreans still strongly believe in Confucian values, behave, feel, and think in Confucian ways, despite the fact that Koreans, particularly Korean Americans and specifically Korean American women, have experienced new social realities and such social changes as modern socialization, westernisation, Christianization, industrialization, and immigration to the American socio-cultural setting.

The major premises for this paper are (1) a view on women in Korea and Confucian values in Korean society. (2) What happens when a traditional immigrant couple arrives in America and that a departure from traditional roles often results in domestic violence. (3) The role of Korean children in Korea and in America. These considerations build the theoretical background for (4) an examination of a Korean American novel of a family experiencing new social realities upon arriving in the United States.

The paper will show that the Confucian values are still dominating in Korean American families and that a departure of the traditional family setting is hard or impossible for single family members, especially for the men who see their patriarchal authority over their wife and children erode. The women begin to question the superior position of their husbands and children experience a time of confusion and frustration for their parents often disagree about new ways of raising them. This paper will also show that the problems and examples given in the novel A Step from heaven by An Na are typical for Korean American immigrants and that children are again the ones that suffer the most.

2. Women in Korea

2.1 Confucianism of Korean Society

Confucianism is one of China’s philosophies that has exercised a powerful influence over the last 2500 years. It has been a live force shaping thoughts and behaviors not only for people in China, but also for its neighbor Korea. Confucius (551-479 B.C.)[2] established an ethical and moral system to govern all social relations in family, community and society. It has been strongly perpetuated in all domains of Korean life as the mainstream of Korean culture, particularly since the Yi dynasty government (1392-1910) adopted it as a state religion. Among many results of its impact on Korean society are the indoctrination of strong familism and patriarchal family systems and the institutionalisation of Confucian sexism.

The Confucian political culture legitimised the male authority and institutionalised a patriarchal family structure, emphasizing values as family ties, filial piety, and family discipline through submission, obedience, sacrifice and loyalty to the patriarchal authority. Thus, members of the family placed first priority on family interest rather than personal needs. As a woman in the Confucian family, the individual “I” has been denied by demanding of her a lifetime of submission and sacrifice. According to Confucianism, women are to follow “three obediences”: to obey father at home, husband after marriage, and sons when widowed. Additionally the “four virtues” are promoted: chastity, reticence, a pleasing manner and domestic skills.[3] Also, women had no right to ask for divorce, men on the contrary had several socially sanctioned reasons for expelling their wives in traditional Korea. These reasons, the “seven deadly sins” included: (1) failure to perform filial duties to parents-in-law, (2) failure to produce a son, (3) infidelity, (4) jealousy, (5) chronic disease, (6) garrulity, and (7) a habit of theft. Among those, a rebellious attitude towards the parents-in-law and childlessness were considered to be the most serious offences.[4] These discriminatory doctrines led to the loss of women’s own rights for decision-making, or practice of her own freedom and independent judgement without permission from male authority.

Modernization with western influences in Korea has drastically changed women’s role for the past few decades. Their status has improved in many aspects, including the rights for formal education and career opportunities. However, the underlying family relationship in contemporary Korean society is still characterized by a tradition of male dominance in which the husband leads and the wife follows.

After migrating to the United States of America, Korean immigrant women are further influenced by Americanization, which offers more freedom and employment opportunities. However, changes often create martial conflict and role identity crises.

3. Korean immigrant couples in America

3.1 A departure from traditional roles

Upon arrival in the U.S.A., many changes in the family structure are bound to take place. Conflicts between husband and wife arise when the previous gender socialization needs to be changed in the context of American culture.

A high proportion of the Korean wives who had no previous work experience have entered the labor market and are employed out of economic necessity. Now husband and wife are both working – a dramatic departure from the traditional role of wives in Korea, since wives in the traditional family are expected to stay home as full-time home-makers. Consequently, Korean immigrant families are experiencing a rapid change in traditional role definitions in which the husband earns a living and leads the family while the wife serves her husband, children and in-laws. Many immigrant women realize that they do not have to depend on their husbands financially and experience a sense of confidence in their ability to survive difficult times. Unlike in Korea, where job discrimination against married women is a widely accepted practice in the labor market[5], Korean immigrant wives find it relatively easier to obtain a low- or moderate- wage job in the United States. This enables the women to seek employment in order to supplement their family income. For some wives whose husbands` incomes are insufficient for survival or decent family life, the decision to get a job is not a choice but a necessity.

In addition to this change in role definitions, about two-thirds of Korean women in America are employed and are also responsible for domestic tasks. They become resourceful individuals, probably helped by the adaptability and intensity of the women’s determination to achieve success for the family. While on the other hand, many of the first generation Korean men are underemployed and have suffered a loss of status and prestige[6]. In insufficient incomes they often see an insufficiency in themselves, being unable to care for their family. They feel a weakening in their position in the family, feeling helpless when seeing their authority over their wife and children erode. Anger accumulates and explodes between husbands and their families.

3.2 Domestic violence in Korean immigrant families

To understand domestic violence in Korean American families one must understand the historical background of violence against women in the Korean culture, again, having its roots in Confucianism. As stated before, women are supposed to be submissive, feminine and dependent. In addition men are taught by Korean society - not only to be served by women and have authority over them but - also to discipline their wives even through the use of physical violence. At the same time this has taught the wives to accept their subordinate position in society, to obey their husbands, and to blame themselves for familial problems if they don’t want to be battered. Considering this background, it is not surprising that many Koreans today accept violence against women as an expression of patriarchal domination. With the changes in family structures and the departure of traditional roles due to the active participation of Korean immigrant wives outside the home implies that the role of the husband as the sole breadwinner has diminished and as a result the “absolute male dominant sex roles in the traditional Korean family cannot be maintained intact in the United States”.[7] Martial conflict arises when husband and wife are confronted with changes in their respective roles in the context of new social and work environments.

In addition, there is considerable evidence, that situational stresses cause domestic violence. Underemployment, job dissatisfaction, and financial difficulties, for example, are frequently associated with episodes of wife battering. The sources of stress and frustration among Korean immigrant families, especially newly arrived, seem a combination of many factors, including unsatisfactory employment status, language problems, and lack of socializability.[8] In fact, many of the interviewees in a study by Young I. Song and Ailee Moon[9] about domestic violence in Korean American families, indicated “having experienced a cultural trauma due to disorientation, displacement, disappointment, alienation, loneliness, feelings of total inadequacy, cognitive dissonance, and/or loss of self-control during the cultural transition process”.[10] This shows that immigration often results in mixed emotions of anger, grief, loneliness and guilt. Wife battering is also often associated with drinking problems and problems related to love life.[11]


[1] Na, An: A Step from heaven. New York, 2000

[2] See, Kim, E.: “The Social Reality of Korean American Women: Towards Crashing with the Confucian Ideology”. In Song, Y. I. & Moon, A., eds., Korean American Women: from tradition to modern feminism . Westport, 1998, p. 24

[3] See, McGoldrick, M., N. Garcia-Petro, P. N. Hine, & E. Lee. “Ethnicity and Women” In M. McGoldrick, C. Anderson, & F. Walsh, eds., Women in Families. New York, 1989, pp. 169-199

[4] See, Bae, K. S. “Women and the Law in Korea”. In: Korean League of Women Voters. Seoul, 1973

[5] See, Song, Y. I. & Moon, A. ,“Domestic Violence against Women”. In Song, Y. I. & Moon, A., eds., Korean American Women: from tradition to modern feminism . Westport, 1998, p.161-173

[6] See, Moon, A., “Demographic and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Korean American Women and Men”. In Song, Y. I. & Moon, A., eds., Korean American Women: from tradition to modern feminism . Westport, 1998, p.42

[7] Yu, E.Y., „Korean-American Women: Demographic Profiles and Family Roles.“ In E. Yu & E. H. Phillips, eds., Korean Women in Transition: At Home and abroad. Los Angeles, 1987

[8] See, Kim, K. C. & Hurh, W. M., „The Burden of Double Roles: Korean Wives in the U.S.A.” In Franklin Ng, ed., Asian American women and gender. New York, 1998, p. 115

[9] See, Song, Y. I. & Moon, A. ,“Domestic Violence against Women”. In Song, Y. I. & Moon, A., eds., Korean American Women: from tradition to modern feminism . Westport, 1998, p.161-173

[10] Song & Moon, p.170

[11] See Song & Moon, p.170


ISBN (eBook)
File size
397 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Humboldt-University of Berlin – Anglistics/American Studies
1,3 (A)
Korean American Families Asian Literature Foodways Cultural Transformation(s)



Title: Korean American Families