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Korean parents & U.S. culture posed challenge to immigrant

EDITORS’ NOTE: Baptist Press today concludes a nine-part series on Koreans in the Southern Baptist Convention, highlighting their growing influence and expanding global mission efforts. Five profiles will appear in Baptist Press today, four overview stories were published yesterday.

DALLAS (BP)–Connie Kim was 12 when she immigrated to the United States with her parents and four siblings in 1977.

They had no family in the States. Her father chose Dallas because he had college-era friends there and thought the climate would be similar to their home in Korea.

“When I first got here, there weren’t any Koreans, so you miss your old friends and relatives, people who share common things with you,” Kim said. “Materially everything was better here. Everything that I missed was related to emotional attachment — friends, family, being able to see people like you, and definitely food.”

Kim, classified as a “1.5 generation Korean” because she immigrated as a child, perhaps has a typical tale of the Americanization of a Korean who wants her children to have the best of both nations.

“She is very faithful and loyal, without making a big noise about it,” said Daniel Park, pastor at First Korean Baptist Church in Dallas, where Kim has been a part of the congregation since her first days in the United States. “She is very intelligent, graduated from MIT; she never complains but is always grateful for what she is doing in service to our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Life has changed a lot since her family’s arrival, Kim said.

“My father spoke English so he could get a job easily,” Kim said. “In the 1970s the United States had a lot of jobs for immigrants, and there were people willing to train him. He got a job as a sheet metal fabrication worker.”

In Korea, her father had worked in an office and managed Korean employees for the U.S. Army.

“That’s the way it was,” Kim said. “We had some friends who were high school teachers in Korea who got jobs as janitors.”

Her family had not been particularly poor in Korea, Kim said.

“I think they came for a better life,” Kim said of her parents. “I think they thought they’d have a better chance of educating all their children in the United States.”

The Korean economy didn’t start to accelerate until the mid-1980s, Kim said. When her family emigrated in the mid-1970s, Korea was in debt and “still suffering from trying to rebuild.”

Kim repeated the sixth grade in America because her parents felt she needed more time to learn English and catch up academically. School was very stressful at first, Kim said, but before long she began to enjoy the American system.

In Korea, she was one of 60 students per class, with a rigid curriculum and rules.

“In Korea we had to wear a uniform when we went to junior high, and cut our hair real short — right below the ears,” Kim said. “When I came here, I could wear any clothes I wanted! Teachers were much less strict. The class environment was really different.

“There was much more freedom here,” Kim continued. “We had more time; didn’t have to go to school on Saturdays. We got to see more movies and drive the car more [ride] than the buses.”

By the time she entered high school, she had pretty much adjusted to life in the U.S., but that brought tension into her home because her parents clung to the ways of their homeland.

“The people who stay in Korea change and become more liberal,” Kim said. “The people who move here are less open to change. They tend to cling to the old ways and be more conservative. We had disagreements — with our mother, mostly.

“It’s very important that Koreans marry Koreans, and therefore Koreans must date only Koreans, and therefore close friends must be Koreans,” Kim continued. “Parents were really strict on curfews, and study was the most important thing. The things you were most interested in, you were not allowed to do.”

Some Korean teens completely rebel and become estranged from their family, Kim said. She, like others, chose to not rebel, but she did go to a college far from Dallas and even worked in that city as an aerospace/mechanical engineer.

When she married, it was to a Korean who had moved to the States when he was 13. They have two daughters. Kim, a stay-at-home mom, now tutors on a part-time basis.

“Ultimately I returned to Dallas, after I had my first child,” Kim said. “A lot of things are comfortable, and as we grow older there is less and less conflict. I do have some friends who married non-Koreans and their relationship with their parents is not as close. When parents don’t speak English, they tend to communicate less with their son-in-law or daughter-in-law.”

Kim said she respected and admired her parents for the risk they took to leave everyone and everything in Korea, for her father to quit his job, and for her mother to take a menial job when she didn’t know the language and do so without complaining, just because they wanted a better life for their children than would have been possible in Korea.

“In Korea or other Asian countries, it doesn’t matter how hard you try,” Kim said. “If you don’t have the right connections, you can’t achieve. It’s not like that in this country. I think my father really likes the fairness and security this country provides for hardworking people. He likes the Social Security.”

A different kind of social security came from their church, Kim said. First Korean Baptist Church of Dallas was started as a mission of First Baptist Church in Dallas in 1975.

“In the beginning it [going to church] was primarily to meet other Koreans,” Kim said. “Even nowadays, for people who just come to the U.S., they always go to church because that is their source of companionship as well as information.”

About 80 people were members of the Korean congregation when Kim arrived in 1977. Today about 1,400 attend Sunday worship.

“The person who picked us up at the airport was a member of this church,” Kim said. “When my father first got here, the pastor took him to get a driver’s license. He would drive them to the grocery store and show them around the city. That’s what pastors did for all the new arrivals!”

The ministry of the pastor and others in the church, coupled with the example of her parents, eventually led Kim to a personal faith in Jesus.

“We started going to church in Korea a little bit; my dad started going,” Kim said. “I was baptized in eighth grade after I realized this was the right thing for me and I believed in God.

“As I got older, I grew in faith,” Kim said. “So now I don’t go to church to find friends but I go because I want a true companionship with God. I want to worship God.”

Her children attend Korean Language and Culture School on Saturdays at First Korean of Dallas, Kim said.

“I think they need that cultural foundation or pride,” she said. “I want them to feel secure about who they are, so that when they experience discrimination they can say, ‘They’re doing this because I look Korean, and I don’t care because I know who I am and I am proud of my heritage.’ I just want them constantly to be aware and be confident of who they are.”

She and her husband plan to take their daughters to Korea in a couple of years when they’re old enough to understand and appreciate their ancestral homeland, Kim said.

“My daughters, now 5 and 11, are more American than Korean, although they appear otherwise,” Kim said. “They speak English much better than Korean and have equal number of Korean and non-Korean friends. They are as comfortable in this country as anyone can be.”

Her daughters enjoy all types of American children’s shows on television, but they also like to watch Korean shows, Kim said.

“Even though they don’t fully understand the language, they seem to be interested in the Korean culture,” Kim said. “Our Korean church is a major part of their lives, just as it was for me when I was little.”