Perceived problems and service delivery for Korean immigrants.

Author:Nah Kyung-Hee

Subjective experiences vary among immigrant groups adjusting to a new society. Some problems are common to all immigrants, and some are unique to certain groups. Studies of perceived problems, based on in-depth interviews with 90 Korean families in New York, were placed in the overall context of American immigrant problems to differentiate the common needs of all immigrants from the unique needs of Korean immigrants. In this article, the author studies family relations; child rearing; and practical aspects of language, employment, and health. The author discusses the development of a multiservice center for all immigrants and services specific to the Korean population.

Immigration to the United States has become increasingly heterogeneous since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Gordon, 1990; Jensen, 1989; Kraly, 1987). Although people are immigrating from all over the world, the largest increases are in immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The 1990 census indicated that these three groups account for as much as 40 percent of the total population increase over the past decade in the United States (Barringer, 1990). The number of Korean immigrants has increased rapidly in the past few decades, from 70,000 in 1970 to 799,000 in 1992 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

Despite the increases, however, understanding of the new groups lags far behind their arrival. How does each immigrant group perceive the adjustment experience, and what are the problems they face while adapting? Answers to these questions could help social workers develop and deliver effective services for immigrants. This article builds knowledge in this area through a study of Korean immigrant families. The experience of Korean immigrants, placed in the greater context of that of all American immigrants, will differentiate some common needs of immigrants from needs unique to Koreans. Suggestions are made for developing general immigrant programs and programs specific to Koreans.

General Experiences of Immigrants

The adaptation experience of new immigrants varies according to their place of origin, premigration occupation and education, traditional values, and socialization (Kessler-Harris & Yans-McLaughlin, 1978). The literature has stressed some common aspects of experience among the immigrants, specifically in language (Portes & Rumbaut, 1990), employment (Ware, 1932; Portes & Rumbaut, 1990), adjustment stress (Eisenstadt, 1955; Furnham & Bochner, 1989; Portes & Rumbant, 1990), and interpersonal conflict (Landau, 1982).


Except for immigrants from English-speaking countries, the first problem an immigrant encounters is learning a new language (Chen, 1973; Homma-True, 1976; Kosmin, 1990; Land, Nishimoto, & Chau, 1988). However, place of origin and premigration experience seem to generate differences in the speed and ease of language acquisition. Those from "verbal" cultures and similar linguistic circles seem to learn a new language faster than those from "less-verbal" cultures (Finnan, 1981). Occupation determines the level of language skills that will be required. High-level professional jobs demand a higher level of command of the language, whereas low-level, unskilled jobs require a minimum level of language skills.


Economic survival is the foremost concern on arrival in the United States for adult immigrants (Portes & Rumbaut, 1990). Except for small numbers of religious and political immigrants, the economic motive for immigration has been constant throughout history. Immigrants are welcomed when the U.S. economy is prosperous and when labor is in short supply; when the economy falls into a recession, conflicts arise between natives and immigrants. In general, the least desirable jobs, shunned by natives, are assigned to immigrants (Portes & Rumbaut, 1990; Ware, 1932). Professional immigrants also begin at the lowest level in their occupational field, regardless of their premigration experience credentials; some face underemployment in blue-collar jobs (Howe, 1990; Shin & Change, 1988).

Adjustment Stress

Immigration involves a drastic change in culture and environment. Eisenstadt (1955) explained stressful resettlement experiences in terms of desocialization and resocialization--giving up old roles and functions and adopting those demanded by the new society. Uncertainty, language deficiency, and financial insecurity are already a source of intense stress. Furthermore, desocialization brings a loss in roles, status, and support systems. Resocialization further confuses roles and values. Immigrants lack reference points to guide their actions and to understand others' behaviors. Unexplained behavior causes culture shock as well as surprise, disgust, anxiety, and insecurity (Furnham & Bochner, 1989).

Interpersonal Conflict

Conflict is often present among compatriots and between newcomers and oldtimers, young and old, parents and children. Gender, age, and length of stay in the United States affect the degree and rate of adaptation and are instrumental in understanding immigrants (Landau, 1982; Sue & Sue, 1973). Problems in parent-child relations are particularly prevalent among immigrants. While immigrant parents are struggling to adjust and having less time to bond with their children, their children are reacting to new experiences through school and language acquisition. It is easy for children to lose their identity and confidence and to perceive the culture of their parents as inferior while trying to achieve in terms of the values of the new country (Eppink, 1979; Pai, Pemberton, & Worley 1987; Peterson, 1978). The widening assimilation gap--the struggle between the immigrant parents' wish for control and the children's desire for independence--makes relationships more stressful than in families living in their native countries.


This article is based on data from 90 Korean families who had lived in the United States less than 10 years. The families were randomly selected from 10 ethnic churches in the New York area after carefully considering such variables as denomination, location, and size of the congregation. From February through August 1988, the author conducted face-to-face interviews in Korean. The wife or female householder was the principal informant for the family, although available husbands or other family members assisted some women. Because most Korean immigrants work long hours (Kim & Hurh, 1985; Yu, 1980), it was not possible to have both spouses available for the interview. Additionally, given the culture of the group, it would have been too difficult for the female researcher to form a rapport with the male household heads and to discuss family problems.

A total of 182 families were contacted, and 96 families consented to be interviewed. During data analysis, however, six families were excluded because they did not meet the research condition for the length of stay in the United States. Almost all families (n = 85) consisted of a married couple who were relatively young (mean age of husbands, 39.7 years; wives, 36.8 years) and, except for seven childless families, an average of two children. Children under age five were 40 percent (n = 67) of the 166 total children.

The research instrument...

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