Korean Immigration and Cultural Differences: Seoul in the City

They’re one of the fastest- growing groups in the province. They tend to be insular, unobtrusive, extremely hard working and fiercely ambitious. It’s time to get to know Seoul in the city.

They’re one of the fastest- growing groups in the province. They tend to be insular, unobtrusive, extremely hard working and fiercely ambitious. It’s time to get to know Seoul in the city.

Skipping class. Talking back to your mother. Ignoring your curfew. Just the kind of behaviour you would expect from a typical Canadian teenager. But for one 16-year-old North Vancouver boy, the punishment for these transgressions is anything but typical. In January 2005, his angry father takes a cane and beats him. Not once, not twice, but 300 times. Between blows the boy is forced to repeat: “I’m remorseful and I’m ready.” At first he takes the lashing on his knees. Later, he is forced face down onto the floor, propping himself up with his arms. By the end of the three-hour beating the cane is broken and the teenager has sustained such severe bruising on his buttocks and ankles that sitting down is agony. When he returns to school the next day, his injuries are so conspicuous that the Ministry of Children and Family Development is summoned. Two months later the father appears in North Vancouver Provincial Court, pleads guilty to assault and receives an unusual sentence from the judge. He is ordered to write an anonymous letter for publication in the Burnaby-based Korea Times, describing what forms of discipline are acceptable. The letter is meant to appear by the end of April (by mid-June, the paper had yet to receive anything). In addition, the 45-year-old businessman receives a conditional discharge, is placed on probation for two years and is ordered to give $2,500 to an unspecified multicultural organization. It turns out the father, who cannot be identified under court order, is the South Korean CEO of a number of international companies who sent his son and an older daughter to B.C. to attend high school, accompanied by their mother. He lives in South Korea and visits his family in B.C. when time permits; it was during one of these visits that he beat his son. For the Korean community in B.C., the highly publicized incident is a source of embarrassment and shame. The story makes the front page of the Globe and Mail and local Korean newspapers. At the Korea Times, the newsroom receives a flood of calls from readers; among local Koreans who have previously not garnered widespread attention, there is fear that the episode will result in negative attention and misinformation. “People feel upset, [feel] this is not a good image for the Korean community,” says McKinley Ahn, a reporter at the paper. “The father went too far, but they could understand the father’s anger because the boy repeatedly skipped classes and came home late, after repeated warnings.” The beating story trained an unfavourable spotlight on a community that now makes up one of the largest minority groups in B.C. It revealed a deeply held conviction among Koreans that an education is the key to a successful life and must never be squandered, and that a child must obey his parents. And it introduced the phenomenon of the ‘goose family,’ the Korean equivalent of Hong Kong’s ‘astronaut’ family, in which Dad rockets back and forth between Seoul and Vancouver, maintaining a home and business in Korea, while Mom and the kids settle here temporarily in search of a good education, breathing room (the average Seoul family lives in a cramped, high-rise apartment) and the competitive edge that comes with better English language skills. The term is derived from the nesting habits of geese, which migrate long distances and exhibit a strong dedication to their goslings. There has been a steady migration of Koreans to B.C. since the ’60s; there are currently anywhere between 32,000 (Stats Canada) and 50,000 (community estimates) living here. An additional estimated 10,000 Korean students arrive in B.C. every year, largely in the Lower Mainland, to study at elementary and high schools or enroll in one of the 100-plus English language schools in the province. But unlike other Asian communities in our midst, Koreans have largely remained under the radar. Dim sum and sushi are entirely familiar to most Vancouverites; Korean barbecued beef bulgogi and spicy pickled kimchi are not. There is no category for Best Korean at Vancouver magazine’s annual restaurant awards, no Koreatown to rival Vancouver’s Chinatown, nor anything approximating the extravagant Canto-pop concerts staged by the Chinese community. Things are, however, beginning to change; June 18, 2005, marked the fourth annual Korean Heritage Day, sponsored this year by CTV and hosted by the station’s late-night news anchor Mi-Jung Lee, a Vancouver-raised Canadian-Korean. And this past May, the ninth annual Asian Heritage Month festival, explorASIAN 2005, chose Korea as its community focus. In addition, the B.C. Society for the Advancement of Korean Studies and the Vancouver School Board have been granted provincial government approval for the development of a Korean language curriculum for all B.C. students in Grades 5 to 12. There is no question that Koreans are exerting a genuine social and economic influence on B.C., and a Saturday at the Han Ah Reum supermarket on North Road and Lougheed, where Burnaby meets Coquitlam, makes that abundantly clear. Coquitlam is now home to the fastest- growing Korean community in the province, and Burnaby is not far behind. Koreans in these suburbs of Vancouver now account for four per cent of the residents, making them the second-largest visible minority after the Chinese. No wonder traffic at Han Ah Reum flows bumper to bumper in and out of the lot. Like the T&T chain of Asian supermarkets, the store capitalizes on the east-meets-west shopping habits of its new Canadian customers. Half an aisle of the store is taken up with exotic dried mushrooms of all shapes and sizes; another displays cans labeled ‘Nostalgia Drink, Soojeanggwa’ and ‘Bacchus-F Refreshing Drink.’ Western favourites like peanut butter and frozen pizza are within easy reach, along with row upon row of instant noodle packets and giant tubs of kimchi, that ubiquitous Korean staple of hot chili-flecked fermented vegetables. Kimchi, according to Don Baker, director of the UBC Centre for Korean Research, says a lot about Koreans: “If you’ve ever had kimchi, you’ve got a sense of the Korean character. It’s very strong.” They’re emotional, sensitive people, he explains, with a tireless work ethic, a sense of family obligation and loyalty to friends. “It’s very difficult to become a close friend of Koreans,” he adds. “They only have a few close friends. But once you’re a friend with a Korean, you’re a friend for life.” Forty-year-old Yonah Martin (née Kim) is a Coquitlam middle school teacher who immigrated to Canada with her parents at the age of seven, settling in Coquitlam. She is part of what the community dubs the “1.5 generation,” not quite a second-generation Canadian, not having been born here, but not an immigrant either, having been raised here from early childhood. Martin grew up straddling both the Korean and Canadian communities and recently felt compelled to create an organization that would help bridge the gap between them. The C3 Society (for Corean Canadian and Coactive) has become a point of contact for those wishing to make inroads with the community. “You have your old-school, first wave of Koreans: the old guard,” Martin explains. “They’re my parents’ generation who came in the ’60s and ’70s. For the most part [they] became part of Canadian society and tried to assimilate. . . But in the last 10 to 15 years, there has been another big wave of Korean immigrants, and this wave, I would say, is kind of in-between. Many of them still have businesses and homes in Korea, and then they set up homes here.” For families who want their children to benefit from a Canadian education, moving everything all at once is not feasible. “I think as an immigrant to a new country, to think that you can have anything equal to what you had back home when you first come … is completely unrealistic,” she says. “Canada does not recognize these degrees from Korea. You have engineers and CEOs who come here and they have to run a grocery store in some cases. Having to start from scratch is not always the best option.” And there can be tremendous guilt about leaving families behind; when her maternal grandmother passed away shortly after the family left Korea, Martin’s mother felt haunted by her spirit. “She kept saying that she felt something was wrong, she had these dreams. My grandmother would visit her around the time of her memorial date and would always be looking so melancholy.” Another thing becomes clear – that each wave of immigrants has brought with it a different kind of Korean. Newcomers arrive in search of better opportunities for their children and themselves, in many cases with plans to return to Korea. The old guard, as Martin calls it, was a group of highly educated men and women with PhDs in fields like literature, law or engineering, who left their homeland due to economic and political instability and never looked back (see “Korea Condensed”). Some came to study at American universities and migrated north; others came with little or no assets but with dreams of making their fortunes.

Korea condensed South Korea has a complex history of invasion and political instability, coupled with meteoric economic progress. Korea’s last dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty, ended with the Japanese invasion in 1910. The country remained under Japanese colonial rule until the end of the Second World War; in 1948 two governments were formed – a communist North and a U.S.-influenced republic South. In 1950 the Korean War broke out when the USSR-backed North invaded the South, backed by the United Nations. An armistice was signed in 1953 and remains in place to this day. At that time South Korea’s GDP was only US$40 per capita, equal to that of the poorest African nations. U.S. foreign aid helped the country’s post-war recovery; in 1961 South Korea’s rapid economic reconstruction began in earnest when Park Chung Hee seized power in a bloodless coup and implemented a strategy of export production.The U.S. withdrew aid in the 1970s, causing an economic blip from which South Korea quickly recovered by profiting from the Vietnam War. In October 1979 Park Chung was shot by the head of the KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency). Six months of political uncertainty followed until May 18, 1980, when Chun Doo Hwan launched a military coup and seized control of the government. There were massive student demonstrations during the spring of that year, resulting in a military crackdown. Civil unrest dominated politics until the Chun government was overthrown and Roh Tae Woo was elected to the presidency in the late ’80s. In 1997, a peaceful transfer of power took place when president Kim Dae Jung was elected. He was succeeded in 2003 by Roh Moo Hyun. [pagebreak] The Asian financial crisis of 1997 hit South Korea hard, and growth plunged by 6.6 per cent in 1998. But by 2003 it was growing again and today the nation has an estimated GDP of US$22,543 per capita. l

Ron Suh is an old-guard example. He arrived in Vancouver in 1971 as a 30-year-old mechanical engineer with US$350 in his pocket and high hopes for a new life. That life was a long time in the making. He left a coveted senior position in the planning department of the Ssangyong Cement Industrial Company in Seoul to become a kitchen helper in a West Hastings Street hotel, cleaning dishes and doing other menial chores. After three months he quit the kitchen job to concentrate on his education and eventually landed a position at an iron ore and copper mining camp in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Working conditions were so bad that his Canadian counterparts rarely stayed longer than a couple of months. “They put me on 12 hours a day,” he recalls. “I loved that…. After one year, I saved $10,000.” Three years later he moved to Burnaby, where engineering jobs remained out of his reach due to his poor language skills. He turned to real estate and for 15 years worked as a realtor, catering to the Korean community. The career change brought him the prosperity he had sought, but when his scientist brother in Chicago began pestering him to take over the job of promoting a dental product he had helped develop, Suh agreed, provided he could run the company on his own. Bisco Dental Products Canada) is now generating $7 million in annual sales. In the process of building a comfortable life, Suh has become a pillar of the local community. In December 2004, he earned a Suk Ryu Jang medal from the Korean government for outstanding service to the Vancouver Korean community – in particular for his work with the Korean Education Society school. Between 2001 and 2004, as president of the society, he brought the school back from the brink of financial ruin and settled disputes between the directors. “When you put your pure love and effort [into something], and don’t think about anything else, you find success,” he says. Representing the new guard are the recent settlers, many of whom are wealthy investors arriving with much more than Suh’s $350 in their pockets. Myung Soo Jung, CEO of real estate development firm Jung Ventures, landed in Vancouver last July; by August he was discussing plans with architects for an audacious $350-million project – five high-rise condo towers totaling 1.5 million square feet, combining residential and a small percentage of commercial units in the heart of Whalley, the beleaguered neighbourhood in Surrey’s city centre where mayor Doug McCallum has been waging a war on prostitution, car theft and drug dealing. “I saw the site and I decided [to build] within five minutes,” says Jung, who runs five other development companies in Korea, China, Uzbekistan, the Ukraine and Russia. It was the site’s proximity to the SkyTrain station that sold him. “In my opinion, [there will be] increased traffic on Highway 1,” he predicts. “So many people would like to use the SkyTrain.” Jung’s hunch was dead-on; last April, all 354 units of the first tower sold within two days, before any ground had been broken on the development. “It is very comfortable to do business in Canada, I feel,” he says. “Canada is more stable than Korea, economically. If I keep the regulations and the rules, the company will be successful continuously.” It’s ironic, considering how much emphasis Koreans place on earning a university degree to get ahead in life, that Jung owes his business acumen to street smarts, not book smarts. He was a law student at Yonsei University in Seoul until “I failed the [graduation] examination.” Nevertheless, he says he moved to West Vancouver from Seoul for the sake of his children’s schooling. “I thought first about education,” he says, “and then about business, second.” His 14-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son now attend public school in the district, and Jung says he expects to spend 80 per cent of his time doing business in our province. Ask any Korean-Canadian, newcomer or long-time resident, what his or her motivation is for coming to B.C. and the answer is repeated like a mantra: “For my children’s education.” John Kim is the director of Sharons Credit Union, an organization formed in 1988 to serve the local Korean community (it passed the $100-million mark in assets last year). A former grocery store owner, he came to Canada in 1968 and has raised two sons here. “Education is much better than in Korea,” he points out. “In Korea, there’s a lot of competition. Koreans think without graduating from university they can’t do anything.” Korea is “overpopulated, and as a result it’s highly, highly, highly competitive,” Yonah Martin explains. “In terms of a future for your kids, it’s at times hopeless, because in a competitive environment like that, only the top elite can get anywhere.” As Don Baker, who is married to a Korean woman and maintains an apartment in Seoul, observes, “You know pretty much in junior high what your chances are of getting into a major university, what kind of job you’re going to get when you graduate and who you’re going to marry when you graduate. It’s determined by which university you go to. I’ve seen advertisements in Korean newspapers in Korea that say, ‘Only graduates of these universities may apply,’ and then they list the universities.”

Gathering the flock Thirty years ago there was only one Korean church in the Lower Mainland, the Korean United Church. Today there are more than 100, the majority of them Presbyterian, Evangelical and Baptist, with a scattering of Catholic congregations. South Korea is 29 per cent Christian and 26 per cent Buddhist; 46 per cent claim no religion. Those who come to North America are predominantly Christian, according to Don Baker. “Usually a church finds out there are new Koreans in town and will invite them to the church,” says the director of the UBC Centre for Korean Research. “Even if they’re not Christian they’ll go because they want to meet other Koreans. It becomes their home away from home, their community. They help them find jobs and that kind of thing. It really is the centre of the Korean community.” Peter Lim points out that in order to effectively treat members of the community, he has no choice but to attend church. “If you’re involved in any way in the community, whether you believe in God or not, there’s a pressure to go to church. If you don’t go, people bug you like crazy. Maybe two-thirds of my patients ask me if I’m a Christian.” Baker adds that Christianity is much stronger in Korea than it is in China or Japan, and evangelism in particular is gaining ground. “It’s a form of Christianity that attracts Koreans,” he says. “There’s a lot of singing, speaking in tongues. It’s very emotional, and that’s the way Koreans are in general.”

Such is the pressure to succeed academically that any small advantage, like superior English, is to be seized – hence the influx of Korean students of all ages who come to B.C. with the hopes of mastering the language. And “all ages” means literally that: elementary school-aged children up to young adults. Those in their late teens and 20s come to study at one of the dozens of ESL schools and conversation clubs. Younger Koreans arrive as international students at the invitation of our public schools, and they pay thousands of dollars a year for the privilege. The Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey and Coquitlam school districts charge $12,000 a year in fees for international studies, plus $700 for medical insurance. It goes without saying that these students are contributing to the local economy. Not only are they keeping ESL teachers employed, they’re also supporting a number of businesses created especially to fill their needs. Wok Sok Yun is chief trade commissioner of KOTRA, the Korean government’s trade investment promotion agency, which has an office in the heart of downtown Vancouver. “[Korean students] have a lot of net impact on Canada,” he claims. “They have to pay tuition fees, living expenses. We calculated that international students spend roughly $30,000 per year.” [pagebreak] Kim Okran, a Korean immigrant who was once an ESL student herself, has created something of an empire out of the foreign student boom (see “The CEO of ESL,” page 200). Head of Kim Okran International, her company recruits students for ESL schools across Canada and earns a commission for every student it places. She estimates that Koreans make up approximately 60 per cent of all foreign students in B.C. “They spend a lot of money. Twenty to 25 per cent of the economy in downtown Vancouver is due to international students.” The imperative to learn English coupled with the expense of relocating here has led to another common practice in which young children are placed with Korean host families in B.C. while both parents remain in their home country. Don Baker recalls an incident a couple of years ago when he was called in by a South Surrey school to discuss issues of discipline. “[I was asked] to talk about problem Korean students,” he says. “At first I was really puzzled, because I taught school in Korea and the kids were always respectful of the teacher and never had any problems. But when [the school] described how the kids were behaving, it was quite clear to me that the kids were acting out because their parents weren’t around, and they were under pressure to get good grades in a school where the language is not their first language. So they’re under a lot of stress.” Peter Lim, a psychiatrist at Burnaby Hospital and another member of the 1.5 generation, says he encounters many patients struggling to cope with the strain of family separation. “There are a lot of problems with [goose families],” he notes. “The father cannot be there to be the head of the family and they cannot be a model for their children. When you’re separated as a husband and a wife, your eyes wander and complications occur.” Lim says his practice is filled mainly with high school students and women in their 30s to early 50s. Depression, nervous breakdowns and psychosis are the most common disorders among these groups, he says. He adds that goose families have certain characteristics that negatively affect the children: “They’re very rich, a lot of them. So they’re very permissive and very materialistic. [The children] lack the sense of purpose and perseverance behind why they’re studying. And Korean parents have a nasty way of not explaining to their children why they need to do what they’re doing. They just tell them what to do. [The children] have been pulled away from their comfort zone in Korea to be stuck here with parents saying, ‘Study, study, study, it’s good for you.’ Some of them cannot handle the stress and they get sick.” The father at the centre of the North Vancouver caning incident was one such goose father, a man with high expectations for his son and the pressures of the Korean business world on his shoulders. And while his actions were roundly condemned by the local Koreans, the idea of corporal punishment is not anathema to this community. “I think this father went too far,” says McKinley Ahn. He notes, however, that caning is not an uncommon practice in Korean families. In fact, many of them keep hoi-chori or ‘love sticks’ in the house for that purpose. “It’s common in Korea to be hit about 10 times or less [for punishment]. Traditionally when children do bad things, parents hit them on the calf.” Both Ahn and Yonah Martin freely admit to having been struck by their parents, but they are quick to insist such behaviour must be considered in context. “As in many cultures around the world, Koreans have corporal punishment,” says Martin. “My mom had a stick that she hit us with. But then I’ve got Italian friends who got hit regularly. I’ve got Greek friends who got hit regularly.” As passionate as transplanted Koreans are about their children’s education they are just as fervent about their ethnic and cultural pride. Coming as they do from a country with an uneasy history of persecution, invasion and division, it is a point of self-respect that they have managed to maintain their culture. But as other immigrant groups have discovered, a certain insularity is necessary to ensure the survival of certain customs.

The CEO of ESL Kim Okran was a 30-year-old kindergarten teacher when she arrived in Edmonton 14 years ago to study at the University of Alberta. Unfulfilled as a teacher, she planned to perfect her English in order to return to Korea as an interpreter. After her $5,000 in savings dried up within six months, she begged her family in Korea for more and managed to scrape by for another half-year. But when her English skills didn’t improve as quickly as she had hoped, she realized she stood no chance of a career change. Unwilling to retrace her steps, she decided to stay. “I was really scared. I cried every night for months.” Dreams of making something bigger of herself faded as she spent the next two years working as a nanny in Surrey and Richmond in order to secure landed immigrant status. But having experienced the frustration of being a foreign student in a strange land where there were no agencies to help her find a homestay, arrange visas or give her an orientation, she reached out to international students and volunteered her time to help them. Every day, after her nannying work was done, she rode the bus to downtown Vancouver: “I told them that. If you need any help, it’s free. Almost every day they called me. ‘Oh, I lost my wallet, where do I have to call?’ and so many things.” When she helped place some Korean and Japanese students at an ESL school, she was surprised to learn that she could earn a commission, about $400 per head, if the student registered for three months. It was a turning point for her. She distributed cards, registered a home business and found herself mobbed. “Too many students come to my apartment,” she laughs, “because there’s no such centre for international students. They all come to my apartment! My telephone [was] ringing all the time… The [building] manager said, ‘Too many people!’” He kicked her out. So she opened the first of two Vancouver locations of the Kim Okran Centre in 1997. Eight years later she has 24 branches of her eponymous student services business located worldwide, including Korea, Japan and Mexico. The two local branches – one on Seymour St. and one on West Georgia – serve as homey little drop-in centres. Computer-printed and hand-drawn signs plaster the windows in various languages; inside, students hang out on sofas or check their email at free Internet terminals. Staff place students in schools and homestays, offer orientation tours and dispense travel and visa information. They even throw parties for the students and host multicultural events. Okran employs 100 people and places 10,000 ESL students a year internationally, 4,000 of them in Vancouver. Four years ago she hired her own husband, whom she met here, to do bookkeeping. And last year she won a YWCA Woman of Distinction Award. “I feel that this is my mission. I feel that this is not just making money,” she says. “I feel that I’m a pioneer.”

Take, for instance, inter-marriage, which continues to be a contentious issue. Mi-Jung Lee, the CTV news anchor, has made numerous appearances with her Caucasian husband and two sons. While her parents were relatively open-minded about her choice of mate, she admits that there was some hesitation on their part. “I think my parents might have been a little wary at first,” she says, “but they just wanted me to marry someone who is a good person. They just wanted me to be happy. But there were still concerns like, ‘Will we be able to communicate with him as freely and openly?’ It is a constant work in progress.” Lee maintains the traditional, close Korean family ties, however. She lives just two doors down from her parents and ensures that the families spend a lot of time together. She also encourages her sons to embrace their grandparents’ way of life. “I want to give my kids the chance to bond with their grandparents and to absorb as much of Korean culture from their perspective as they can,” she says. Lee appears to have reconciled her parents to the idea of a Caucasian in-law. [pagebreak] Other Korean families insist their children marry fellow Koreans, preferably non-Canadian ones. Hunt International is a matchmaking outfit that caters to the Asian community. According to Karen Junabae, one of the agency’s seven ‘couple managers,’ it is the only registered business of its kind operating in the Korean community, and Koreans make up 60 percent of its 500-strong membership. To join, marriage-minded singles pay an application fee of $50 plus a yearly membership fee of $500; for those now on their second or third marriages the fee increases to $800. Hunt International will arrange matches between local Koreans or assist those who want to import a spouse from the homeland. “It’s mostly men looking for women,” says Junabae. Peter Lim, who married a woman he met while in Korea, has his own theories about why that is so. “Because we live in a very patriarchal, Confucianistic society – men are very, very spoiled,” he says. “Men are very sheltered and secured and put up on a pedestal. There’s an internal pressure for these Korean men to marry a Korean woman…. There’s a real need to say, ‘I want to be cared for and protected like my mother did for me.’ In general, Korean women [from Korea] are the only ones who will do that.” Korean women who have been raised in Canada, Lim observes, “have seen all this inequality and seen their fathers dictate their wishes. Having grown up here they look at that and go, ‘This is bullshit.’” Yonah Martin confirms: “[Local Korean men] were raised to be the men of the house. They’re great guys and many of them are still friends of mine, but it wouldn’t have been compatible in a marriage.” The reactions of many first-generation parents to the prospect of their children marrying outside the culture may seem overblown, but they are in line with the fiery, tempestuous spirit that Koreans freely admit to having. Emotionality is something which is referred to again and again by the community. In fact, jokes Mi-Jung Lee, a friend of hers even coined a word to describe it: “Her last name is Kim, and so her husband dubbed her ‘Kimpulsive.’ Kim is the most popular Korean last name, and it’s become part of the vocabulary of my friends. When Korean people do something very impulsive, it’s Kimpulsive.” Is emotionality to blame for the errant goose father’s beating of his son? That same emotionality is also what is responsible for the vibrancy and competitive spirit evident throughout the community. As a group, B.C.’s Koreans are overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. They speak matter-of-factly about their 12-hour work days, their strong family loyalties and their desire to continually better themselves. And with Canada now in discussions with South Korea to explore the feasibility of a free trade agreement, the ties binding our two Pacific Rim nations will only grow stronger. As Korea’s competitive population increases, there will be no stemming the tide of Korean ESL students, who will continue to keep people like Kim Okran in business. Just last April the federal government announced it was relaxing student visa rules to allow them to work while studying, which will give them further incentive to come here. More wealthy investors like Myung Soo Jung are also expected as the U.S. tightens its immigration standards and Korea’s