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Kyoung Ja Hyun compares the culotural views of Korean immigrants natives'.
American Seoul

In 1978 Kyoung Ja Hyun began a relationship that would prompt her to leave her native Korea.

That was the year she started tutoring a young, developmentally delayed boy. Following her graduation from Seoul’s Sogang University in 1981 with a B.A. in English literature, Hyun’s continued contact with the little boy and his family convinced her to pursue social work.

The decision led to her first trip to the United States, where she earned a Ph.D. in social work and psychology in 1995 from the University of Michigan, and then to an assistant professorship at the U of C’s School of Social Service Administration.

Although she has lived in the United States for more than 13 years, Hyun, 39, has kept in touch with that first student—and with Korean culture, the focus of her current research. Hyun is now preparing to publish her dissertation as well as related essays, all of which revolve around her comparative studies of the experiences of Koreans who have emigrated to the United States and those who have re-mained in Korea.

“The comparative studies help me understand how culture and environment affect the way people think and behave,” she explains. “Existing theories don’t seem to address variations within culture as much as they do across cultures. As social workers, we need to pay more attention to individual variation within culture.”

Hyun says Koreans are assumed to hold strong interdependent views of themselves, given their grounding in traditional Confucian values that emphasize collective goodwill and reciprocity. But after analyzing data gathered in 1994 from a five-month survey of Korean immigrants in Detroit and Korean natives in Seoul, Hyun concluded that Koreans’ views of themselves are influenced not only by culture but also by factors such as age, gender, level of education, and the pace of modern social change.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Hyun says, her findings show that immigrants are not necessarily more Westernized than their compatriots back in Korea. For example, she says, the Detroit Koreans endorsed, on average, traditional Korean values to a similar extent as Seoul Koreans. Moreover, she says, the traditional value of parental sacrifice for the sake of children was more common among the immigrant Koreans.

“Immigrants tend to be insulated from mainstream society and some of them may hold more tightly to their traditional values than some native Koreans who are actively involved with Westernization,” Hyun explains. “The immigrants have a chance to evaluate their cultural origins differently and have the experience of living in America as minorities and may appreciate certain traditional values more.”

Hyun also unexpectedly found that younger subjects in both Detroit and Seoul reported less independent views of themselves than their elders.

“Koreans may feel more entitled to exercise their rights and express their needs as they get older,” she says.

Hyun says an independent view was a significant predictor of greater life satisfaction among immigrants, while it was not linked to the satisfaction of Seoul Koreans.

“The independent view may be a requisite to successfully live in the U.S., whereas the interdependent view may be a source for preserving cultural identity,” she says. “Culturally sensitive social-work practice should include attention to the potential benefits of both types of self perceptions for Korean immigrants.”—C.S.