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
“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
“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.