The Korean American success story

The Kim family: From South Korea to the 'American Dream'

Of all the groups of immigrants coming to the US each year, Koreans are said to be among the most successful, many reaching the highest levels of achievement in this country in a single generation. The BBC's Katie Beck went to New York to meet some of those who came, and found the American Dream.

Sunhee and SeoJun Kim came to New York City from South Korea in 1986. They immigrated with hopes of giving their son Ron, then seven, every advantage and opportunity.

When the Kims arrived, along with thousands of other young Korean families, the social make-up of the city, and indeed the country, was undergoing big changes.

Two decades earlier, the US had done away with racially-based immigration quotas and, along with other immigrant groups, Koreans benefited from the new laws.

Entrepreneurs

Many settled in Los Angeles and New York, and went into business. Nearly half of Korean immigrants to the US opened their own businesses, commonly starting Korean import shops and greengrocers, and later dry cleaning firms and nail salons.

Professor Pyong Gap Min, of Queens College in New York, who has studied Korean immigration trends for more than 30 years, says that as older generations of immigrants in New York moved on, a space was created for Koreans to fill.

Sunhee and SeoJun Kim in their grocery store (Image courtesy of Ronald Kim) Sunhee and SeoJun Kim moved from South Korea in 1986 and opened the East of Eden Grocery store

"The Jews, Italians, Irish, Greeks, had retired, particularly in minority neighbourhoods where white business owners moved out, so this new immigrant group filled that niche," he says.

The Kims had another advantage when they arrived. A friend of Mr Kim's from his days in the Korean marine force, TaeHun Cho, had moved to New York a few years before and was selling his business.

The Kims had sold their assets in Korea and had some money to invest so they leased the shop, and opened the East of Eden Grocery store in New York's Upper East Side.

Like other Koreans in the US, the Kims spoke little English, so they saw going into business for themselves as their best option.

"Although very much college educated and middle class, Koreans had a severe language barrier, larger than other Asians, so they could not find jobs commensurate with their education," says Prof Min.

Ron Kim, now in his thirties and working in politics in New York, says the Korean community that existed in New York when his family arrived was crucial to their initial success.

Korean Americans

  • US is home to second largest Korean diaspora community, behind China
  • There are more than 1.5 million Korean Americans in the US
  • Main concentrations of Korean immigrants in LA and New York
  • The peak year for Korean immigration to the US was 1987
  • Roughly 25,000 Koreans immigrate to the US each year
  • 80% of Koreans who immigrated to the US in 1965 were women
  • Sources: US Census Bureau; Prof Pyong Gap Min

"Without that strong network of Koreans that helped each other it would have been much, much more difficult not only to gain access to an opportunity to make money, but also an opportunity to get capital to start a business," he says.

Like other immigrants before them, Koreans supported each other, often pooling money to provide no interest loans to help the newest immigrants start their businesses.

John Kim, of the Korean Produce Association in New York, whose parents immigrated and opened a sweet shop when he was a boy, recounts a common adage describing how important it was for new immigrants to know someone before arriving in a new country.

"As a new immigrant, the saying goes, 'Whoever picks you up from the airport, whatever business they are in is what you will go into'."

'Driven group'

Success, of course, also depends heavily on hard work and dedication. It is important to remember that immigrants are a special group unto themselves.

Tweeting the Dream

Can you define the American Dream in 140 characters or less? Send BBC_WNA a tweet and include #americandream - we'll publish the best at the end of the week.

Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University specialises in immigration and assimilation patterns.

He says people who choose to leave the comforts of a shared culture and language, to strike out on their own in a foreign country, are a particularly motivated, ambitious and driven group.

"The dream, the myth, the legend, whatever you want to call it, is attractive to a certain type of person," he says.

To encourage business, the Kims opened their shop 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The couple worked incredibly long hours, driving out to the Hunts Point market before dawn, filling their truck with fruits and vegetables to stock their shelves.

Although Ron remembers spending many hours alongside his parents, they made it clear to him early on that this business was not for him. Instead, he was encouraged to make education his highest priority.

While lack of job opportunities and political insecurity in South Korea pushed people to leave, many also wanted to escape the very competitive education system there, and they saw more access to education in the US.

A kinship with America also contributed to the number of Koreans immigrating to the US each year, according to Prof Min. The US and South Korea have shared a unique relationship since US involvement in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.

The large presence of US servicemen in Korea, many of whom married Korean women or adopted Korean orphans while stationed there, along with the availability of American television, popularised American culture in Korea.

Koreans are still immigrating to the US in large numbers - about 25,000 new immigrants come to the US each year - but the people arriving here and their reasons for coming are very different from those who came before them.

New opportunities

The opportunities that existed when the Kims came over are gone now. In the mid-1980s, it would have cost about $5,000 (£3,100) to start up a grocery store in New York City. Now the cost would be closer to $500,000.

Ron Kim with his parents at his high school graduation (photo courtesy of Ron Kim) Ron's parents, pictured here at his high school graduation, considered education very important

And the national trend has moved away from independently owned businesses altogether. The East of Eden Grocery store on 79th and York Avenue is now a Chase Bank.

Although many first-generation immigrants like the Kims toiled away in jobs below their education level, only 9% of second-generation Koreans are self employed now.

Recent data show that nearly 60% of second-generation Korean Americans now complete a four-year college education, and many Koreans in the US today practise professions such as medicine and law. There is also a perceptible increase in the number of Koreans, like Ron Kim, going into politics.

"In New York City we are seeing more and more Korean Americans, younger generations, running for office and trying to break that glass ceiling," says Ron.

Conditions in South Korea have changed too. Ron says that if his parents had stayed even a few years longer, they would have been a lot better off.

By the 1990s, South Korea's economy was on the rise and property values had shot up, making it less necessary to leave the country in order to find opportunities.

Ron says his parents made huge sacrifices for him to grow up in America and have access to the endless opportunities they saw in this country.

He acknowledges that knowing what he does now, he might not have made the same decisions his parents made.

"If I were in their shoes, would I have had the courage and the bravery to do that? Honestly, I don't know."

This article is part of a week-long series exploring the past, present and future of the American Dream. You can watch Katie's TV report on Wednesday's BBC World News America on PBS and the BBC World News channel.

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