Doyung Lee, president of the Korean Association of Greater Washington, tells a story about his three young sons that reveals much about the status of Koreans, one of the largest ethnic groups in the metropolitan area.
"The other kids at school ask if they're Chinese or Korean, and they come home and ask me what they are," said Lee as he sat in his office in the Crown Wig Shop on Connecticut Avenue, one of five such shops he owns. Leaning forward for emphasis, he said, "I tell them, 'No, you're not Chinese, you're Korean-American .'"
Lee's story reflects one of the major concerns of the 35,000 Koreans who live in the Washington area: the desire to assimilate as rapidly as possible into American life. Hard work is the credo of Korean immigrants, who embrace the traditional American values of thrift, education and sacrifice for their children as enthuasiastically as the European immigrants who flocked to America 70 years ago.
While some Koreans come to the U.S. seeking political asylum, the majority, their leaders say, are attracted by economic opportunities and a higher standard of living. Many Koreans hold two full-time jobs, work long hours and live frugally. Tales abound of Koreans who have managed to save $10,000 in two years in order to buy a house or small business such as a laundry, a carryout restaurant or gas station.
"It's a stereotypical immigrants' idea of sacrificing," said Canta Pian, a staff member in HEW's Office of Asian-American Affairs. "The Koreans feel that in order to achieve they must work very hard in multiple jobs."
Although Koreans began emigrating at the turn of the century, the first large groups started to arrive after the Korean War. Officials note that the number of Korean immigrants has continued to grow since 1970 because of relaxed federal quotas that now permit as many as 30,000 Koreans a year to enter the United States.
Most Koreans in the Washington area live in the suburbs, with particularly large concentrations in Arlington, Fairfax and Prince George's counties.
"In Korea, Seoul is the best place to live," said Lee, who sat flanked by a Korean and American flag and underneath a scroll in bold black characters that read, "Love and Serve and Sacrifice." "That's why Koreans come to Washington, because it's the capital city."
Many of those who emigrate are middle class, according to Bok-Lim C. Kim, a University of Illinois professor of social work who has done several studies of Korean immigrants for HEW. "These are people who are fairly well off. They can afford to come. In Korea you can be college educated and not have a job; there's tremendous population pressure."
"We come here (because) somebody working hard can make money," said Chong-Min Hyun, 35, president of the newly formed Korean-American Jaycees. "We encourage our people to assimilate as fast as possible into the American culture. Our ultimate goal is to become excellent American citizens."
Sam Yoon exemplifies the Korean-American success story. Yoon, 39, who was trained as an artist and architect, spoke no English when he came to the U.S. five years ago. "In this country there's a better chance," said Yoon, a slight man who now speaks halting English and, during an interview, frequently asked his secretary to translate for him.
He first went to work for a drafting and design company in Alexandria. "I couldn't read the English on the blueprints, but I was the best draftsman and could build things just by looking at them and trying to figure them out. I studied English at night from a book."
Two years after his arrival in the U.S., Yoon founded his own firm, specializing in Oriental design and construction.
"In this country it's very hard," he said. "There's no time for entertainment, for pleasure. I work every day. I do everything for my job."
Like Yoon, Sun Woun Hong, 49, devotes most of his life to his job. Every day before 5 a.m. Hong and his wife drive from their Annandale home to the carryout they own on K Street NW. At 9 a.m. Hong leaves his wife to run the carryout and drives to Arlington where he works a full day as editor and publisher for Hankook Shinbo, a major weekly Korean-language newspaper.
One of the most important functions of the newspaper, said Hong as he leafed through a recent issue and sipped tea brewed in a large coffeepot in his newspaper office, is to encourage rapid assimilation. He pointed proudly to photographs of D.C. mayoral candidate Sterling Tucker, a smiling Rosalynn Carter and a somber Zbigniew Brzezinski as evidence of this philosophy.
Included in the newspaper, which has a circulation of 5,000, is an advertisement for a 1,000 page book called "The Encyclopedia of American Life," which contains "all kinds of knowledge in the Korean language which will be your guide to the new immigrant life."
There are also advertisements for herbal medicines, including a very expensive product made from a bear's gallbladder that is imported from Siberia "for those who get physically tired in American life."
Hong's newspaper also reflects his views of various local school systems. "Montgomery County has the best high school in the U.S.," he said, lighting one of the menthol cigarettes he chainsmokes. "(From there) students can go to Harvard, Stanford and Columbia."
Education, Koreans emphasize repeatedly, is the ticket to the good life, they key to success. It is a value Korean parents prize above all others.
Area educators say this emphasis is reflected in the uniformly high achievements of Korean students. "Korean students have great discipline and almost stoic study habits," said Esther Eisenhower, coordinator of the Fairfax County English As a Second Language program.
"They are a pleasure to have in class and they seem to excel in mathematics," said Eisenhower of the 1,000 Korean students enrolled in Fairfax County schools. "In general, the problem is keeping them supplied with challenging material."
But some Koreans note that those high standards can create problems. "If you don't achieve that kind of success you feel like a failure," cautoned psychologist Kim. "I get some sense of that from my own children. I think it's going to be very hard for average kids."
Jae Kwang Noh, 18, came to the U.S. 18 months ago with his three brothers and parents to join relatives in Arlington. Although he spoke little English when he arrived, he now speaks English fluently and was recently inducted into the National Honor Society and the German Honor Society and the German Honor Society.
"The big problem Korean students have is studying (enough)," said Noh who, until graduation from Washington-Lee High School, worked every day after school in his uncle's Korean grocery. "Most Korean students must work, like in McDonald's, and also go to school."
The collision of Korean and American cultures has also begun to chip away at the traditional solidarity of the Korean family.
"There are lots of family problems here," said Hong, "the same as (Americans) have, especially divorce. In Korea and the man is first, but here it's ladies first. The woman is working so she has money" and a degree of independence unknown in traditional Korean society where women are far more restricted.
Kim noted, "Korean wives begin to question, 'Why do I have to work and do the dishes?'"
Koreans also say that the "generation gap" is a serious problem for Korean youths and their more traditional parents.
"Many Korean parents don't pay attention to their children," said Noh. "They're working all the time. My parents can't understand Americans. They don't speak English and they can't communicate."
Loneliness and homesickness, initially acute problems facing all new immigrants, remain problems for elderly Koreans who often never learn English. Many are isolated in apartments caring for grandchildren who show baffling signs of Americanization.
Some of that loneliness is alleviated by shopping at Korean-owned markets or businesses or by attending meetings of the social organizations listed in a 300-page directory published annually by the Korean Student Association. ("Koreans love to organize," one of them noted.)
"Churches are a most important place for a new immigrant," said Hong. "They help with lots of problems." Since 1975, the number of Korean churches in the metropolitan area has tripled. There are now 39. Most, like the First Korean Presbyterian Church of Hyattsville, hold Sunday afternoon services in churches used by American congregations in the morning.
In addition to a host of adjustment problems, the most serious of which is language, Koreans have recently been faced with what one called "The Tongsum Problem" - the image problem arising out of the Congressional bribery scandal involving businessman Tongsun Park.
"Koreans try to be good citizens, but when Tongsun Part was in the news it hurt all of us," said Lee. "He spent a lot of money but he never did anything for us. We had trouble getting jobs after that, our children were teased at school. It was very upsetting."
Other Koreans said they think the Park case may have made Koreans more aware of the workings of the American political system and more determined to use the proper channels to wield some clout.
"We are far behind other ethnic groups like the Japanese, Hungarians and Czechs," said Jaycees president Hyun. "We haven't produced any Congressmen yet, we haven't dotten into the policy-making process. That is very important as a next step."