Abstract: Understanding the Ethnic Self: A Qualitative Study of 1.5-Generation Korean American Adult Immigrants (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

146P Understanding the Ethnic Self: A Qualitative Study of 1.5-Generation Korean American Adult Immigrants

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Johnny Kim, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO
In young Park, MSW, Doctoral Student, MSW, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Background: Research shows that ethnic identity development of racial minorities is associated with self-esteem, psychological adjustment and the development of healthy relationships. Immigrating to America in early childhood, 1.5-generation immigrants are tasked with establishing new social networks and blending two cultures, and thus often struggle with greater identity confusion compared to other generations. Few studies, however, have examined the process of how 1.5-generation Korean American (KA) immigrants develop ethnic identity and navigate relationship patterns across different cultural contexts. Using a social ecological framework, this study explores 1.5-generation KA immigrants’ experiences constructing ethnic identity after immigrating to the U.S.

Methods: Semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with 1.5-generation KA adults (N=11) from a White dominant region in the Western U.S. Participants were recruited from a local Korean Christian Church (KCC) and college campus using purposive sampling to obtain diversity in age, gender, and year of immigration. All participants met inclusion study criteria, having migrated to the U.S. before the age of 13. Hour-long interviews and were conducted either in Korean or English and either face-to-face or by phone. The participants discussed their retrospective experiences of acculturation, relationships with parents, peers, and community members, and cultural identity as adults. A grounded theory approach was used in analyzing transcripts, through a process of open, axial, and selective coding using Atlas.ti software. As a last step, a conditional matrix was created by combining individual and community levels to demonstrate core categories and generate a new model of ethnic identity formation.

Findings: Findings showed that 1.5 generation KA immigrants develop their identity through a sequence of stages: (1) anxiety and fear, (2) confusion, (3) exploration, (4) acceptance, and (5) stability. While coping with stressful events such as racial discrimination and language barriers, as well as parents’ racist attitudes toward other ethnic minorities, participants experienced confusion of who they were and temporarily denied their Korean culture. However, with the virtues of supports from parents, peers from both Korean and non-Korean community, and people from the KCC, participants accepted themselves as Korean and/or American, feeling “lucky” for bridging two cultures and generations. The conditional matrix demonstrated that their parents’ cultural tolerance was one of crucial factors toward identity formation for participants. Moreover, the KCC played a significant role in reducing the inter-generational cultural gap by providing parents opportunities to adopt American parenting styles and motivating participants to preserve Korean heritage culture through cultural activities.

Conclusion:  The findings provide unique insight into the fluid nature of 1.5-generation’s ethnic identity; the process of developing ethnic identity among 1.5-generation does not necessarily include integration of two cultures or fixed form to explain healthy development and highlights the way that interpersonal relationship within multiple contexts helps them construct identity. The findings further emphasize the importance of considering intersectional (e.g., generation) and sociocultural approaches to better understand minority stress and identity formation amongst KA immigrants. In practice, the study suggests a need for building culturally-sensitive interventions for families and connections to supportive religious institutions to promote ethnic identity.