By Jonathan Tilove
Newhouse News Service
November 24, 1995
SKOKIE, Ill. – The Quick-Clean Coin Laundry was not what Henry Choi had in mind when he came to America to study Western philosophy and “find the meaning of life.” But Choi is fittingly philosophical about the often bittersweet reality of the Korean-American dream.
“The first generation has its unfulfilled broken dreams,” says Choi. “It wants to fulfill those broken dreams through the second generation.”
Which explains Quick-Clean, a cheerless corridor of quarter capitalism in this historically Jewish suburb with a reputation for good schools that has made it a Mecca for Korean-Americans. It is here that Choi’s 28-year-old son Jae Chun Choi, who joined his father in America as a teenager, finished high school on his way to an engineering degree and a job designing computer chips for a booming telecommunications technology firm.
“Korean parents tend to live their dreams through their children,” agrees Jae.
To multiply the Choi family history, as it is and will be, by the hundreds of thousands, is to present an unfolding pattern of success for Asian- Americans that for all its unevenness and exceptions, and for all the trauma and travail of the immigrant experience, promises to be among the swiftest and most remarkable in American history.
It is a pattern that in the decades to come will require Asian-Americans to confront the uneasy mix of respect and envy that comes with conspicuous success.
And, for just that reason, it is a pattern of success that illuminates why affirmative action is such an odd fit for the largely immigrant Asian-American community. It places in sharp relief the difference between the Asian and black sojourns in America.
It is, as described by anthropologist John U. Ogbu, the difference between Asians, two-thirds of whom were foreign-born, as a classic voluntary immigrant minority, and native-born blacks, as the ultimate “involuntary minority,” whose ancestors were brought to America as slaves and denied opportunities in all manner of ways ever since.
The immigrant minorities, says Ogbu, himself an immigrant from Nigeria, generally share an optimism and faith in America – a self-confidence that whatever obstacles they face can be overcome through education and hard work.
By contrast, says Ogbu, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, bitter experience has battered black hopes and shaped a community that has a far more suspicious, pessimistic and adversarial relationship with American society.
It is a community, he says, with far less confidence that hard work will pay off and, as a consequence, delivers a far more mixed message to its children about the worth and cost, in terms of their black identity, of striving to join that mainstream.
That rings true to Henry Choi. His wife, Jinny, recently experienced what for her was a rare slap of shabby treatment at her data entry job because of her accented English.
And Choi himself, with his economics degree from Korea, and master’s in Western philosophy from Loyola University in Chicago, is haunted by his failure to pursue a doctorate in Eastern thought, or to, as yet, write a book melding his “witness” of East and West. He too knows of stunted ambitions.
But Choi was impressed several years by the words of a Chicago black leader being quoted in a Korean-American newspaper at a time of some tension between Korean merchants and their customers in the black neighborhoods where many of them do business.
As Choi recalls it, “He said to the Korean community, ‘You guys are lucky. You may know a little bit of discrimination in a delicate way, but you come from a society that is whole and a community that is whole and parents who expect their children to work hard and children who know they have to live up to their parents’ expectations and if they work hard and study hard, they are going to make it.”‘
By contrast, the black leader said children in his community are bombarded with negative messages from society. “Young black kids don’t have any hope or expectation that they will make it, no matter how hard they work,” Choi remembers the leader saying.
They are, says Choi, putting in his own words, the victims of “negative hypnotism.”
Or, what Stanford University psychologist Claude M. Steele, who is black, refers to as “stereotype vulnerability.” In recent research, Steele has found that negative stereotyping about black intellectual ability can actually lead black students to score far lower on tests than they might otherwise perform.
It is stereotyping and oppression as self-fulfilling prophecy. Ogbu and others point to similar examples among “involuntary minorities” around the world. A compelling example is that of Koreans in Japan.
Koreans in the United States are perceived as quiet, industrious and successful – just the sort teachers would want in their classrooms or other parents would consider a “good influence” on their own children, according to a study by Yongsook Lee, a Northwestern University-trained anthropologist who did a comparative study of Koreans in Japan and the United States for the Korean Educational Development Institute.
But in Japan, where Koreans have a history as colonial subjects, they are frequently looked down upon and resented, their schooling and employment prospects clearly foreshortened, Lee reported.
According to the study, and the work of George De Vos, a Berkeley psychologist and anthropologist, Koreans in Japan are disparaged as violent, delinquent, criminal, culturally inferior, alienated, unmotivated, low- achieving ghetto dwellers.
The result is that even as Koreans do about as well as the Japanese in America, Koreans in Japan do about as well as blacks in the United States.
In other words, for all the complaints from some in the Asian-American community about the unfair labeling of their community as a superachieving “model minority,” the research indicates it is a lot better to grow up with teachers – and the world in general – expecting the best out of you rather than assuming the worst.
In an ongoing study of students in the Oakland, Calif., schools, Ogbu is finding that Asian-American students are more optimistic and do better than black students, even when the black students’ parents are better educated than the Asians’ parents.
“One of the things that Asians have going for them in this society is that they are not running the same gauntlet of white prejudice and they do not labor under the view that they are intellectually inferior,” says L. Scott Miller, an educational consultant and the author of “An American Imperative: Accelerating Minority Educational Achievement.”
Even though many of the most recent Southeast Asians refugees are struggling, and even though two-thirds of all Asian-Americans are foreign-born and well over half report that they do not speak English “very well,” the median family income for all Asian-Americans is higher than that of whites and nearly double that of black Americans.
Because Asian-Americans typically had more family members working, their per capita income numbers were not quite as impressive, but they still towered over those for blacks and Hispanics.
These numbers are likely to be even more impressive for second generation Asian-Americans, though some studies indicate that the Confucian ethic of “success through effort” does dim a bit with time in America.
Dae Kim, who is not a particularly stellar student at Niles West High School in Skokie, says he is proof of that, though he remains convinced his fate rests with recommiting himself to those values. He could scarcely believe – and finds little modern relevance – in the history of exploited Chinese immigrants in the last century.
“If my son goes to high school and they tell the history of my generation, I think they will say these immigrants came to America for a better life, instead of saying they came here to build a railroad,” says Kim.
Likewise, Susan Koo, president of the Niles West Korean Club, number three in her class and one of three National Merit semifinalists, hasn’t thought much about affirmative action.
“I really don’t feel it’s been a hindrance at all being Korean or being Asian,” she says.