Korean American Profiles at Harvard

By Esther Eun-Young Chang

 

Jeanny Ji-Eun Kim is a Quincy House junior from Long Island, New York, who believes that the benefit of being Korean-American is that "within the larger realm of American society, there is always a smaller subculture afforded by being Korean American that allows you to find a smaller niche and feel like there is a certain part of society that you can definitely relate to on a different level."

In Jeanny’s opinion, there is no such thing as an "American" culture; that is, no one is a true American per se, unless that person is a Native American, because everyone is originally from a different country. This is where she sees another positive aspect about being Korean American. Jeanny points out that as a Korean American, "you do have a stable set of roots that everybody shares with you—mainly the Korean ethics that most Korean kids grew up with."

When asked whether she felt that there were any advantages to being Asian, Jeanny replied that affirmative action does not do anything for Asians because they are not considered minorities anymore. However, she sees certain stereotypes that go along with being Asian American—that they study hard and that they want to succeed—as advantages for her because they encourage her to work hard and set higher standards for herself.

As someone who was born and raised in the United States, Jeanny does not feel that it is very hard to assimilate into American culture once one can speak the language. To her, assimilation into American culture means "adopting any of the social and cultural icons associated with being American." Although she feels that she has completely assimilated because she speaks English fluently and understands how the American system works, she still admits that being Asian might be the cause of obstacles for "the American society…is not a meritocracy, but a lot of bureaucracy and politics." Because Asian Americans are not yet well-established in this country, Jeanny feels that people with the "right connections" have gotten much further than she has in many respects.

A History and Literature major, Jeanny is involved in the Korean Students’ Association and HANA (a Korean American magazine). As a pre-law student, she works in the Public Interest Law Advising Office at the Law School. In deciding to be a lawyer, Jeanny’s parents did not play a big role. She says that they simply want her to find a job that will guarantee her some kind of security. By going into law, Jeanny wants to dispel the stereotypes that Asian Americans do not have a mastery of the English language and are not active in the public arena.

 

Sora Yoon is a freshman in Matthews and a future Quincyite. Born in Canada and currently living in Blacksburg, Virginia, Sora feels that being a Korean American means that certain values, like a strong work-ethic, are instilled in one at an early age. She distinctly remembers what her parents used to say to her, "Because you look different, you have to work twice as hard."

Sora nearly rejected Harvard to go to a conservatory. She has maintained her musical talents as a member of both the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum and the Veritones, and as a piano student at the Longy School of Music. As an accomplished musician, Sora thinks that she fits the Asian American stereotype of supermusician very well. Other stereotypes of Asian Americans that come to her mind are that they study all the time to get into medical or law school, are bland in personality, and tend to be "cliquey." Although she thinks that the stereotypes are true in many cases, she tries hard to break away from the image of the "cliquey" Korean American by making diverse friends. Nevertheless, she confesses that her closest friends are Asian American. She explains, "your best friend is going to be the person you have the most in common with and that, in my case, happens to be Korean."

Sora is an East Asian Studies major considering medical or graduate school, and hopes to be a professor, diplomat, or analyst of some sort. She admits that she fits many of the stereotypes attributed to Asian Americans. However, she does not think that this is a direct result of parental pressure or other factors associated with being Asian American. She is genuinely interested in these fields, and if they happen to coincide with the stereotypes, then so be it.

 

Robert Chang-Woo Rhew: a senior living in Winthrop House, Rhew, who was born in Michigan, grew up in a middle-class, predominantly white neighborhood. Though he remembers racist incidents in elementary school, they did not involve his friends or classmates. He says, "Children are color-blind…they don’t really care. All the racism that they learn, I’m convinced, they learn from their parents."

Robert tries to laugh off the occasional racist incidents that occurred at home and at his middle and high schools, like people painting slurs on his window. Nonetheless, he said one of the most powerful images he remembers is that of a black woman in Philadelphia who said to him, "Go home, chink!" It boggled Robert’s mind that he was encountering racism from a member of another minority—another minority that was struggling for civil rights.

Rhew believes that the burden should not be his to assimilate perfectly into American culture, but that Americans should adjust to the various ethnicities that exist in America. "it makes me frustrated, it makes me depressed, and it makes me sad that I should be treated differently, that Asians should be treated differently before they even got to know who we are," Robert adds.

Although he considers himself American first and Asian second (mainly because he is not as in touch with Koran culture as other Korean Americans), he believes that there are some positive aspects to being Asian American. One of these, according to Robert, is the importance placed on family and education.

Last year’s president of the Undergraduate Council, prefect, and member of the Environmental Action Committee, Robert is an Earth and Planetary Sciences concentrator. After graduating in June, he plans to travel to Australia and then go to graduate school to research and study atmospheric science. Afterwards, he may go on to enter the world of academia. When asked how much influence his parents had in making his career choice, he replied that they had some disagreements because his parents originally wanted him to go to medical school like his brother or to law school to study environmental law.


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