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Changes and Conflicts: Korean Immigrant Families In New York

Pyong Gap Min - Queens College of CUNY

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Chapter 3: Confucianism and the Korean Family System

Confucianism, which originated in China, was introduced to Korea in the fourth century. It began to have a powerful cultural influence in Korea during the Yi dynasty (1392-1910) when the government adopted Confucianism as a social, political, and economic philosophy (Pak 1983; Park and Cho 1994). The Confucian ideology was most influential in Korea before Christian religions were adopted in the beginning of the twentieth century. Even now, Confucian values that emphasize filial piety, family/kin ties, the patriarchal family order, and children's education still have a powerful effect on the behaviors and attitudes of all Koreans, whether they are Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, or atheists. Indeed, it is impossible to understand Korean traditional culture in general and the family system in particular, without understanding the influence of Chinese Confucianism.

Concerned mainly with life in this world rather than in the other world, Confucius provided several important principles to serve as a guide for behavior and harmonious social relations. Five categories of interpersonal relations form the basis of his teachings concerning the duties and obligations of each individual. These relations are between parents and children, king and people, husband and wife, older (brother) and younger (brother), and friends. The significance of Confucianism for the Korean family system is clear as three of these five cardinal relations involve the family. In fact, no other religion or ideology puts more emphasis on the family as the fundamental unit of society than Confucianism. For this reason, Confucianism is considered a familial religion.

Filial Piety

Confucius viewed establishing and maintaining good order in the family as the primary means of safeguarding social security and stability. In order to establish and maintain order in the family, he envisioned a hierarchical organization of family that justified children's loyalty, respect, and devotion to their parents, and a wife's subordination to her husband. The phrase "filial piety" characterizes the emphasis on children's obligations and devotion to parents. Children were required not only to pay the highest respect to parents throughout their lives but also to fulfill important obligations to them. The eldest son was supposed to live with his parents after marriage, providing them with financial support and care. Moreover, filial piety was extended after the death of a parent in the form of ancestor worship. Sons observed ritual mourning for three years after a parent died, and younger generations of sons showed worshipful veneration to their ancestors in the three preceding generations.

Although high levels of urbanization and industrialization have led to great changes in the traditional family system, filial piety, or hyodo, is still considered one of the cardinal virtues in contemporary Korean society. The government, school, and community encourage people to practice hyodo by rewarding those who are exceptional in showing loyalty, respect, and devotion to their parents and by punishing those who deviate far from the norm. The norm of filial piety has given parents, especially fathers, authority and control over their children. Children are not supposed to talk back to parents even when parents are wrong. To show their respect and politeness, children use different words (jaundae mal) and behaviors when interacting with parents and elderly persons than when interacting with their friends. Whenever giving something to a parent or an adult, they use both hands.

Although the vast majority of households in South Korea are nuclear families, elderly parents usually live with their eldest married son. They receive financial support and health care from children, particularly from the cohabiting eldest son, as government programs for support and care of elderly persons are almost non-existent. According to the 1990 Korean census, 80 percent of elderly persons in South Korea reside with their children, 66 percent with their married children (Eu 1992). Eldest sons have disadvantages in finding marital partners because they are supposed to live with their elderly parents. When women start dating to select their marital partners, they first ask their partners whether they are eldest sons or not. Although the cohabiting eldest son is mainly responsible for the financial support and health care of his elderly parents, all his brothers and sisters share some responsibility. They often give their parents pocket money, buy air tickets for hyodo kwankwang (travel for filial piety), and donate money for their parents' birthday parties. In South Korea, children organize a big party for their parent's sixtieth birthday, spending a lot of money. It is not unusual for brothers and sisters to argue over who should contribute more money for the birthday party.

The Confucian ideology prescribes that filial obligations be perpetuated after the death of a parent through ritual ancestor worship. Although practiced in China and Japan, ancestor worship has had greater effects on Korean society (Janeli and Janeli 1982). Ancestor worship in traditional Korea required children to mourn for three years after the death of a parent. Domestic rites were performed annually for ancestors, with food and wine offered on their death dates (chesa) and important holidays (cha'rye), usually on New Year's Day and the Harvest Moon Festival (Ch'usok). Ancestor worship was based on the belief that the ancestors' souls would visit their descendants' homes to eat food offerings and that the failure to perform ancestral rituals would provoke a soul to punish descendants. Although the eldest son was usually responsible for offering the rites at his home and bore most of the expenses, all male agnatic descendants were responsible for commemorating a given ancestor. In addition to ritual services to his deceased parents, an eldest son assumed any ritual responsibilities his father had toward agnatic forebears within the three previous generations (Janeli and Janeli 1982: 99). In traditional Korean society, kin group members usually lived in the same village, partly for the convenience of performing these ancestral rituals.

In highly urbanized, contemporary Korean society, there are few kin-based villages, with kin group members usually living in different cities. But even today, many people in South Korea make an inter-city visit to their agnatic descendant's home for death-day and holiday rites.


Confucian ideology accorded men the dominant position and thus helped to establish an extreme form of patriarchy in Korea. In traditional Korean society, the husband was considered the primary breadwinner and decision-maker in the family and exercised authority over his wife and children. The wife was expected to obey her husband, devotedly serving him and his kin, and to perpetuate her husband's lineage by bearing children. The wife was excluded from decision making in important family affairs, including her children's education. She was able to exercise some power and influence only through her son, who, according to the norm of filial piety, was supposed to obey his mother at least before his marriage. In traditional Korean society, women were not allowed to perform ancestral worship services for their own relatives. Widows were not allowed to remarry, whereas married men were allowed to take concubines.

High levels of industrialization and Westernization have led to many changes in the traditional family system in South Korea in recent years. However, there is no fundamental change in patriarchy and gender inequality based on Confucian ideology. Both traditional gender role expectations and employment discrimination discourage married women from participating in the labor market. The 1990 Korean census shows that only one-quarter of married women in urban areas participate in the labor force (Korean Bureau of Statistics 1993). Although many women work outside the home before they get married, once they marry, they usually quit their jobs, often involuntarily, to be hyonmo yangch'o (a wise mother and good wife). According to one survey conducted in 1985, over 80 percent of the women who had been employed prior to marriage quit their jobs upon marriage to concentrate in housework (B. Kim 1994: 246). Recently, the number of women graduating from college has increased. However, most college-educated women in South Korea become full-time housewives when they get married. In fact, many parents send their daughters to college to help them find desirable partners.

A strong double standard exists in Korea: a husband's extramarital affairs with single women are tacitly condoned, whereas a wife's extramarital affairs are heavily punished. Korean husbands still tend to view their wives primarily as housekeepers and mothers. Whether wives work outside the home or not, husbands are not much involved in traditional housework chores such as cooking, dishwashing, and cleaning (Cho 1994). Unless working wives have an elderly mother-in-law, a grown-up daughter, and/or a maid to help with housework, they are almost entirely responsible for housework chores. Not only Korean men but also women themselves accept traditional gender role attitudes. In a survey comparing American and Korean women, 82 percent of Korean women agreed with the statement, "Women should have only a family-oriented life, devoted to bringing up the children and looking after the husband," in contrast to only 19 percent of American women (B. Kim 1994).

The Korean notion of motherhood, deeply rooted in the Confucian ideology, emphasizes the role of mother's love and devotion in child care and child socialization. Most married women with a child in Korea cannot separate their identity from their child and/or husband. As I discuss in the next section, Korean women with school-age children spend much of their time and energy in organizing and supervising their children's extracurricular studies after school. Since women's success is measured largely on how well their children perform in school, most college-educated women give up their own careers to concentrate on their children's education. Those few women who maintain their careers suffer from triple burdens of paid work, housework, and child care.

Men in Korea, regardless of class background, usually work long hours at their jobs, many working until after seven in the evening. After work, they often meet with their friends for dinner and go drinking without giving their wives any notice. While men enjoy after-work hours socializing with their friends outside the home, their wives take care of the housework and the children, many waiting for their husbands until late at night to eat dinner together. Although fathers put pressure on their children to do well in school, most do not find time to help their children with homework. Housewives in Korea complain about their husbands spending little time at home in general and about their excessive drinking in particular. According to recent media reports, women's confinement to home where they do housework and take care of children and their lack of marital companionship cause serious psychological problems for many housewives.

The connections between patriarchy on the one hand and patrilineal kinship (descent through men on the father's side) and patrilocal residence (the married couple living with the husband's family) on the other are clearly discernible in contemporary Korean society. The tradition that the eldest married son or another married son live with elderly parents is still observed in Korea. A cohabiting daughter-in-law is mainly responsible for taking care of her husband's elderly parents. Those elderly Koreans without a son have difficulty getting financial and health care support, as there is almost no governmental program to help the elderly. By custom, a married daughter is not supposed to live with her own elderly parent even if the latter is sick. She can provide health care for the parent only informally by visiting his/her home. People in South Korea are anxious to have at least one son because this is similar to having a pension and medical insurance in the United States. According to the 1990 census, among children under ten, boys outnumber girls by 109 to 100 (Korean Women's Development Institute 1994: 38). This imbalance in favor of boys is presumed to have been caused by sex-specific abortions, which is an issue of great concern in contemporary Korean society.

The case of my own aunt and her daughter illustrates the difficulty that an elderly person with no son experiences in Korea. My aunt's only surviving child is a daughter. The daughter is married to a man who is an only son. My aunt, 68, has been sick for many years because of a traffic accident she was involved in fifteen years ago. But my cousin (her daughter) has lived with her healthy mother-in-law ever since she got married. Her mother-in-law could have lived with one of her two daughters, but the Korean custom did not allow for such an arrangement. My cousin has only been able to take care of her mother with much difficulty by visiting her regularly. When I met her last fall in Seoul, she told me about the difficulty of serving her mother-in-law at home every day and at the same time taking care of her own mother informally by visiting her as often as possible. She said that she felt guilty because she was unable to take care of her own mother at home.

In Korea, not only are boys preferred because they will take care of their aging parents, but boys are also treated more favorably than girls and more emphasis is placed on boys' education than girls'. Many girls in rural areas move to large cities for urban jobs after completing middle school. It is not uncommon for them to work long hours and save money to support their younger brother's high school or college education. Female high school students spend much more time helping with housework at home and get less financial support for extracurricular studies than male students. Because of different educational expectations for boys and girls, there is a big gender gap in education. In 1990, 50 percent of 18- to 21-year-old men in Korea were enrolled in colleges and universities compared to only 24 percent of young women; approximately 20 percent of men 25-years-old and over had completed four years of college education compared to 8 percent of women (Korean Women's Development Institute, 1994: 70, 73). Often, an academically talented daughter is denied an opportunity for a college education whereas her "less-than-average" brother is given the opportunity (A. Kim 1996, Chapter 3).

Emphasis on Children's Education

There are a number of significant differences between Korea and the United States in child socialization (see Min 1997b). As a result of the norm of filial piety in Korea, there is a greater emphasis on children's obedience to and respect for parents and adults than in the United States. Also, under the influence of the Confucian patriarchal ideology, people in South Korea practice more conservative gender socialization, treating boys and girls in a more unequal way than is the norm here. Probably the most significant difference in child socialization between the two countries is that in Korea far more emphasis is placed on children's education than in the United States.

Confucius and Mencius, the two Chinese sages who provided the philosophical foundation for Confucian ideology, envisioned an enlightened government ruled by highly educated intellectuals. Following their teachings, in the third century China devised the civil service examination system to bring men of intelligence and ability into government regardless of social position. Korea adopted civil service examinations in the tenth century. Those who passed the examination were offered high government positions that gave great power and economic rewards. Particularly during the Yi dynasty, which adopted Confucianism as a political philosophy, literary persons well versed in Chinese classics were able to hold high-ranking positions in government through passing the civil service examination. Koreans put great emphasis on formal education as the main avenue for social mobility, because historically the civil service examination provided the main opportunity for upward social mobility.

Under the impact of Confucian cultural tradition, people in South Korea still highly value formal education as a means of social mobility. "You are an uneducated guy (Nunun motbaoon nonmiya!)" is the worst curse you can get in Korea. In Korea, a man without a college degree encounters barriers in all features of his social life, including selecting a marital partner. Parents make enormous sacrifices to give their children a good education because they, particularly mothers, largely evaluate their own success according to what college their children get into. Many middle-aged people in Seoul work from early morning to late at night, peddling fruits and vegetables on the street, to support their children's college education.

Last summer when I was in Seoul for research, a well-known artist in his mid-forties came to my office and asked for information about admission to a college in the United States for a bachelor program in arts. I asked him why he wanted to come to the United States to get a college education in his middle years when he had his family members to support. To answer my question, he told me the following story:

In an exhibition of my art works that was held last year, a businessman set aside one of my pictures to purchase. Before he paid for the picture, he asked me what college I graduated from. When I told him I did not get a college education, he changed his mind, deciding not to buy my picture. It seems to me he did not think my picture was meaningful when he found out I was a non-college artist. This bitter experience, along with many other barriers I had encountered before in my career as an artist, forced me to seek a college education in the late stage of my life.

This episode reveals what social barriers a man with no college degree encounters in Korean society.

Since colleges and universities in South Korea can admit only a small proportion (approximately 35 percent) of high school candidates each year, competition in the college entrance examination is fierce. Korean children compete to be admitted not only to any college, but also to a first-class university, because the reputation of one's college has significant effects on social mobility throughout life. Korean children spend at least three years of high school preparing for the college entrance examination by attending study programs offered by each high school and private institutions after regular school hours. Many upper-middle and upper-class families hire one or more private tutors for their high school children. Despite several years of hard work, many students fail to gain admission to college in their first try. Those who fail attend private institutions specializing in preparation for the college entrance examination. They try to get admission to college again and again under much pressure, even in the fourth year after graduation from high school.

In the summer of 1995, I stayed at my female cousin's home in Seoul for five days. At that time, my cousin had two high school children, one in the twelfth grade and the other in the tenth (the first year in high school in Korea). During my visit, the twelfth grader, Heyoung, had only two months left before she took the college entrance examination. This gave me an opportunity to observe the hardship and torture that Korean high school seniors, along with their parents, go through for admission to college.

Heyoung had a hectic daily schedule, from 5:30 in the morning to 1:00 the next morning, sleeping less than five hours a night. She left for school at 6:00 in the morning with lunch and dinner baskets (there is no school cafeteria in a Korean high school). First, she participated in a two-hour self-study program, supervised by her homeroom teacher, between 6:30 and 8:20. Her school principal mandated all high school seniors to participate in the self-study program to increase the school's college admission rate. Her regular class schedule between 8:30 and 3:00 included a 40-minute lunch break. Heyoung told me that her homeroom teacher stayed in the classroom even during the lunch period to make sure students studied by themselves as soon as they finished their lunches. However, she said that "many students are so tired that they fall asleep upon completing their lunch." Beginning at 3:30, after the regular schedule, Heyoung and other seniors took three consecutive entrance examination preparation classes (English, mathematics, and the Korean language) offered by the high school. Between 6:30 and 7:30, Heyoung completed her dinner basket, then she participated in another two-hour self-study program. She came back home after 10. p.m. She said many of her classmates were participating in a "mid-night extracurricular study" (simya kwawe kongboo) offered by private tutors after the evening self-study program. After a light dinner and a quick shower (she said many of her friends kept their hair short so that they did not have to take a shower every day), Heyoung studied until one in the morning to complete her homework assignments.

My cousin got up at five in the morning to make three lunch baskets, two for her daughter and one for her son, and to help the children go to school. After her children and husband left home, she went to bed again around 9:30 a.m. and slept until noon. Her son came home around 5:30 in the evening after participating in two extracurricular study classes (English and mathematics). Fortunately for my cousin, her son was old enough to go to the extracurricular institute by himself. She told me that many of the Korean mothers with elementary and/or middle school kids were busy in the afternoon, taking their kids to English, mathematics, art, piano and/or karate lessons. This suggests that it is almost impossible for mothers with younger children to work outside the home in Korea.

The preparation for the college entrance examination also causes parents heavy financial burdens. Almost all parents with a high school senior pay a regular tuition (a high school education is not free in Korea) and fees for extracurricular studies offered by each school after regular classes and during the summer vacation. Most parents with a school child in other grades also pay for one or another kind of extracurricular course offered by a tutor or a private institute. A large number of high school students from Korea are enrolled in prestigious American private boarding schools located in the Los Angeles area or in New England. As foreign students, they usually do not get any financial support from the school, paying an average of $22,000 per year for tuition, room and board, and other fees. In addition, they pay a travel agency in Korea approximately $5,000 for paper work to get admission and at least another $5,000 for two round-way trips from Korea to the United States (for each student and one parent).

Just two weeks ago, a brother-in-law on my wife's side visited us from Korea to take one of his daughters to a private high school in Maryland. On our way to the school, I asked him why he had decided to put his daughter in a private school in the United States that incurs such a great expense. He told me that many high school students in Korea spend more than $25,000 per year to prepare for the college entrance examination with no guarantee that they will be admitted to a decent university in the first year after graduation from high school. In his view, studying in a private high school in the United States is more economical and easier psychologically because graduation from a high school here almost guarantees a student's admission to a decent university. He and his wife plan to move to the United States as permanent residents within the next three years, before their twelve-year-old second daughter becomes a sophomore. He feels that the United States is a much better country than South Korea for college education and that that is a good reason to venture into international migration.

While the zeal for children's education and the rigid Korean college entrance examination system push high school students to work hard, they are the root causes of many social problems, including excessive pressure on children, heavy financial burdens on parents, and a test-oriented high school education. Recently, the South Korean government has made significant changes in the college admission system. Now, a student's high school records and results of the Scholastic Aptitude Test are considered along with results of the entrance examination given by each college or university. The government plans to make further changes by giving more weight to high school records as a way to liberate children from "exam hell" and to reduce the financial burdens on parents to pay for their children's extracurricular studies. However, as long as colleges and universities in South Korea cannot admit most of the candidates each year, there will be excessive competition for admission to college and all kinds of extracurricular study programs, no matter how much the college admission system is changed.

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