Korean Immigrants’ Adjustment:

The Challenge of Korean Immigration From the 20th Century Until Present Times

review written by Michael Sol | book written by Moon H. Jo

   Moon H. Jo wrote Korean Immigrants and the Challenge of Adjustment to share with others his knowledge on adjustment problems of Korean immigrants. He incorporated his own personal experiences, as well as the experiences of many of his friends. Jo used questionnaires and interviews, facts and figures, to equip his work with an abundance of information. Moon’s effort to include all aspects of Korean immigration has focused on areas most authors overlook such as how family relationships or language barriers have affected Korean immigrants.

   From the start of the 20th century, Korean immigration has been present in the United States and marked by periods of lows and highs. In Korean Immigrants and the Challenge of Adjustment Moon H. Jo attributes this to the political and economic states of Korea and the United States. In particular, he believes two important events marked a mass immigration of Koreans to America--one, a shortage of laborers in 1905 and two, the Korean War from 1950-1953. Jo divides Korean immigration to the United States into three broad time periods, each differing in their circumstances, characteristics and experiences.

   According to Jo the first wave of Korean immigrants were contract laborers, “Needed by Hawaiian sugar plantation owners who found themselves unable to replace Chinese laborers excluded from the islands after implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.”1 Also, the Gentlemen’s Agreement resulted in the United States’ restriction of the immigration of Japanese laborers, thus increasing the need for Korean laborers. According to Jo the first Korean immigrants held strong ties back to Korea and only came to America hoping to benefit economically; they desperately wanted to return to their homeland after finishing their business. They are described as “very active in their ethnic communities.”2 This resulted from their desire to keep close ties to home and maintain their culture and values. Most of them settled in San Francisco and California and “found employment in farming, railroad construction, mining and fishing.”3 Even though they earned small wages, it was a much greater amount than what they earned in their home country.

   Many of these first wave immigrants were heavily concerned with the welfare of Korea because Japan had annexed Korea in 1910. There were numerous Korean organizations which dedicated their efforts to gaining independence for Korea. Many first wave Korean immigrants donated a large portion of their earnings to the movement for Korean independence. They worked tirelessly on sugar plantations, though some found a way to leave this kind of work “…and become carpenters, tailors, store operators, and laundrymen at Hawaiian military bases as the military shifted to war.”4 With their living standards slowly improving, many of these men were able to bring brides from Korea. The defeat of Japan in 1945 caused the Korean nationalist movement to dwindle. Many of its supporters had died and those remaining had “American born children who they were reluctant to leave behind.”5 A large number of Korean women chose to marry Caucasian husbands, which resulted in the ostracism of the many Korean men who were left to marry Japanese women. Experiences of early immigrants in Hawaii was marked first by issues concerning the liberation of Korea from Japan and second “various ethnic-centered activities such as the importation of brides, the birth of children, and a new generation that would know little of Korea except what they were told of their parents.”6 As Koreans began coming to America, their culture and their way of life that they had been so familiar with for hundreds of years were changing with the times.

   The second wave of Korean immigration began with the Korean War in 1951: “the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 led to a further dramatic increase in Korean immigrants to the United States.” Korean Immigrants during this time were composed “of wives of American servicemen who participated in the Korean War, orphans, and students.”7

   The third wave occurred after 1965; and was also affected by the Immigration Act of 1965. According to pole results, like their ancestors, more recent Korean immigrants continued to live in the West Coast and big cities. 44.4 percent of Koreans live in the West Coast and 22.8 percent live in the northeast while “Only about 7 percent of Koreans live in rural areas.”8 Jo concludes that the reason this occurs is that, “Most Korean immigrants are settling in large cities because there are more business opportunities than there are in small cities or rural areas.”9 Koreans usually come to America as small business entrepreneurs looking to improve their economic condition, so it is only natural that they would settle in areas with a large market.

   However Jo claims that the difference is that Korean immigrants these days are not coming with the only option of doing back-breaking labor--though many of them continue to do this type of work. Society in the late 1900’s has been much more accepting of races, and immigrants knew they would have a greater chance to succeed with enterprising. Many come as small business owners, students and professionals. They keep long-term goals in mind and come with their families with the intention of settling permanently.

   Like the first wave of Korean immigrants, the third wave faced their share of difficulties adjusting to life in America. The main issue on the minds of the Koreans at the beginning of the 20th century was Korea’s fight for independence. But today, the major concern to Koreans is racism. Jo believes that because of “…their strong ethnocentrism, the language barrier, self employment in an ethnic enclave and both subtle and overt racism,”10 Koreans have not been fully integrated into American society and life. He describes life as a constant struggle in bearing society’s contempt. Many large corporations “…regard Korean immigrants as interlopers who are taking their share of welfare benefits…”11 State and federal governments have tried to instigate laws and regulations to hinder Korean immigration and diminish the benefits they receive. Consequently, Koreans often band together and form close-knit communities to help each other get through the difficult times of adjusting to life in America.

   While Jo believes that Koreans have been propelled to leave their homeland for mainly economic reasons, he also acknowledges the difficulties they have doing business in America. Because of many Koreans’ inability to speak English fluently, the transition for them has not been an easy one—especially because communication plays a vital role in present-day American society. According to Jo, many Koreans are criticized by the general population, deprived of job opportunities, encounter difficulties doing business and obtaining licenses, and are cheated by employers. Also, most Koreans in America find themselves as self-employed business owners who find it difficult to get along with each other. They also have trouble cooperating with African-Americans, seeing as most of their businesses are set up in predominantly black communities: “The friction between the Koreans and the black residents has become so contentious that it has led to physical assaults, destruction of property, even murder and civil disturbances.”12 Learning about American capitalism and the market system poses another issue for them because of the language barrier.

   Readers are provided with an abundance of information on societal and family relationships, difficulties adjusting, and culture clashes not commonly found in other books on Asian immigration. According to Jo, family adjustment can be difficult for many Koreans when coming to the United States. Korean families have a “…traditional culture where gender roles, for instance are sharply defined.”13 In the United States the culture is more open and accepting to different beliefs or lifestyles. Jo depicts Koreans as having “extended families” while American families have “nuclear families.” Oftentimes the wives and children of Korean men have proven to be accepting to the American way of life and have chosen to adapt American values, creating frustration for more traditional husbands. Jo claims that because many women are helping with the economic state of the household and have come to expect a higher degree of respect from their husbands than they would receive in Korea, men become extremely abusive. In many cases Korean immigrants do not make enough money and go to extraordinary lengths to cope with a lower status than what they had in Korea. Parents will often push their children extremely hard in their studies and disregard any of their children’s interests if it is unrelated to school. They will then flaunt the achievements of their children to their friends and family as if it were their own. Jo also adds that overspending is another result of this “downward social mobility.”14 Families will often purchase large homes and fancy cars as well as other luxuries they can not afford, only to go into a large amount of debt and file for bankruptcy.

   Asians have always had difficulty coping with American society and “are or will be victimized by stereotyping bigotry and violence.”15 And though at times people of Caucasian descent may be kind to them, it is Jo’s belief that Koreans are still not accepted because of their race, as shown in a recent poll that suggested Koreans to be one of the least preferred ethnic groups by Americans. Korean immigrants and Asian immigrants are often regarded as quiet and scientific-minded. Jo thinks that as constant victims of discrimination, Korean and Asian immigrants have become passive towards the rest of society. Rather than being viewed as fully integrated citizens, Korean immigrants are perceived as unwelcome guests, and are often stereotyped as being uninterested in going out or having fun. Society is partially at fault then, for allowing misunderstanding to erupt in unjustified intolerance.

   The main reasons for their migration are classified in terms of economics, education, security and politics. On an economic stand point, Korea in the 1970’s lacked available professional jobs. Jo says that this constituted the need for them to migrate to America where a much better chance for employment could be found: “The entrepreneurial immigrants, however, frequently cited unprofitable business, a lack of economic opportunities, and little chance of economic mobility as their reasons for immigration.”16 Government corruption and political repression also motivated Koreans to migrate. Many people in Korea became rich and powerful through political favoritism. Small businesses often had a difficult time prospering in Korea. The Korean War and the constant turmoil between communist North Korea and South Korea continue to impact its citizens. Many of them felt unsafe, fearing that their lives could be lost at any moment. In addition, invitations sent from family members prompted some to move in order to reunite. When Moon H. Jo states that “…husbands face the added realization that they are dependent on their wives when they encounter language problems and feel their authority is further eroded,”17 he subtly criticizes the image of the Korean male. Essentially he implies that Korean men are too full of pride to accept help from their wives. One can imagine the profoundness of this statement; since Jo is a Korean male, one would think that he would slightly favor his own gender, however this is not the case. The contradiction further disproves the accuracy of the stereotype that all Korean males share the same attitude. This gives the book at the very least some sort of credibility, and reflects Jo’s efforts to write while considering the facts and multiple points of view.

   He later considers injustices felt by Koreans by stating “…that most Americans believe [Koreans] are not interested in sex, dating or partying.”18 In this case he criticizes American society. He depicts them in many cases as ignorant, arrogant and intolerable of those unlike themselves. His criticism may be stronger due to the fact that Jo is a Korean, and is therefore more comfortable with judging his own race in the way he sees appropriate. He incorporates the most factual and logical information in hopes of being received realistically. The steady increase in the number of Asian immigrants has fueled interest in Asian-American communities in recent years. These days many books and articles have been written on Chinese and Japanese immigration, however little has been written on Korean immigration, even in textbooks. This book provides readers with an overview of the history of Korean immigration to America. Jo’s incorporation of the many issues facing Korean immigrants has not only opened his readers’ eyes to issues facing Asian immigration but also issues which are present because of people’s inability to work together and accept one another. Perhaps if there were more media and news focusing on similar issues, society would be more tolerant and helpful.

   In his book, Moon H. Jo details the history Korean immigration to the United States, which has varied depending on the state and condition of both their homeland and that of the United States. From around 1900 up until today, Korean immigration can be divided into three time periods--each with their own distinct qualities. The first wave came as contract laborers with the intention of returning home, while the second wave “…consisted of wives of American servicemen who participated in the Korean War, orphans and students.”19 The third wave--the more recent Korean immigrants--came with the intention of maintaining stable business in large cities and settling with a permanent family and home. Their first priority in coming to America was economic, followed closely by education. Other reasons included the current political state of their country and the threat of the warring North and South regions.

   Coming to America has not been easy for Korean immigrants by any means. Jo details the many difficulties they face adjusting to life away from home. Korean families have found it difficult adjusting to a different lifestyle and culture in America, and have often been misunderstood for failing to assimilate, or perhaps for choosing to retain their own Korean values. Different roles and expectations for wives have caused tension, frustration, or confusion for husbands. Children find themselves greatly distanced from the traditional ways of their parents, and husbands feel as if they have less control over their families in their new environment. Along with these family issues, making a living has caused even further distress for immigrants. Because many Korean immigrants are here illegally, and because of their inability to speak English fluently, immigrants must cope with downward social mobility. In hopes of somehow regaining their pride and status, or coping with the stress, some resort to spending far beyond their means, or others resort to pushing their children extremely hard in their studies. Oftentimes they will flaunt previously held titles in Korea, eager to impress and gain the respect they believe they deserve but are often deprived of.


1. Jo, Moon H. Korean Immigrants and the Challenge of Adjustment. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999. 1.
2. Jo, Moon H. 2.
3. Jo, Moon H. 3.
4. Jo, Moon H. 4.
5. Jo, Moon H. 4.
6. Jo, Moon H. 4.
7. Jo, Moon H. 5.
8. Jo, Moon H. 6.
9. Jo, Moon H. 6.
10. Jo, Moon H. 8.
11. Jo, Moon H. 14.
12. Jo, Moon H. 15.
13. Jo, Moon H. 16.
14. Jo, Moon H. 18.
15. Jo, Moon H. 70.
16. Jo, Moon H. 81.
17. Jo, Moon H. 139.
18. Jo, Moon H. 143.
19. Jo, Moon H. 6.