Words by Douglas Baumwoll
Photo courtesy of Josephine Kim
“Adolescence…Child development. Counseling and clinical studies. Cultural studies. Diversity…Ethnic issues. Family issues. Immigrant issues…Multicultural education…Racial discrimination…”
So reads the Areas of Expertise section of her faculty webpage at Harvard University.
I am sitting in the gymnasium of the Gwangju Foreign High School with a few dozen folks, many education professionals. Speaking to us is a composed, compassionate Korean woman, maybe in her thirties (it’s hard to tell), her speech unrushed, her tone soft, pleasant, engaging, empathetic. “We all look through a cultural lens,” she says in unaccented American English, “and that is related to the reality you perceive… When we don’t understand cultural differences, we misunderstand and judge each other.”
Josephine M. Kim – Ph.D., licensed mental health counselor, national certified counselor, and holder of two faculty appointments at Harvard University – has dedicated her professional life to many ends. I spoke with her about three: the uprooting of ethnocentrism, the cause and effect of intergenerational conflict, and the promotion of kids’ psychic wholeness. In her case, however, the weaving of these threads together embodies an interesting twist. Although similar to the folks who inspired her – folks like MLK, Malcolm X, and Harvard’s own Dr. Joan Reed – in that her work involves interracial issues, it also involves intergenerational ones. That is, apart from flat out racism, stereotyping, and discrimination perpetrated against Korean Americans by other races, she confronts a slightly different ilk of ethnocentrism: an intergenerational one within the same bloodlines. When Old World views of immigrant Korean parents clash with those of their Americanized children, you will find her there at the front line. The result is often psychological and emotional strife, sometimes extreme, particularly in the area of educational expectations, and Dr. Kim fixes to amicably promote peace talks between the two warring factions.
“I am a cultural broker,” she proclaims. What is a cultural broker? I ask her during our phone interview. “It’s someone who bridges two cultures, East and West for me, to facilitate how they can get along. I really do generational brokering. I’m bilingual and bicultural. I can tie the parents and kids together, speaking English to the kids and Korean to the parents.”
And she knows.
Jo (as she asked me to call her immediately) lived in central Virginia from the age of eight to thirteen. “When I looked in the mirror, I saw an American. I was totally assimilated into Western culture… [At 13,] my parents told me we were moving back to Korea, and I didn’t even know where it was on the map,” she confesses. “When I got off the plane in Korea, the people looked like me, but I felt like they were aliens. I was used to seeing white people.” She lived the next five years in Korea, then returning once again to the United States to attend university as an undergraduate. “I experienced reverse culture shock then, not realizing the influence Korean culture had had on me until I left it.” Currently, Jo splits her time between the U.S. and Asia, teaching at Harvard and giving presentations like the one I had the privilege to attend here in Gwangju.
Intergenerational Conflict and Educational Expectations
I ask Jo if there are similar issues between Korean immigrant parents and their kids living in America, and Korean parents and their increasingly Westernized kids living in Korea. She says “definitely.” And possibly more so. A Korean parent living in America may impress their home-country beliefs even more so upon their kids, knowing they are exposed to different views during their daily lives in American society. This has to do with cultural issues from stoicism to directness of speech, to individuality, to the questioning of authority, to educational expectations, and more.
“We all think our culture is better than others. Ethnocentrism brings on bias, prejudice, and discrimination. Even if you work for years to unpack your bias, some of it is still there. It’s very hard for both speakers to be on the same page.” During the workshop, Dr. Kim made this statement talking about her work in interracial relations and communications, but this bias clearly exists also between generations of Koreans living under the same roof, both here and in the United States (and elsewhere).
Regarding education, “We need to harness parents’ desire for kids to do well,” she empathizes. “Education is so important to them, but their view of education is so narrow. But this is a reason for hope – the parents’ goodwill toward their kids as students.”
Korean parents living anywhere are looking through their own cultural lens when it comes to the educational lives of their children. Jo reiterates that they consider education as a primary means for “climbing the social ladder” and making a better life for both the student and the family. About 82 percent of high school graduates in Korea enter university (2011 school year), but apart from the SKY universities in Korea, Jo suggests that “parents prioritize going to an American university. All things American are revered.” To get in to one of these, parents expect kids to study relentlessly, reading, memorizing, poring over materials, and attending multiple hagwons after school. For those of you readers working in the education field here in Korea, please consider this reality as pertains to any classroom issues you may encounter with your language or subject learners.
Furthermore, “research shows that Korean parents consider their children as an extension of themselves, and not as autonomous entities like in the U.S.” As one example, Jo mentioned that if a child is born with a physical disability, the parents view this as a reflection on themselves and their own failure. And another: at a high school reunion, classmates would look down on the professionally successful corporate executive whose son dropped out of high school but congratulate the man whose job is that of being a janitor but whose son was accepted to Seoul National University. Again, I implore our foreign readers to consider these facts during your cross-cultural interactions while in Korea.
A final aspect of educational expectations that causes strife between Korean moms and dads and their sons and daughters is that any activity perceived as detracting from this mission of entering the best university is admonished. So, when kids hang out with friends or play sports or computer games, they are not memorizing facts and figures and formulas. Ensue family fight and punishments.
I spoke with two senior students at the Gwangju Foreign High School after the workshop. I asked them about their apprehensions and positive expectations of attending university in the U.S. Both have resided abroad for years, and they feel their education at the Gwangju Foreign High School has prepared them well for their upcoming U.S. university experience. “One concern I have,” says one, “is that I don’t want to join all-Korean activities groups there, but I am afraid joining American groups may be difficult.” This young woman is well aware of ethnocentrism. On the positive side, her motto is “yolo – you only live once,” and she is not too worried about it. The other tells me gleefully that she cannot wait to be in classes where a university lecturer will sometimes actually elicit student responses, and participate in the one-hour discussion group element of many U.S. three-hour courses. Neither of these aspects of university education is typical at many Korean campuses. They mention that their parents’ expectations of academic performance are high, and my gut feeling here is that they are experiencing more pressure than I did at their age, and my father is a Ph.D. who taught at a prestigious university.
I asked Jo if she has seen difficulties that are cited for Koreans attending U.S. universities, primarily time management (too much free time during the day between classes compared to Korean universities) and financial irresponsibility – high costs and little practice in managing personal finances. “Sure,” she says, “and many students who begin to fail in these ways don’t know how to stop, and it snowballs. They don’t know where or how to get help, whether it is saving face or shame.”
The “Whole Child”
And this brings us to the final thread of this article. Jo is very involved in promoting emotional health in children in order to have emotionally mature adults running around in society. For Korean children, university students, and adults who run into problems, Jo’s website explains that “our culture discourages us from speaking about such topics because of the stigma attached to emotional issues” Remedying this reality led her to found a nonprofit called Mustard Seed Generation. Although she told me that recently time constraints have limited her work with this group, she founded it in 2007 to help both parents and kids confront holistic personality issues.
Back in the gym at the Gwangju Foreign High School, Jo talks to us about kids needing “to belong, be loved, be appreciated, and be accepted” in order to be content. If these needs are not met – and for today’s kids, stated explicitly to them through talk from parents – then the kids will burn out. “A whole child has six parts: spiritual, moral, emotional, physical, intellectual, and social. And in Korea, the emotional part is maybe underdeveloped,” she explains.
During her Mustard Seed Generation events, 90 minutes of group counseling is required. At one event here in Korea, she said, “After a little while, the parents really opened up.” This is significant as one of the Old World values that parents grasp onto is stoicism. At one event, she mentioned that “some parents were sitting in their chairs weeping.” A good, cathartic, eye-opening cry, it would seem.
I ask, “Is it true you are known here in Korea as ‘Dr. Self-Esteem’? How did that happen?”
She chuckles on the other end of the line. “Back in 2008, I was shocked to find out that I was the only scholar in Korea talking about children’s self-esteem. It wasn’t like in America where this talk has been going on since the 1960s.” She had never considered writing books as a means of spreading her counseling Word, but after publishers approached her, the idea grew on her and, voila, her books were born. They are written in Korean; the first is entitled The Secret of Children’s Self-Esteem (2011). There is another aimed specifically at teachers in Korea. “I am currently working on a third, aimed at Korean fathers,” Jo tells me. These books address parents’ and teachers’ roles and responsibilities in instilling self-esteem in order to create “whole” children.
Well, reader, that brings this profile to a close. For me, researching and writing this article has brought me deeper insight into observations I have made throughout my life and here in Korea. If I may leave you with a final thought: over 400 years ago, Michel de Montaigne, the noted French philosopher and traveler, wrote these words: “Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in.” Josephine M. Kim is dedicating her life’s work to building harmony among cultures and between generations. She is an astoundingly credentialed and qualified academic; the accolades and Ivy League certifications drip off her LinkedIn profile page and into the reader’s credibility consciousness. She does not, however, speak to us from The Ivory Tower, but rather keeps it real by working in the trenches, confronting these issues head-on through teaching or counseling thousands of students and family members. We can all take a lesson from her and apply it to our lives in order to dissipate both ethnocentrism in its pure form and superiority complexes in their many varied ones – whether pertaining to conflicting beliefs about religion, economics, science, society, ethnicity, or morality. So, starting today, don’t wait for the other guy or gal to start the conversation – you fire the opening salvo in a peace-building discourse.