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Korean Americans Dream of Crimson

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ji-Hye Kim sits scrunched on the floor of the packed auditorium in Koreatown, listening intently as Harvard Law School graduate Simon Lee gives pointers on how to succeed in college.

Her son, Jason, is only a seventh-grader. But already she is preparing him--for Harvard.

Jason, an honor student who plays the cello and reads Chinese for fun, recently completed Lee’s seven-week course on study habits in anticipation of a long academic journey.

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Now, it’s his mother’s turn.

“I want to do everything I can to help our son achieve his potential,” she said. “Isn’t that every parent’s duty?”

A Harvard degree may be coveted by millions the world over, but its lure seems especially irresistible to many Korean American parents. They believe the school is the key that opens the door to success.

“They think you can’t go wrong if you go to Harvard,” said Commerce Department official T. S. Chung, a 1977 graduate and a ranking Korean American in the Clinton administration.

In 1973, three years after moving from Seoul to Los Angeles, Chung was accepted at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. After visiting the three, he told his father, a former teacher then struggling as a Watts grocer, that his choice was Princeton.

“What are you talking about?” his father fumed. “You are going to Harvard.”

That fascination with Harvard has helped to spawn a lucrative industry in Southern California, home to the largest number of Koreans outside Asia. A desire for not just Harvard, but Yale and Princeton (in that order) feeds demand for Korean-run cram schools that claim to help students improve their test scores. Families spend thousands of dollars for tutors and SAT classes.

One such school, Harvard-Excel in Koreatown with branches in Bakersfield and Irvine, appeals to immigrant parents in newspaper ads: “Make your hardships in America worthwhile through your children’s success. Invest in your children’s education.”

Another beckons with a full-page newspaper ad featuring a Harvard gate, complete with the school’s veritas crest.

Some parents will go to great lengths to try to get their children accepted. One mother moved from Illinois to Massachusetts and lived apart from her husband while her son attended prep school. Another lived on her son’s schedule, staying up late while he studied during his last two years at a Hollywood high school to give him snacks and lend moral support.

The boy from Illinois made it to Harvard, but the student from Hollywood ended up at UC Berkeley.

A few indulgent parents promise lavish rewards--a BMW being top prize--for a Harvard recruit. A few parents even name their sons Harvard and Yale for what they hope will be a psychological edge.

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Harvard is a top choice of many Asian Americans. Although they represent less than 4% of the nation’s population, they make up 19% of Harvard College’s students and 12% of those attending Harvard Law School.

But Korean Americans appear to outdo other Asian Americans when it comes to the single-minded focus on academic achievement, educators say.

“We deal with other [ethnic] groups, [but] not all of them put the same kind of value on Harvard that Korean Americans seem to,” said Don T. Nakanishi, director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA. A Japanese American, he earned his undergraduate degree at Yale and a master’s and doctorate at Harvard.

There are more Korean Americans per capita at Harvard than any other Asian ethnic group. Even though Chinese outnumber Koreans 2 to 1 nationwide, at Harvard College their numbers are about equal, according to sophomore Sharon Gi, president of the Asian American Assn.

Harvard does not keep statistics on ethnic sub-groups. But student organizations, such as the Asian American Assn., the largest pan-Asian group on the campus, maintain their own computerized records.

All Harvard College spokesman Alex Huppe would say about the Korean fervor was:

“It’s true for all groups. People who prize excellence and who are serious about their academic careers value Harvard.”

At Harvard Law School, Koreans made history in 1990, when they made up 5% of the Class of 1993 and 50% of the total Asian enrollment. Not surprisingly, Kim was the most common surname at the law school that year.

The Korean American affinity for Harvard stems from the Confucian emphasis on learning and the role of the family in educating their young.

Also, in the Korean culture, next to giving birth to a son, one of the most important duties of a mother is directing her children’s education, said Young Pai, former dean of the School of Education at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.

“Without a doubt, Korean parents represent the extreme,” said Edward T. Chang, assistant professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside.

“They think they have to push their children as you would in Korea,” said Chang, 40, who still shudders when he recalls his grueling high school study regimen in South Korea that kept him in school from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day except Sunday.

Admission to Harvard is seen as a Korean American version of passing the official government examination of ancient Korea, called gwaguh gupjae, said Charles J. Kim, head of the Korean American Coalition.

The class system in old Korea was excruciating. But there was one way to beat it. Even an impoverished farmer’s son could aspire to be powerful and prosperous if he could pass the competitive gwaguh gupjae--so difficult that people compared it to catching a star.

This mind-set, transplanted in the United States, translates into unrelenting pressure for children.

Some theorize that Harvard also may have earned a special niche in the Korean culture because Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea, earned a master’s degree there in 1908 when he was in exile in the United States during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea.

So precious and mystical was a Harvard degree that its holders enjoyed elevated status in a society where education is tantamount to a national religion.

The school of choice in South Korea is Seoul National University, followed by Yonsei and Korea universities. To add the coveted “K-S Mark” after your name requires attendance at both Kyunggi High School and Seoul National University.

In America, many Korean immigrants see a Harvard degree not merely as a foundation for their children’s future but a badge of honor that gives them enviable standing among their peers.

They may speak Konglish (a mixture of English and Korean) and sell groceries, pump gas or sew dresses for a living, but the dream that their children will speak flawless English, attend one of America’s best universities, and become respected professionals propels them to work seven days a week come what may, and push their children to excel.

Some criticize the pursuit of prestige as an ego-driven and distorted priority that stunts the psychological growth of the young as well as the progress of the community.

“I am really concerned what this kind of thinking does to children who are not at the top,” Pai said. “I wonder how many youngsters don’t even go to college because they’ve been told ‘Either go to Harvard, Yale or maybe, Stanford . . . or don’t go to college at all.’ ”

Pai says parental focus on academic achievement ignores a tremendous range of children and their abilities. (He said the issue even caught the attention of former Harvard President Derek Bok, who noted in an academic journal that Korean students at Harvard tend to concentrate on academic studies at the expense of social and political activities.)

Still, the Harvard mystique penetrates so deep that in churches and Korean school alumni gatherings--the two main social outlets for immigrants--conversations often turn to education.

Parents with a son or a daughter in Cambridge, Mass., are to be envied and admired. But pity those with children in “no-name” schools.

*

That theme was explored in a skit performed by members of Americorps’ Koreatown Cluster, President Clinton’s domestic Peace Corps, at the Korean American Museum in Koreatown:

It’s late evening and a Korean American mother waits anxiously for her son to come home from orchestra rehearsal. She rushes to greet him with a plate of fresh fruit, and urges him to go to his room and study.

Son: I’m tired, Mom. I want to go to bed.

Mother: But, you have a physics test day after tomorrow.

Son: Mom, I got all A’s so far. I’m No. 3 in my class.

Mother: If you study harder, you can get all A+s and become No. 1. As long as you’re No. 3, you’ll only make it to USC.

Son: USC is a good school. You’ve been listening to your busybody, know-nothing friends again.

Mother: I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Do you think we’re spending all this money for your SAT classes to see you go to USC?

Frowning, the boy heads for his room to study and exasperated, the mother worries aloud:

Doesn’t he realize that even if he were the best student in the school, there is no assurance that he’ll get into Harvard. At this rate, he won’t even make it to Berkeley.

An immigrant father, whose son provided the idea for the skit, complained that Korean American youngsters expect too much from their parents.

“They want their parents to make money, Americanize at the same time and be understanding, too,” said Myung-Yul La, a Koreatown writer. “They don’t know how hard it is to acculturate when you come here in your middle years.”

But Hyun S. Lee, a Van Nuys mother of three, said the skit was a good reminder. “I don’t think I push my children too much, but they must think that I do.”

“Some of it is our own vanity and pride--parents comparing each other’s children,” said Young-Sook Shon, a mother of two from La Canada.

While each parent reacted differently to the parody, they agreed on the precariousness they feel about being first-generation parents.

Communication is difficult because they lack a common language with which they and their children can express themselves fluently.

Parents feel alienated from the mainstream and their children because of language and culture.

“Sometimes I wish there was a simultaneous interpreter when I talk to my children,” Shon said.

Children, too, say they feel estranged from their families and the American mainstream culture because they must embrace both.

UCLA law professor Jerry Kang, who earned both his undergraduate and law degrees at Harvard, walked an arduous road to get there.

Since he was 6, when his family moved to Chicago from Seoul, his mother prodded him. “My parents told us they came to the United States for their children’s education,” said Kang, who at 28 is a rising star of the UCLA law faculty.

Watching his parents toil in menial work, struggling with a new language and culture, the boy internalized their hardships.

“The only way I could pay them back was to do well in school,” Kang said. “A lot of families drop in social status when they come to the United States. So they use their children to reclaim it: ‘This is my little warrior. He won the competition. He is at Harvard.’ ”

While the pressure for academic achievement in most Korean homes is too much, it’s understandable, too, Kang says. “They know that for Asian Americans here, you survive by hitting the books.”

“When I made Harvard Law Review, my parents had no clue what it was,” said Kang. He tried to explain but his “fourth-grade Korean” was too limited.

“They were happy that this is good news. It gives them the sort of fulfillment few other things can give. There is this huge rift between what I do in my life and what they do,” he said.

Gi, the Harvard sophomore, says she began SAT classes in the ninth grade. “It was painful,” she said. But now Gi is thankful; if not for the discipline required of her, she wonders where she would be.

*

Korean immigrants’ emphasis on Harvard can be a symptom of cultural misunderstanding and inability to communicate between Korean-speaking parents and their English-speaking progeny, educators say.

“So many first-generation parents give up their own life when they immigrated,” said Edward Chang. “They want their children to attain whatever they couldn’t achieve.”

Harvard symbolizes that achievement, viewed from the Korean model of success, he and other educators said.

“A Harvard degree brings fame not just to the individual who earned it but to the entire family,” Chang said. Whether looking for a job or making a marriage proposal, it is a persuasive factor, he said.

“But Harvard doesn’t guarantee success in anything,” Chang said.

Because immigrant parents and American-born or reared children operate on two different standards, they cannot overcome the barrier between them.

“I’ve seen many graduates, who can’t get into the [American] mainstream, so they return to Koreatown and run SAT prep schools,” Chang said. “Isn’t that ironic?”

John J. Chung, a 1985 Harvard Law graduate and a partner in the Century City law firm of Katten, Muchin & Zavis, says the school should be kept in perspective.

“While Harvard may be an admirable goal for some people, it shouldn’t be the be-all or end-all of anyone’s pursuits,” he said.

“There are lots of ways for people to define success for themselves.”


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