Rethinking an emphasis on achievement

Times Staff Writer

Edward Chang is a respected Korean American scholar of ethnic studies with a doctorate from UC Berkeley, known both in Los Angeles and Seoul.

His daughter, Angie, is an honors student and speaks and writes Korean fluently. But in the eyes of some Korean immigrants, he’s a failure as a father.

“Other parents told me I am not a good parent -- many, many times,” said Chang, 51. His perceived sin: not putting his daughter through a regimen of cram school and tutoring aimed at gaining admission to a prestigious university.

But in two decades of teaching, Chang said he has seen too many kids become withdrawn or depressed because they could not meet their parents’ lofty expectations.


“You have to be in the top 10 percentile to get into UC Riverside, but so many of my students feel like they’re rejects and failures,” he said.

Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside, is among a small number of Korean Americans asking if the community’s commitment to education -- the key to its economic rise -- is also exacting a punishing cost, particularly on the young.

A series of tragedies over the last two years prompted some of this soul-searching. On April 2, 2006, a Los Angeles garment district businessman, distraught about his failed business and marriage, set fire to his sport utility vehicle with his two children and himself inside. He survived, but the children died.

That same month, another financially struggling Korean immigrant fatally shot his son and wife before killing himself. A daughter, also shot, survived.


Then this spring, Seung-hui Cho, 23, went on a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, killing 32 students and faculty members. Also this spring came what many in the Korean community considered embarrassing news: 18-year-old Azia Kim of Fullerton, who was not admitted to Stanford University, posed as a freshman there, even living in dorms for months.

Though no one knows what caused Cho’s and Kim’s actions, many Korean Americans -- in conversations, articles and sermons -- asked if they had cracked under the pressure to impress. But raising the topic in some quarters isn’t easy.

Last summer Chang tried to tackle the subject with 30 high school students who gathered inside the Korean Education Center in Koreatown to attend a week of lectures on leadership and identity.

He opened with a PowerPoint presentation on Virginia Tech and invited the students to share their thoughts. No one spoke.

Chang tried specific questions. Did the gunman’s ethnicity matter? What was your gut reaction?

Again, no response.

“Don’t be afraid to speak up,” Chang said, but to no avail.

“If you are passive,” he continued, “getting A’s doesn’t mean anything.” What matters is articulating thoughts, taking the risk to communicate them, he said. “Silence is not a virtue.”


Still, hardly any response -- at least not in front of Chang. He had an explanation for their reticence.

“It’s your Confucian upbringing,” he said.

Twenty-five centuries separate those students from Confucius, but experts on Korean culture say the Chinese sage’s teaching on social hierarchy and proper conduct is so ingrained in the Korean psyche that it’s second nature even to many American-born youngsters.

In the context of the classroom, the teacher -- a “high person” -- speaks while the student, relegated to a “low-person” status, pays attention.

“Being Korean, I sit there and listen,” agreed Los Angeles-born Sam Lee, a junior at Notre Dame Academy in Culver City, after the lecture. “That might also be the case with other kids.”

In the Korean peninsula, a form of Confucius’ teachings known as Neo-Confucianism became the state religion for 500 years during the Yi Dynasty, which ruled from 1392 to 1910, when the Korean peninsula was annexed by Japan.

That legacy has been most pronounced in education -- the fervor with which Koreans on both sides of the Pacific Ocean approach it, said Pyong Yong Min, president of the Korean American Foundation. Under the Confucian system, a person could rise above their social class by succeeding on government examinations.

That kind of thinking still prevails. Many Koreans believe that “when you get a degree from a top school, you get a good job, people treat you well and you’re on the right course for life,” said Ky Chueon Kim, a professor emeritus of Nambu University in South Korea.


For Korean women, whether in Los Angeles or Seoul, making sure their progeny get into an elite university is their most important charge with perhaps one exception -- bearing a male heir to carry on the family name.

“It’s in the Korean DNA,” said the Rev. Jung-Nam Lee, a retired American Baptist pastor in Los Angeles who has counseled many immigrants parents about their children’s education. “They can’t help themselves.”

“It’s so stressful,” said Notre Dame’s Lee, whose family wants her to pursue medicine. “Sometimes, it’s hard being” a Korean kid.

But no matter how much stress she and her peers feel here, they’re used to hearing their elders say they have it easy compared with their cousins in South Korea. Education there is so excruciating that Koreans even have a special term -- gosam byung -- meaning “high school senior’s illness.”

On the day 700,000 South Korean seniors take the competitive college entrance exam, airplanes are forbidden to fly near test sites in Seoul, lest the noise disturb their concentration.

But what about the children who don’t succeed, especially those in the United States?

Suzie K. Oh, principal at Third Street Elementary School in Hancock Park where 50% of the students are Korean, calls Korean youngsters who don’t get straight A’s “quiet sufferers.”

“They may look OK on the outside, but they are suffering on the inside,” she said.

Clinical psychologist Beatrice Choi, who practices in the San Francisco Bay Area and has counseled many broken youngsters, agrees.

She recently worked with a teenage girl who had been a “perfect kid” until her older sister got into an Ivy League school. Choi said the girl’s sudden rebellion against her parents stemmed from her sense of not living up to their expectations. She even tried to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of pills.

“If you don’t succeed in your parents’ eyes, no matter how successful you become in the eyes of others, you feel unfulfilled,” Choi said.

Johng Ho Song recalls how, years ago, he told his father that he was accepted at UCLA. Korean news media regularly feature stories on student superstars, and Song’s father pointed to an article in a Korean newspaper, saying, “Here’s a story about a kid who’s been accepted at Harvard.”

Now that Song is executive director of Koreatown Youth and Community Center -- and thus is a person with standing in the community -- UCLA is no longer an issue with his father. Indeed, some Korean parents no longer consider UCLA and UC Berkeley as “consolation prizes” because of the increasingly stiff competition.

But the push for the Ivy League remains intense -- as does the emphasis on studies that parents believe will provide financial security, such as medicine. That’s the finding of Karen Pyke, an associate professor of sociology at UC Riverside, who interviewed more than 400 Korean and Vietnamese children of immigrants for her forthcoming book, “Hidden Injuries of Racism.”

Pyke recalls students who took science courses instead of following their interests, only to switch majors after failing.

“I will see many of them come over to sociology and then discuss with me, ‘How am I going to explain this to my parents?’ ” Pyke said.

But some parents and children have learned to compromise. Consider Tim Chin, 22, and his mother, Joanne.

Monday through Friday, after school, Chin went to an SAT prep school, took tennis, art, piano and violin lessons and over the years played in several youth orchestras. On Saturday mornings, he attended a private academy to learn Korean history, culture and language.

“It was stressful,” he recalled. “I didn’t like doing all that.”

His mother, a daughter of an internist, thought her son would make a good pediatrician or a veterinarian because he loved children and animals.

But math was not Chin’s strong subject. Then, in his junior year of high school, after his parents bought him a car, his grade point average slipped.

Chin and his mother had some big blowups over his grades. He settled on UC Riverside.

“It’s still in the UC system,” his parents consoled him.

Looking back, Chin’s mother says she pushed her son too hard.

“I have repented before the Lord about that,” she said. “Tim was a gift from God. I should’ve looked for his talents instead of trying to make him do what I wanted for him.”

Chin, who said he always understood that his parents meant well, majored in economics and completed his studies last summer.

“I wish I can pay my parents back,” he said. Chin now hopes to pursue a career in law enforcement with the Los Angeles Police Department or California Highway Patrol.