A new look at the second-generation Korean American and Canadian experience


Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in another small conference similar to the JSPS back in January. While the JSPS showcased the latest scientific discoveries by alums of the program, this was a more focused conference on a very particular population: second-generation Korean Americans (SGKAs).

For the Korean American community, now numbering 1.3 million, the experience in the US remains a largely new one to some extent. Census reports suggest that nearly 80% of Korean Americans are foreign-born. This figure is somewhat misleading however since it bundles together anyone who was born outside the US into a single category. Scholars of immigration however point out that there’s a big difference between arriving in the US prior to age 12 and arriving when one is a good bit older. The latter group is described as the “1.5 generation” and some scholars, including me, argue that the 1.5 are somewhat similar to the 2nd generation in that both groups were socialized in the US from their most formative years.

What’s particularly important about the second-generation is that they are the first in their families to experience America as their native home; while their parents’ memories of their youth originate in other countries, the second generation will recall growing up in a neighborhood in Los Angeles, Queens, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Second, since most of today’s immigrants appear racially non-white (given their countries of origin), the experiences of the second-generation also entails a minority identity in the conventional sense. How then will these new native-born (or US-raised) minority populations adapt to their surroundings and how will their context respond to their growing presence? Since the story of today’s second-generation begins roughly around 1965, some of the oldest in this cohort are now in their 40s and 50s. With access to survey and interview data, we can learn whether older SGKAs are adapting as well as their other native-born peers.

Conferences about SGKAs then are one example of how some scholars are providing glimpses into this new class of American. Particularly illuminating for me was the inclusion of Korean-Canadian research; it was an important reminder that while the US is still the most preferred destination for immigrants, it is not the only destination for the millions of people who leave their place of origin for better opportunities. Indeed owing to the relatively small size of SGKAs, it makes sense to collaborate and share knowledge across borders. It bears noting too that such conferences are the result of excellent collaboration (Drs. Pyong Gap Min and Samuel Noh were pivotal in this instance), generous support from concerned community members, and judicious use of limited resources.

The conference covered numerous topics which I summarized into four groups (based largely on my notes and memory – apologies to anyone I may have missed or misrepresented).

Social mobility: perhaps one of the central questions about SGKAs is whether the America pathway to upward mobility is realized for the children of Korean immigrants who risked their opportunities in their homeland for a potentially better opportunity here. To that end, Drs. ChangHwan Kim (University of Kansas), Chigon Kim (Wright State U.), Ann Kim (York University), Sou Hyun Jang (CUNY Graduate Center), and Pyong Gap Min (Queens College, CUNY Graduate Center) have investigated SGKAs:

-socioeconomic attainment

-bilingualism as a socioeconomic (dis)advantage

-entrepreneurship and socioeconomic mobility in Canada,

-ethnic and racial concentrations in STEM majors and employment sectors    


Mental health and identity: a lot of studies are now finding unique differences between members of different ethnic and racial groups on physical and mental health outcomes. A growing literature has looked into mental health of various Asian Americans and Asian Canadians, Koreans being one such ethnic subgroup. Drs. Il-Ho Kim (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), Samuel Noh (U. of Toronto, CAMH), Neha Ahmed (U. of Toronto), Marianne Noh (U. Western Ontario), and Nam Soon Song (U. of Toronto) covered:

-Discrimination and mental health

-Identity as a moderator of stress

-Identity formation differences in the US and Canada

-Religious community participation and ethnic identity


Family dynamics: much of the mainstream conversation on Asian Americans focuses on family dynamics as a means of explaining the perceived greater educational and socioeconomic advantages of this racialized collection of ethnic groups. Scholars like Drs. Angie Chung (U. Albany-SUNY) and Miliann Kang (U. Massachusetts-Amherst) have called these perceptions into question in their studies of:

-Gender, birth order, identity and family responsibilities

-Second-generation Korean parenting and stereotypes

These studies are particularly interesting since their interviewees are adult Korean Americans who can articulate their experience growing up in households that supposedly are ultra-disciplined and competitive. How do they interpret their experiences and what do they do when raising their own children?

Social integration: finally, another important avenue of research looks at the degree to which SGKAs and other SG Asian Americans are integrating with society’s main civic and political institutions as well informal relationships. Drs. Dae Young Kim (George Mason U.), Sook Hee Oh (U. of Missouri-Kansas City), and myself fit into this area with the following presentations:

-Racial othering

-Asian ethnic differences in political participation

-Ethnic and religious identity retention, endogamy and group insularity


One guest presentation further stretched my knowledge of the changes taking place in Korea. Dr. Sung Kil Min (Yonsei U.) presented his recent work on foreign-born immigrants in Korea. Migration then is not only North American, it is truly becoming more global as countries like South Korea and Japan bring in non-native workers into their industries and businesses.

Since most of my research interests are in the worlds of racial minorities, this conference was admittedly one of the most refreshing intellectually. It’s interesting how different the dynamics are in such a setting where everyone understands some of the basic assumptions of racial and minority difference. More precise questions come up that push our thinking and hopefully engender better research that reaches large academic audiences and the greater public. While our society tends to lump all Asian groups together, better studies like these are helping to point out that only some characteristics are similar across groups, while many other characteristics are quite unique to each group. For those with ties to a Korean community, be on the lookout for these studies and the scholarly investigators who aim to make their research practical and worthy of consideration.

Since Waco is often lacking in culinary variety, here’s a gratuitous pic of some of the great food in Queens NYC. As a parting comment, I’m grateful to Dr. Min, Dr. Noh and their respective research organizations for including me in this gathering.

Edit 4/12:13 (1:52pm): click here for another short summary of the conference 


Revisiting Catholicism in Asia

In a recent post I shared some of the recent statistics reported by the New York Times regarding the change in the Catholic population around the world. Through the friendly comments I received from Dr. Conrad Hackett of the Pew Research Center and a couple other sociologists, I learned that Pew has their own statistics on the global Catholic population. This got to me as I discovered that the numbers I used to create my graphs were largely taken from the New York Times article, which I learned do not rely on the Pew numbers. So how different are they and what does that tell us?

By sheer population size Filipinos dominate, and the NYT and Pew numbers confirm this even though they vary by up to 4 million. The rates for Japanese and Vietnamese Catholics is also fairly similar. The big differences where the NYT shows the higher estimate are China (15 million vs. 9 million from the Pew data), and India (19 million vs. 10.6 million). Pew estimates a higher percentage of Korean Catholics (5 million vs. 1.4 million from the NYT data). What this suggests then is that using the Pew data, Korean and Vietnamese Catholic populations are essentially equal in size whereas the NYT data suggests that Korean Catholics are the smaller sibling to their Vietnamese brethren. And if the nationality of an Asian Pope were chosen based on population, the Pew data suggests that (besides the Philippines of course) it would be a toss-up between China and India, followed by a toss-up between Korea and Vietnam. Based on the NYT data, the Asian Pope would likely originate from the Philippines, followed by India, then China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.

While knowing the raw estimates is interesting, the reference point for those estimates illuminates different impressions. What do we learn when we take the estimates of the Catholic population in each nation relative to that nation’s overall population. In other words, how Catholic are some of these countries in Asian? As a percentage of Catholics per nation, clearly Filipinos dominate as usual, no surprises there. The big difference is between Vietnam and South Korea: based on the NYT data, Vietnam has the higher percentage of its population Catholic at 6%. This is slightly lower than the Pew estimate. But Pew’s figure for Korean Catholics is way higher than the NYT figures (11% vs. 3% of the population) and thus takes the (distant) second place position. To learn more about the proportion of Catholics in different Asian countries, go to this link to a cool interactive map of Christianity in Asia.

Finally, rather than calculating the percentage of Catholics in a nation, the raw estimate of the population of Catholics can be used to compare it with all Catholics in the Asia Pacific region. I illustrated this using the NYT data in the previous post, and I now show it side-by-side with the Pew version. I thought this was interesting to observe because the number of Catholics per nation tells us different things based on our reference point. The 76 million Filipino Catholics (according to the Pew data) make up 81% of all Filipinos, but only 58% of all Asian Catholics. It’s still clearly the lion’s share and it’s particularly notable given that when we’re talking about all Catholics in Asia, we’re including millions of believers from China and India. Despite being a much less populous nation than these two giants, Filipino Catholics are still the majority. The Filipino percentage of Asian Catholics is a bit smaller using the NYT data, at 53%. The rank ordering is pretty much the same for China, India, and Japan’s Catholics (second, third and sixth place respectively). The difference between the two figures shows up most for the Korean and Vietnamese Catholics. Pew again suggests that the share of all Asian Catholics that are from these two countries is about the same (4% for Korea and 4.3% for Vietnam), while the NYT data places Vietnamese Catholics as clearly a larger presence among Asian Catholics (6% vs. 3% for Korean Catholics).

While the big picture hasn’t changed, new sources of data allow us to get a fuller picture of the growing presence of Catholicism in Asia. The quality difference in that data might shift the picture to some degree, but given the fairly close approximations on most of the figures from the NYT and Pew, these appear to be relatively reliable. The consistency of Pew’s track record in getting the best data (oftentimes collecting it themselves which is no small feat) has me leaning more in favor of their sources rather than the NYT. Other observations welcome!


Asian and Asian American Catholicism

It’s no surprise that part of my interest in sociology is autobiographical, and this week’s selection of a new pope brought me back to some of my own history with the Catholic Church. One of my most recent cultural encounters with Catholicism was at my father’s funeral. While he was not a religious person for most of his life (according to his friend) the last decade or so included weekly attendance at St. Basil’s with one of his siblings and his family.   

St. Basil’s is one of the main Catholic churches for Los Angelenos and is well-positioned for walking from Koreatown. During my two days there, I witnessed specific Korean prayers and even modes of prayer that I had not seen in my years growing up in mixed-ethnic Catholic churches in New Jersey and Philadelphia. Three years later, I’m reminded of how significant Catholicism is for many Korean immigrants and many Koreans.

The Korean Catholic population as with many Asian Catholics is quite large but not nearly as large as that of Latin America and Europe. According to this infographic from the New York Times, 483 million of the world’s Catholics are Latin American (from Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean) constituting a 41% share of the world’s Catholic population. There are more Catholics in Latin America than there are people in the United States. Europe has a 24% share and no other continent is larger than 15% share from there. It’s sensible then that the first non-European pope would come from Latin America. And it’s perhaps shrewd decision-making that the Argentinian pope is the child of Italian immigrants. Interestingly, if you take the figures from the NYT for the specific nations with Catholic populations exceeding 10 million, Brazil is the giant. At 150 million Catholics, they take up 31% of all Catholics in Latin America and 13% of all Catholics in the world. No other nation has a 6% share of the world population (the US and the Philippines hold this distinction).

Given my interest in Asian America, I immediately wanted to know more about the Asian scene of Catholicism and its possible relevance to US Asian Catholics. I didn’t have time to find every Catholic figure for the same year in every Asian country, so I focused only on the top 6 countries that have been sending immigrants to the US since 1965: China, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. This is a graph I made of the Catholic distribution across these nations, with an additional placeholder for all other Asian Catholics that are not from the aforementioned nations:


The main 6 countries add up to more than 2.8 billion people in 2010 including the two most populous countries, China and India. Given their size even the small percentage that claim to be Catholic is quite large with 15 million in China (1.2% of the population) and 19 million (1.6%) in India. To put this in perspective, there are about as many Catholics in China compared to Canada, and more than in Angola, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Tanzania, and Uganda. From a US perspective there are only 3 states with populations that are larger than the Catholic populations of China and India: California, New York, Texas. Of the remaining Asian nations, the Catholic giant in Asia is the Philippines at 72 million and this constitutes about 78% of that nation’s population, and 53% of all Asian Catholics. Vietnam and Korea have a 6 and 3 percent share of Catholics in their nations respectively and slightly more than 500,000 Catholics reside in Japan (a 0.4% share of all Asian Catholics). Here are two images, one is a photo I took while traveling in Seoul of a Korean Mary and Jesus, and the other is a Vietnamese Mary and Jesus.













When we turn to the American scene, Pew’s recent survey of Asian Americans provides some new estimates on the population of Catholics. These estimates are conservative as they reflect the largest six groups in the US who together form about 85% of all Asian Americans. Of  the 15 million Asian Americans in these groups, about 3.4 million identify as Catholic, or about 22% of all Asian Americans. This is slightly higher than the Pew number since we’re only looking at the largest six groups. Unlike their counterparts in Asia, the size of different Asian American Catholics varies considerably. Filipino American Catholics clearly dominate Asian American Catholicism at 65%. But Vietnamese American Catholics take up a 15% share of Asian American Catholics making them the second largest in the US (while their counterparts overseas are ranked #4). Chinese American Catholics mirror their peers in People’s Republic at rank 3 while Koreans climb up to 4th place, or 5% of Catholic Asian America. Indian Catholics retreat to 5th place compared to their counterparts in India at 2nd place. Japanese American Catholics numbering at less than 53,000 is similar to their counterparts in the last position among the top six groups.


Encountering Asian American Catholics is somewhat of a rarity given these figures, and their practices vary based on the heritage they retain from the countries that many of the immigrants bring with them. Whether it is transmitted effectively to the next generation remains to be seen. One of the practices that interests sociologists is that of civic engagement. To what extent are Asian American Catholics participating in American civil society and within ethnic or Catholic communities? A few studies have emerged on the remittances sent by Filipino Catholics, as well as the larger scope of Asian American Catholic voluntarism relative to other religious groups (a couple of these were studies conducted by me and sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund). These studies suggest that Asian American Catholics are similarly active in civic activities whether religious or secular, and in some instances financial support across the Pacific flows through religious networks. Ties between Catholic and non-Catholic local communities as well as transnational ties between US and non-US Catholic communities continue a pattern we have seen historically in the American Catholic experience. While travel and communication technology have allowed many of these ties to be stronger or more efficient, the ethos remains the same. The difference appears to be the source of Catholic migration which is much more Latin American and steadily Asian as well.

Edit 3/18/13: figures taken largely from New York Times and Pew Research Center surveys

Edit 3/20/13: Readers should note that these figures do not indicate the proportion of Catholics per Asian nation or Asian American ethnic group; they reflect fractions of the total population of Catholics in Asia or Asian America. For example, 53% of all Catholics in Asia are from the Philippines.

In editing the pie graphs I discovered some important discrepancies in the numbers reported by the New York Times and the Pew Research Centers. Stay tuned for a post that reveals differences in the portrait of Catholic diversity based on different sets of data.

The Three Segregations and Asian America

A recurring conversation in sociology is that of segregation. While we are decades away from Jim Crow, the weight of the evidence since the 1980s is that while our population is diversifying, we’re not necessarily content with living alongside those who appear different from us. In most of the research to date, segregation has often inferred race as the main marker of difference. But a few years ago, new research was emerging that suggested income was now gaining in prominence. With the availability of a new interactive online tool, we’re able to see how income segregation appears today. Here’s a screenshot of the Chicago area based on the website, richblockspoorblocks.com (Read on to see why I chose Chicago for this example):

Using income alone, we see a pattern familiar to those who understand racial segregation. The more urbanized areas of Chicago have concentrated poverty whereas the outlying areas generally show significantly higher income levels. Substitute low income with racial minority status and the picture looks very similar. So which one is it, racial segregation or income segregation? This is the big debate. Recently published research by sociologist Lincoln Quillian provides a new perspective that essentially shows us that it’s both.

Back in 1993 a landmark book, American Apartheid,

revealed the persistence of racial segregation and its effects on minority populations. Racial residential segregation places minorities in concentrated environments of poverty which are linked to higher criminal activity, violence, and poorer schools (not to mention inadequate access to good health care, and nutritious food). As Quillian summarizes, “Massey’s (1990) core point [is] that segregation and minority poverty rates interact, or intensify in combination, to produce concentrated poverty” (p.355). This point is more formally defined as two processes: racial segregation and class segregation within race. Look again at the map of Chicago and you can almost see this argument; if greater income is coupled with white racial status, then the higher income levels tend to be more white. Within the poorer census tracts, so the argument goes, there will be segregation between poorer minorities and richer minorities. But Quillian’s study, which uses Chicago census tracts as his main example, goes one step further and provides the missing methodological key to Massey’s study: “the segregation of high- and middle-income members of other racial groups from blacks and Hispanics” (355). Stated differently, to understand how concentrated urban poverty and racial segregation work, we have to account for the difference in poverty rates between the different racial groups. It’s not only that whites and blacks are segregated, nor that richer blacks are slightly segregated from poorer blacks. It is also that whites have much less poverty as well. Since white poverty rates are much lower than blacks, neighborhoods with middle-class blacks are more likely to have poorer neighbors (regardless of race) than if the neighborhood was middle-class and white. The “three segregations” serve to distance whites from blacks (and Hispanics) generally and conversely amplifies the combination of black segregation and black poverty. This is a powerful explanation. We learn from this study that the underlying logic of racial and class segregation still go together despite increasing diversity and calls for colorblindness (which presumes that race doesn’t matter in social and individual outcomes). The integration of nonwhites and whites is very selective and coupled with perceived class of racial minorities. [If readers can’t follow my explanation, here’s another summary of the study).

Given my interest in Asian Americans, I wondered how they fit in this equation. I’ll need to contact Dr. Quillian for the additional analyses he did that accounted for Asian Americans as a separate group (p.365), but I suspect that the other observations we know about this group will explain their role pretty quickly. We know that Asian American poverty is higher than the national average (see pp.34-35 on link to report) (according to the Census Bureau, Asian American poverty increased 46% between 2002 and 2010), while at the same time Asian American household incomes are quite high. This is because Asian Americans are a very diverse group and due to the specific kinds of migration patterns (high-skilled employment, political asylum etc.) some arrive with a lot of resources and others have very little. More than half of the Asian population is foreign-born so these factors still play a sizable role in their poverty or lack thereof. But Asian Americans are also fewer in number compared to other minorities and (this is the big one) they are not often embedded in concentrated communities whether rich or poor. The Chinatowns and Koreatown are still here but they don’t contain a large number of Asians (note that each of these enclaves is a specific ethnic group; “pan-Asian” enclaves don’t really exist) in part because there aren’t as many of them to begin with. So if I could guess, Asian American segregation is fairly rare and the coupling of concentrated poverty and racial segregation doesn’t result in the same amplified results we see for blacks and increasingly for some Hispanics.

As I reflect on it some more I also wonder if predominantly white neighborhoods will absorb Asians and more readily accept their presence as a symbolic gesture toward inclusivity, a means of justifying colorblindness. Given the high incomes of many Asian Americans this seems like a real possibility given the way the three segregations play out. Note that Quillian did not describe segregation from whites, but rather from “non-black neighbors” and I suspect this is because there are just enough Asian Americans in those neighborhoods that one cannot call these exclusively white neighborhoods.

But what about Asian and black residential integration? From a news piece that appeared yesterday, I’m intrigued at the possibility of what might happen in New York. Apparently Chinatown is too expensive for some Chinese to move in; these migrants need a more affordable place to live. Their next choice is east Harlem. Will entry into a predominantly black community perhaps reshape the segregation patterns we see (at least in this city), or will it reflect more of the same, only now including poor Asian Americans? Here’s a screenshot of the richblockpoorblocks site for Harlem: