Date of Degree

9-2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Psychology

Advisor

Deborah L. Vietze

Committee Members

Louise Hainline

Bruce Homer

Keywords

identity, ethnic identity, social identity, identity development, life story analysis

Abstract

Despite the increasing number of Korean immigrants and children of Korean parents in the United States, there has been a dearth of research on these youth. The identity of Korean American youth has gained even less attention despite of its developmental importance. This research started from a recognition that the identity of Korean American youth has never been studied through their life stories. Thus, the goal of this research was to understand the identity of Korean youth in New York City through their life stories. I investigated how their life stories developed and what influences affected their identities while growing up as Korean Americans by employing McAdams’ life story model. By doing so, I expected to better understand the meanings of their lives and how they are related to their identity development.

This study employed a qualitative methodology to examine participants’ subjective life experiences in the United States and the development of their identity in the process. I used McAdams’ life story model with its analytic schemes. Ethnographic techniques were also used in interviews and analyses to interpret the participants’ explicit and implicit expressions of Korean-ness. Because the purpose of this study was to explore the identity of Korean American young adults through their life experiences in the United States, ten second-generation Koreans in their late teens to twenties were recruited for the study. A primary focus was on the development of identity.

To explore the identity of the ten Korean youth I had four overarching research questions: (1) What do individual life stories of Korean youth in New York City tell us about their identity; (2) How do their perceptions of ethnic identity relate to their life stories; (3) What are the meanings of “being a Korean” or “Korean-ness” in their everyday discourses; and (4) How do Koreans in the U.S. use societal images of Koreans to describe their life stories and those of Korean friends?

The ten Korean youth interviews generated over 250 pages of transcripts, which were analyzed using the eight coding categories. The eight categories are: (1) theme of agency and communion; (2) two types of identity discourses; (3) neighborhood and cultural adaptation; (4) family relations and experiences; (5) friends, school, and Korean church network; (6) ethnic behaviors and practices; (7) changes in identity perception: Korean or American or both; and (8) prejudices and discrimination.

The study findings revealed that the Korean youth’s awareness of Korean heritage occurred in facing many different life experiences. Parents, family, friends, school, church, and the Korean community in New York were all important contexts for the youth’s realization of their Korean-ness. Images of Koreans specifically and Asians in general influenced their awareness of Korean and Asian identity. The youth confronted racism, which along with American stereotypes and prejudices towards them raised their awareness of Korean and Asian identity. While a few youth perceived their Korean heritage would be hurdles to successful American lives, each realized that they had better embrace their Korean and American sides because their Korean heritage was undeniable.

Although living between Korean and American life may on occasion be tough, the majority of the Korean youth felt comfortable accepting both Korean- and American-ness. They reported having made efforts to choose career paths to enhance their and their families’ lives. The life stories of the Korean youth, indeed, showed who they were and how they have been living in the United States. Thus, the identity of the Korean youth developed as their life stories were being written.

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