The Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation

The Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation

by Nancy Abelmann
     
 

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The majority of the 30,000-plus undergraduates at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign—including the large population of Korean American students—come from nearby metropolitan Chicago. Among the campus’s largest non-white ethnicities, Korean American students arrive at college hoping to realize the liberal ideals of the modern American

Overview

The majority of the 30,000-plus undergraduates at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign—including the large population of Korean American students—come from nearby metropolitan Chicago. Among the campus’s largest non-white ethnicities, Korean American students arrive at college hoping to realize the liberal ideals of the modern American university, in which individuals can exit their comfort zones to realize their full potential regardless of race, nation, or religion. However, these ideals are compromised by their experiences of racial segregation and stereotypes, including images of instrumental striving that set Asian Americans apart. In The Intimate University, Nancy Abelmann explores the tensions between liberal ideals and the particularities of race, family, and community in the contemporary university.

Drawing on ten years of ethnographic research with Korean American students at the University of Illinois and closely following multiple generations of a single extended Korean American family in the Chicago metropolitan area, Abelmann investigates the complexity of racial politics at the American university today. Racially hyper-visible and invisible, Korean American students face particular challenges as they try to realize their college dreams against the subtle, day-to-day workings of race. They frequently encounter the accusation of racial self-segregation—a charge accentuated by the fact that many attend the same Evangelical Protestant church—even as they express the desire to distinguish themselves from their families and other Korean Americans. Abelmann concludes by examining the current state of the university, reflecting on how better to achieve the university’s liberal ideals despite its paradoxical celebration of diversity and relative silence on race.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Abelmann’s study is a layered work. Her research drills down into the layers of campus dynamics, student psychology and the cultural dissonance experienced by Korean Americas of the second generation.” - Bill Drucker, Korean Quarterly

“[T]he book captures an important segment of the continuously evolving story of racial diversity in higher education. It demonstrates how race does not
have to result in explicit racism to matter in students’ lives and that racial realities are much more complex. I hope that readers gain a fuller understanding of this subset of Asian American students, see parallels with other communities of color, and be challenged to reimagine liberal
education.” - Julie J. Park, Journal of Educational Research

“Abelmann presents compelling arguments regarding the experiences of Korean American students at university and how university rhetoric fails to manifest itself in the reality of acceptance of difference. . . . A volume to be applauded for its research, evidence driven conclusions and well considered arguments.” - Danielle Mulholland, M/C Reviews

“Nancy Abelmann’s ethnographic study of Korean American students attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign could not be more timely. . . . [R]efreshingly engaging and accessible. . .” - Min Hyoung Song, Journal of Asian Studies

The Intimate University is a work that will be one of the most valuable referents for anyone interested in, among other things, issues of migration; minorities and their segregation in the United States; the university as an institution; Korean American society; and multiculturalism and diversity.” - Okpyo Moon, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Intimate University tells an emotionally charged story of Korean American life on and off the campus of a large public research university in the American Midwest. It dispels the myths and stereotypes about Asian Americans through the different voices of college students and their relatives and through the author’s nuanced analysis and culturally sensitive interpretation.”—Min Zhou, author of Contemporary Chinese America

“Nancy Abelmann brings to light the oft-hidden maneuverings that Asian Americans have to perform in schools as students of color and, at the same time, students whose color ‘does not count’ by virtue of their alleged overrepresentation or overachievement. The Intimate University is an incisive and provocative account of university schooling as a site for navigating the intricacies and contradictions of race, immigration, community formation, and identity.”—Rick Bonus, author of Locating Filipino Americans

“Nancy Abelmann’s stunning portrait of Korean American university life will cause us to rethink our understanding of multiculturalism and diversity in the academy. This valuable and sobering account of one minority group’s experience also speaks more broadly to the intersection of race, religion, and identity, revealing the paradoxical notions on which American diversity is based. Don’t miss this book!”—Cathy Small, aka Rebekah Nathan, author of My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student

Okpyo Moon
The Intimate University is a work that will be one of the most valuable referents for anyone interested in, among other things, issues of migration; minorities and their segregation in the United States; the university as an institution; Korean American society; and multiculturalism and diversity.”
Julie J. Park
“[T]he book captures an important segment of the continuously evolving story of racial diversity in higher education. It demonstrates how race does not have to result in explicit racism to matter in students’ lives and that racial realities are much more complex. I hope that readers gain a fuller understanding of this subset of Asian American students, see parallels with other communities of color, and be challenged to reimagine liberal education.”
Danielle Mulholland
“Abelmann presents compelling arguments regarding the experiences of Korean American students at university and how university rhetoric fails to manifest itself in the reality of acceptance of difference. . . . A volume to be applauded for its research, evidence driven conclusions and well considered arguments.”
Bill Drucker
“Abelmann’s study is a layered work. Her research drills down into the layers of campus dynamics, student psychology and the cultural dissonance experienced by Korean Americas of the second generation.”
Min Hyoung Song
“Nancy Abelmann’s ethnographic study of Korean American students attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign could not be more timely. . . . [R]efreshingly engaging and accessible. . .”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780822391586
Publisher:
Duke University Press
Publication date:
10/30/2009
Series:
e-Duke books scholarly collection.
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
File size:
349 KB

Read an Excerpt

THE INTIMATE UNIVERSITY

KOREAN AMERICAN STUDENTS and the PROBLEMS of SEGREGATION
By Nancy Abelmann

DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4615-9


Chapter One

HERE AND THERE IN CHICAGOLAND KOREAN AMERICA

Jim struggled with the distance between his college ideals and his own college realities. Like so many Korean Americans at the the U of I, he worried about his increasingly ethnic social circle and normative career path, fretting that they impeded the liberal promise in which he would be "Jim for Jim." Jim had a palpable sense of a Korean American mainstream, a constellation of values and behaviors that he seemed to simultaneously claim, albeit with a sense of inevitability, and eschew. The mainstream that Korean American students at the U of I identified, although not with that word, refers to an ideal and upwardly mobile trajectory. While appreciating that this trajectory hardly represents a typical Korean American life or family course, I call it mainstream because so many of the students I spoke with believed that this was indeed how most Korean Americans lived and progressed. In this sense "mainstream" refers to the way in which certain life ideals operate as normative, hence calling attention to those whose lives diverge in some way. Further, this mainstream takes on particular life at the U of I, with its disproportionately suburban and middle-class Korean American population. Jim's perception of a Korean American mainstream had its own very particular geography, its "here" and "there" on the Chicagoland map. Indeed, a geographic here and there comprises a landscape of distinction from which many Korean Americans made their way to college.

Like all geographies, Chicagoland Korean America is more than a map of where people reside. Geographies are social maps detailing where people live, move, and make meaning. Chicagoland Korean Americans thus share ideas about, for example, what it is to live in one or another place, to have moved away from one or another place, to cross town on Sundays to attend one or another church or to visit with relatives. These mental maps provide a way to parse other people's lives and movements and also to put oneself on the map. This chapter introduces the ethnic geography of Chicagoland Korean America at the U of I to better appreciate the powerful image and coordinates of what I introduce as a Korean American mainstream as well as the ways Korean Americans render the considerable heterogeneity of their community. For Korean Americans, ethnic intimacy at the U of I begins in the mainstream and margins of this geography.

I begin with a brief overview of the social geography of Korean America at the U of I before moving on to illustrate that geography's mainstreams and margins through the narratives of four students: Lisa, a student who considered herself to be at the heart of the northern suburban scene (I dub this "being there"); Jane, a recent suburbanite who described what it is to move into the mainstream ("moving in"); Joe, a city guy who looked in on the mainstream ("looking in"); and Min, a recently immigrated city dweller who glanced nervously at the mainstream ("from afar"). I end with the university, with the specificity of the U of I in the Illinois geography of public higher education and in the Chicagoland Korean American mainstream.

In taking students' accounts seriously, I walk a fine line. On the one hand, I appreciate important divides in the Chicagoland Korean American social geography, foremost those of class, such as the very real differences between those students who never left the city and those who come from the suburbs. These are divides that make for real social groups. On the other hand, I also pay attention to how, like Jim, most students narrate their own life courses as singular, listening in, for example, to the ways even students whose social coordinates placed them squarely in the mainstream narrate their own distinctiveness. If this chapter convinces readers of the existence only of unique individuals I will not have done this geography justice. If, on the other hand, I reduce these students to stock figures representing their geographical nodes or networks, I will have done my research interlocutors, young people carving out distinctive lives, a disservice. I aim for a balance: a serious look at differences (e.g., of class and immigration history) and an appreciation of the still very real ways that people mark their own distinctiveness.

Early on in this research I analyzed the towns and high schools of all U of I students of Korean heritage (to the extent that I could determine this based on surnames, and in some cases first and middle names). From this I was able to discern, for example, the primary feeder schools for Korean Americans; I also compared this information with the same information for other Asian Americans and for the college population at large. All of the material in this book, however, emerges from open-ended, qualitative interviews and from some participant observation (i.e., hanging out) with families and student groups. The demographic analysis did, though, allow me to gauge aspects of students' perceptions against reality. What impressed me was how close students' subjective maps, as well as my own sense of aggregate geography on the basis of qualitative research, were to real geography. In this chapter I draw not only on the cluster of students I introduce but also on the immigration, residence, and schooling histories of over fifty Korean Americans I interviewed who I am confident represent the heterogeneity of Korean Americans at the U of I. Not represented in this book, however, is the experience of those Korean Americans hailing from downstate (i.e., not from Chicagoland). Theirs is a different experience indeed, as most of them arrive at college with very few or no ethnic colleagues from their high schools. Also not appearing in this book are the many students I interviewed from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and Oakland Community College, which serves those Chicago suburbs with the largest numbers of Korean Americans; while their demography is different (e.g., for UIC, more urban, working class, and recently immigrated), they share the same ideas of a Korean American mainstream or normative life from which they more easily diverge.

AT A GLANCE: KOREAN AMERICA AT THE U OF I

The vast majority of Korean Americans and Asian Americans in the United States are post-1965 immigrants; this is even more true in the Midwest, which had fewer earlier settlements of people of Asian ancestry. Thus in the post-Korean War period Asian American college students are increasingly foreign-born and first and second generation. The Korean American representation at the U of I echoes this profile; they are largely, although by no means uniformly, second-generation and early childhood immigrants, so-called 1.5ers, for being between first- and second-generation immigrants. The immigration and settlement patterns of Korean Americans in Chicagoland replicate the immigration histories of many groups; they have followed the geography of the laws that allowed their entrance, particularly occupational preferences in the immediate post-1965 period, and increasingly over time family reunification provisions (primarily parents and siblings). At a glance, pre-1965 Korean immigrants were bifurcated: they were either education elites or, more often, poor, rural-origin wives of U.S. servicemen. Post-1965 immigrants were disproportionately educated, city-residing, Christian, and professional. However, as the share of those emigrating for reasons of family reunification became greater, the Korean American immigration has become increasingly class variegated, representing a larger, although by no means representative, swath of the South Korean population. Nonetheless, Korean immigrants in the United States remain more economically privileged, better educated, more urban, and more often Christian than their South Korean counterparts. They have long arrived almost exclusively from cities and settled largely in cities, and have thereafter left cities for the suburbs. Noteworthy in recent years are the immigration (although small) directly from the South Korean countryside, as well as increasing settlement directly in the American suburbs, without an initial period of urban residence. In the late 1990s U of I Korean American students' settlement geography typically included an early childhood in the city (Chicago), sometimes in neighborhoods with a concentrated Korean population; in the early immigration years some coresidence with the young families of uncles and aunts, most often with one or more grandparents present, in single apartments, adjacent apartments, or split-level houses; a move to an independent nuclear family residence, sometimes within the city but most often in the suburbs; and later one or more suburban moves, often entailing home ownership as well as class and education mobility (i.e., larger homes and better school systems).

This settlement is racialized in important ways. Typically, students' urban lives were residentially more racially diverse than their lives in the suburbs. The racial composition of their urban schools, however, varied according to their attendance at private (most often Catholic), public, or public magnet schools (mostly relevant as they headed into middle and high school). A number of the students I interviewed attended largely white Catholic schools, though they were not necessarily Catholic themselves. The racial composition of the suburban neighborhoods the families moved to varied enormously. Their own suburbanization mirrored that of many other Asian Americans, and students reported the coincident or slightly skewed (before or after) Asianization of the once largely white suburbs they moved to. Again and again I heard from students about the surprise and anguish of their parents as their once white suburban neighborhoods become increasingly Asian American over time, and in some cases particularly Korean American. They feared falling property values and worried about a transformed (less ideal) neighborhood. Thus although the general contours of the multiethnic city and the predominantly white suburbs do hold to some extent, for many students suburbanization coincided with increasing contact with Asian or Korean Americans and less contact with other racialized populations, both in their neighborhood and at school. As mentioned earlier, the mainstream course of the settlement of U of I Chicagoland Korean Americans operates as a working norm from which students can deviate (e.g., if they never lived in the suburbs, if they did not move into the northern suburbs) or inhabit in a distinctive manner.

BEING THERE

It seems that we do know everyone.... Well, maybe it's because of the churches. That's a big part too.-Lisa

I dub Lisa's geography "Being There" because of the comfortable way she inhabited the U of I Korean American mainstream, easily distinguishing herself from Korean Americans who found their way to the suburbs considerably later than she had.

Lisa attended Glenbrook North High School (GBN), which during the late 1990s, the time of this research, was the U of I's largest Korean American feeder school, as well as a significant U of I feeder school generally. Lisa estimated that she had attended high school with about fifty Korean American classmates, nearly one-eighth of the high school population. Since kindergarten she had lived in Northbrook, one of the wealthy suburbs that many consider a Korean American hub. Before moving 11.5 miles to Northbrook, Lisa's highly educated family lived in Skokie, one of the suburbs that for some Korean Americans at the U of I don't quite count as suburban. Lisa matter-of-factly sketched the typical Korean American trajectory in which people "start off in the city," then "slowly move to the suburbs, the Skokie or Niles area," and finally make their way "north to Northbrook, Glenview, New Trier." Skokie and Niles, she explained, are transition areas, still cityish, while Northbrook and Glenview are squarely suburban. Interestingly, New Trier is not a suburb but the name of the high school that serves some of Chicagoland's richest suburbs, including Winnetka and Glencoe; in Lisa's litany, it stood at the pinnacle of the move to the wealthiest northern suburbs.

For Lisa, Skokie, where she lived as a young child, was a "city," not because of its built environment but because of its racial makeup. She described her occasional high school return visits this way: "It was so different-like I was going into a whole different world." She felt particularly uncomfortable at Old Orchard, the mall there. And she recalled how "loud and rowdy" it had been when her high school team played volleyball with Niles North, one of Skokie's schools. "I just got a bad impression of them. We would walk into their cafeteria and there'd be all these people on Friday afternoon and they'd be break dancing.... I thought these people were so weird." She went on to overtly racialize the portrait, noting that most of the kids in the cafeteria were Asian Americans, many of them Filipino Americans. For Lisa, the city suburbs were more Asian American, and they were particularly distinguished by the behavior of the Asian Americans who were not Korean American. Also implied in her comments was the African American tenor of these "weird" cultural forms, such as break dancing.

Lisa was not alone in singling out the suburbs that ringed the city. A student who moved in third grade from the city to a rental apartment in Skokie, and later to a rental home in Morton Grove and finally back to the city late in high school, described Skokie and bordering Morton Grove as "borderline Chicago." She explained that the city neighborhood she moved to in high school was in fact "no different" from the borderline suburbs. Another student who moved from a "borderline Chicago" suburb to a more northern suburb in middle school described his new town as "upper suburbia, like a higher class kinda place." Yet another student detailed her borderline suburban "ghetto school"; she rattled off a list of suburban high schools, and concluded, "[My high school] would probably be at the bottom." She described its lower academic quality, its higher incidence of violence, its greater racial diversity, and its proximity to the city: "Sports were horrible. The education was bad. The neighborhood was bad ... and there was a drive-by shooting in eighth grade that didn't help."

Although Northbrook was at a comfortable remove from Skokie, Lisa explained that her own neighborhood and high school had become increasingly Korean American: "There were floods of Koreans moving in ... and our whole street is Korean American." She described her father's reaction to this coethnic flood: "My dad was upset because he thought our house value was going to go down because of all these Koreans moving in." Her father's race and class anxiety aside, Lisa was confident in the quality of her high school and certain that it was wealthier and "more stuck up" than its nearby suburban neighbor Glenbrook South High School (GBS), another school with many Korean Americans.

It was against this backdrop that Lisa recalled the later wave of Korean Americans who made their way to the northern suburbs just in time for high school: "At first when you see them, they look kind of as if they're from the city or from Skokie. The have their baggy pants and Cross Colors.... a brand that was big back then. It's baggy clothes and all these different colors. They came out with green and purple jeans.... They would look kind of punkish, but after a year they got into preppy clothes." But for Lisa, it wasn't just clothes that distinguished these recent settlers. The newcomers "didn't buy into the 'everything is grades and doing well' approach to school." She went on, "[They] never cared about studying. They would just go out and party.... They never really got down any good study habits." She explained that in fact it didn't take the newcomers very long to adjust, that they "adapted really well" and "quickly buckled down." In this way she sketched what it meant to "buy" and "buy into" things suburban, material and otherwise.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE INTIMATE UNIVERSITY by Nancy Abelmann Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Nancy Abelmann is the Harry E. Preble Professor of Anthropology and Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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