Had lunch the other day with a Korean-American client. Like many Koreans in Seattle, he came here at elementary school age (12 in this case) and he comes across just like any other American. No accent, understands and even laughs at my jokes, etc. At one point in the lunch, he told of having to go back to Korea to meet his wife’s parents to request their daughter, which is very much traditional in Korea. We then talked of a mutual friend who had initially gotten lots of grief for having married a non-Korean. 

Then our Korean client said something I found very interesting and insightful, which was that the older Koreans in the United States are “more Korean” than the Koreans in Korea. He went on to say that they came over to the United States 30 or 40 years ago and “their Korea” has remained the Korea of 30 or 40 years ago, but Korea today is, of course, very different from the Korea of 30 or 40 years ago. So while the people in Korea change, the older Koreans in the United States don’t. On top of this, the older Koreans rightfully see themselves as bulwarks for maintaining Korean culture, whereas Koreans in Korea likely do not see themselves so much in that way.

I definitely think my client is right when it comes to Koreans in the United States as opposed to in Korea, but I have never really noticed anything similar in terms of the Chinese in the United States being “more Chinese” than the Chinese in China. Am I missing something? What do you think? 

  • Nanatingting

    Same exact thing with so many Chinese here in America. Isn’t this the same for all cultures?

  • Jamie

    Definitely true, maybe even more so than Korea. There are a lot of different cases of Chinese immigration to the US, but I think the trend is that immigrants (the early ones, at least) generally came from Taiwan and Hong Kong. They were also probably the ones who fled persecution from Communists for being wealthy or intellectuals. They were the scholars and intellectuals who gained from the Imperial Chinese system, more so than did peasants. So while China was going through Cultural Revolution, discrediting Confucianism as backward, abolishing religion in favor of social reform, and destroying all symbols of old China, immigrants preserved their reverence for Confucianism and other Chinese religions and continued to value their ancient history and culture.
    What’s true for Koreans is also true for Chinese. The cities that immigrants left in the 80s were still at the verge of booming, very different from what they are like today. Chinese cities are among the most populous and economically vital cities in the world, completely different from the small fishing villages and rice paddies that my parents grew up in. There isn’t as much of a sense of community within a Chinese city as there once used to be. And immigrants to the US preserve that by settling in pockets of Asian communities. An especially acute indicator of this phenomenon is in language. Chinese immigrants talk to each other just like they did before they left China, but language in China, such as slangs, is constantly changing. When my parents go back to Hong Kong, people notice that they talk in a slightly more formal way.
    But I know there are a lot of ways in which Chinese immigrants are a lot more Western than Chinese in China. This is just all me generalizing on what I’ve noticed.

  • Michael

    It’s just the opposite, older migrants are ‘less’ Chinese because Chinese were more Communist and less Chinese 20-30 years ago. My wife came here almost two decades ago and has seldom been back to China. When she does go back these days, she is looked upon as being backward because she still acts like it’s the time of the ‘iron rice bowl’ China is the great socialist motherland. They laugh at her when she calls wait staff ‘xiaojie’ or ‘tongzhi’ instead of fuwuyuan. They laugh at her “Lei Feng’ spirit of helping others and being a good little red citizen. She in turn is shocked by how the people in her hometown have changed into selfish materialists and believe in superstitious nonsense and celebrity gossip, something she calls “fake Hong Kongers’.

  • Dan (another Dan)

    I concur with Jamie.
    The only thing I could add is that most of Asia is like that. You’ll find similar comments among many of the overseas groups of Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, etc. However, it’s mainly just generalizations. The feelings of being among a minority group is of course different than living in a place where one is part of the majority (not always racial but usually among ethnic, cultural or national lines).
    I think it was the comedian Russel Peters who made a joke about it. When his Indian relatives who immigrated to Canada went back to visit India, they were surprise at the growth of the country. It’s like the image of home was still stuck decades ago, being somewhat oblivious to the changing environment back in the motherland.
    From my personal experiences, there really are a lot of cultural differences between Chinese nationals in the mainland and overseas Chinese, especially if they live in Western countries. I’m also of Chinese descent, but it doesn’t mean much because the lifestyles and environment between those in China and outside are not the same period.

  • Mike

    It is not a Korean thing or an Asian thing, it is a migration thing. By and large, irrespective of who went where, you’ll see a more ‘traditional’ cultural identity with first generation migrants. The clock essentially stops when they (me too, by the way) leave their country/region of origin. The more successful ones do integrate to a fair degree, adopting some of their ‘new culture’, they’ll also retain the ‘culture’ of when they left, and in the mean time, that place moves on, sometimes dramatically. Imagine it like a time-machine, ’cause that is what it feels like…

  • China Relax

    Go see The Joy Luck Club.

  • Aaron

    Asian immigrant communities are often divided along generational waves and even region of origin lines.
    Vietnamese communities have a little bit of divided between those who came to US around the Vietnam War and those who came in more recent years. And also divided between those from South Vietnam and those from North Vietnam (very little bit of divide).
    Chinese immigrant communities have far more divides.
    Those from China prior to 1949 remember China as it was. Later and young immigrants from Taiwan tend to consider themselves less as Chinese, and more as Taiwanese. Then there are the group of immigrants who left Hong Kong prior and around 1997, in fear of handover to the Communists. Then there are the Chinese student immigrants who came to US around 1980’s. Most of them are raised in Cultural Revolution era China, and most of them are intellectuals in technical fields. Then there are the more recent mainland Chinese immigrants. It’s more a mix of students, more in business fields, and Chinese business immigrants with connections to the Chinese government.
    -But I wouldn’t call 1 group more “Chinese” or more “Korean”, perhaps more Americanized.
    The Korean immigrant Community is even more divided than your description. There is also a significant divide between the North Korean immigrants vs. the South Korean immigrants.
    There are very few North Korean immigrants compared to South Korean immigrants, but still, it is sometimes very difficult for the North Korean immigrants to be accepted into the general Korean immigrant population. (My Korean American friend told me that the South Korean immigrants often view the North Korean immigrants as more Chinese than Korean).
    Fundamentally, the memories of “Korea” and the Korean identity are markedly different for these different groups after so many decades of separation.

  • William

    I think the same is true of Chinese immigrants, but they don’t seem to form communities that are as tight-knit as Korean immigrant communities, perhaps due to smaller numbers or cultural or political differences.

  • Loren

    China hasn’t been “Chinese” for some time now, arguably since the 18th century when its relative isolation and presume dominance were violated. Is being Chinese being a hardline Maoist? A Ming-supporting anti-Manchu protester? An anti-western Boxer? Additionally, China’s sheer mass deters it from having a single cultural identity. Lacking a clear, easy answer for what being Chinese truly is, it is easier just to say ” a person from China”.
    While Korea has seen its share of cultural upheavals, particularly with the Japanese and communist invasions, one can argue that its cultural core remained intact, at least until its massive and spectacular industrialization. And of course, the recent kimchi shortage. (kidding, kidding) This is a core that can be preserved, and it is distinct from a geographic identity.
    I know these are VERY broad strokes, but I think it may hold under scrutiny, b/c the core of the Chinese identity is the dynastic system which hasn’t existed for some time now.

  • Dan (another Dan)

    I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I got along well with some of the “little emperors”. I guess they could be considered as the good little emperors, since they’re hard-working and very nice, despite their background (most of the ones I know are sons or daughters of military officials, judges, well-off, and those that many people seem to not like. At least, that’s what the media and internet seems to say). They took care of my family when they went to China.
    Of course, I’m not trying to generalize people of that generation as being all like that, I met some bad apples as well. Since most of the ones I know were sea turtles (not born or raised overseas, but one of those that went abroad solely for education and return), the people I know adjusted to me and my family well. Pretty hospitable in an unique way.
    Personally, my impression of the Chinese nationals in China are neither westernized or any “less Chinese”. Culture is ever-changing in general, many customs were in response to the conditions of the times. Before the turbulent mid-20th century, selfish attitudes, materialism, a lot of dark sides of humanity in general, has always been there. Eating KFC or wearing the latest fashion trends doesn’t mean being westernized, not in the truest definition.
    While it’s true that some overseas Chinese do retain some of their culture (when it first left from the mainland. Some traditions are recent and some were remnants centuries ago, pretty much like what Aaron commented), most of the time, we’re just products of our environment. I maybe born and raised in the US, but I don’t considered myself to be westernized, at least not that I’m aware of. The West is not monolithic. My lifestyle and mentality is different from the rest of the western world, heck, it’s different from other parts of the US as well.

  • William no. 2

    This definitely happened with my Dutch immigrant grandparents, although I never thought of them as being “more Dutch”, but rather “immigrant Dutch”.
    In the area where I live (West coast of Canada), I suspect that a continual influx of young immigrants and students to the Chinese community prevents this from happening to a certain degree.

  • This happened with my Italian father and all his Italian friends. He would go on about how things were in Italy. When he finally went back to Italy 30 years after leaving he told me the country was completely changed and he felt he was more Italian then the Italians in Italy. He did mention that the bocconcini was as good as ever.
    Funny enough it only took him 2 weeks to go back to his old ways of lecturing about how Italy was unchanged since the 60’s.

  • Edgar Wallace

    Try reading Darwins theory of evolution and the migration of mankind out of Africa, and you’re seeing a microcosm of that. It’s nothing new.

  • PA

    A tiny fellow with a scarred cheek and eager eyes’John John’ the Chinese laundry man, was the laughingstock of Weaverville, California. For months during he had been washing the Anglo miners’ clothes and never had charged even a penny for his services.
    The Anglos thought he was stupid, and intentionally took advantage of him. But a year later, according to prospector John Hoffman, who followed gold and silver trails through the Sierras for nearly three decades, one of the white miners came across John John wearing fine clothes in Sacramento. The Chinese laundry man had washed enough gold dust out of pants cuffs and shirttails to set himself up for life!

  • Twofish

    I haven’t noticed anything similar because China is bigger than Korea and there is far more diversity within China and among Chinese immigrants to the United States.

  • deldallas

    My understanding is that, at least historically,a lot of Chinese-descent folks in SE Asia are known for being ‘more chinese than chinese’. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a growing trend of ‘more chinese than chinese’ folks in Africa.
    All that said, I haven’t noticed this in the USA, myself.

  • Glen

    It may not just be a Korean/Asian thing. Family lore has it that my great-grandmother, who was a Dutch immigrant to the U.S., used to scold my great-aunt for reading the Bible in English instead of in Dutch. She was very conservative, perhaps more so than those who remained in the Netherlands. I think it’s probably universal that immigrants tend to hold on tightly to their culture when they move away from the homeland.

  • Don

    I am not sure of the older generation of Chinese Immigrants per se, however I do know know this is common for immigrants in new countries to cling to their old culture longer and harder than they do in their own country. While works of fiction, Jhumpra Lahiri’s books are great insights into how Indians in American are more Indian than Indians.
    My wife is a young Chinese immigrant, and on the contrary people tend to mistake her more as American-born than Chines born. In fact, many other Chinese people think that she comes from Michigan (where I grew up). On a side note, love the blog, glad to read it.

  • I think that it happens with emigrant populations in general. I know my parents find the Ireland of today very alien to the Ireland they left to go abroad and can’t really relate to the social, political and economic issues any more.
    Their values are more conservative than the family members who stayed behind.

  • johnbirm03

    The old adage which states “You can never go back home….” is true. The world changes. Even our little villages and home towns will evolve. How can that cease? Perhaps one should not overlook the idealism we find among a variance of all Asian cultures. If we intend to make a direct comparison between Korea and China, one might assume the North to be the same as the South. That assumption alone would automatically confound the analysis. If one intends to simply assume all cultures the same, stereotyping will do just fine. In understanding the Chinese, the comparison with the USA cannot happen. “Apples to Oranges” is sure to confound any comparison. What I might say is this: “If one is looking for conflict, stereotypes will do just fine. If one is really looking for truth in human endeavors, the mind should not be so clouded by the media, or by rumors. Go see for yourself. Then decide.”

  • NZBC

    In New Zeland we are more Chinese than the Chinese – stuck in the 30s and 40s – before the Japanese, before Mao. We still do things the old way.